The student protests of 1968 reflected on an entire generation of artists regardless of gender. In a broader context, it was a time of bold demands for social and political emancipation based on the critical questioning of capitalism, patriarchy, and gender, racial and sexual inequality, while in terms of art it was a time of innovative, radical practices influenced by the interwar avant-garde's legacy. Empowered by such a zeitgeist, women stood out and started exploring their gender identity, sexuality and traditionally constrained role by engaging themselves in new media such as performance, video, and installation.
The Viennese art scene in the late 1960s was framed by the presence of a performance-based art group known as the Viennese Actionists consisting of men whose deeds profoundly inspired younger artists. One of them was VALIE EXPORT who quickly gained critical recognition for her groundbreaking performances, motion pictures and installations rooted in a well-articulated feminist agenda.
In 1980 the artist was selected to represent her native country at the Venice Biennale together with painter Maria Lassnig. For the Austrian pavilion EXPORT released an impressive installation (consisting of photographs, video, and a sculptural object) aimed to dissect repressive power structures and systems of control.
The London-based Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is about to present the artist’s solo exhibition focused solely on the 1980 Venice Biennale presentation to revisit the domains of one of the most important feminist artists.
VALIE EXPORT attended the Arts and Crafts College in Linz between 1956 and 1959 and then continued her studies at the Design Department of the Higher Federal Teaching and Research Institute of the Textile Industry in Vienna. After she received the diploma, EXPORT got herself engaged with the film industry as an editor, script girl, and co-founder of the Austrian Filmmakers Cooperative. At one point, she felt empowered by the growing radicalism of Austrian feminism which was especially focused on demolishing gender myths inherited from the Nazi ideology.
The artist’s disembarkment from the socially acceptable role of a woman as solely a wife and mother happened in 1967 when she abandoned her father’s and her husband’s name and adopted the name VALIE EXPORT in capital letters.
From 1968 onward, EXPORT actively exhibited and performed, having written the famous Women’s Art a Manifesto in 1972, served as a lecturer in various American and European institutions and is reasonably considered as one of the experts the field of performance and new media. On several occasions throughout her expansive career EXPORT emphasized what is her work all about, and the statement she gave in 1980 perfectly summarizes early of her work:
My artistic work centers on the human body as a medium of information, as a signal bearer of meaning and communication. I occupy myself with the pictorial representation of mental states, with the sensations of the body when it loses its identity when the ego gnaws its way through the scraps of skin when steel casings straighten the joints and the worn-out identity is nailed with steel pins to modern mythomania… I try to shape the social structures (power current) and standards (mutilations) of life into a metanoia of pictures.
Thaddaeus Ropac's London branch will present a replica of VALIE EXPORT's Venice Biennale installation consisting of seventeen photographs mounted on wooden panels and featuring series Body Configurations made between 1972 and 1982; the monumental sculpture Gerburtenbett from 1980 (a large, rusted bed with female legs arising from it); and a looped video recording of a Catholic mass transubstantiation projected on a monitor integrated in the sculpture.
With the Body Configurations photographs, EXPORT explored the body as a sculptural element by positioning herself in various public spaces. These gestures were arranged to explore the (un)tangible relationship between the physicality of the body and its surroundings. On display will also be a group of works documenting her early performance HOMOMETER released in 1973.
The installment as a whole resembles a gesamtkunstwerk due to the combination of video, photography, paint and sculpture, and therefore underlines EXPORT’s multidisciplinary approach based on the expanded cinema (a term signifying the expansion of traditional understanding of motion pictures with other, non-cinematic means), and the innovative use of the body as an artistic medium. Furthermore, it stands as a result of the critical dissection of sexual desire in the context of the male gaze and normative gender roles.
The decision to present this particular piece made at the peak of VALIE EXPORT’s early period is grounded in intention to show the urgency of female rebellion and the quest for liberation during the sixth and seventh decade of the 20th century. Although by 1980 the art market imposed a return to painting, the same marked a shift in the representational context by proposing a hybrid work of art.
Looking from the contemporary stance, the strategy VALIE EXPORT undertook with new media art to determine the effects of rapid technological development on the constitution of the body image is still equally relevant and is valuable for the consideration of new models of activation and articulation through art. This claim is especially relevant in the light of the digital era and the blurred line between the virtual and real which makes EXPORT’s practice ahead of her time.
In 2015, The VALIE EXPORT Archive was founded to support the research-based projects in the field of media and performance art, and this year the artist was awarded Roswitha Haftmann Prize for the immense contribution to feminist art in the post-war period. In 2018, EXPORT briefly commented on her own artistic domains:
Since the beginning of the 1970s, I have addressed – through actionism, photography, and drawing – the subject of representing body posture as an expression of inner states – shown in architectural or landscape settings, as arrangements of the body, as installation, as aligning the body with its surroundings. Landscape and architecture are a manifestation of time and space. I associate architecture with the female body. In different forms, positions, and impressions, I set the architecture of the female body within the architecture of nature or the urban environment. The body becomes the extension of the architecture, extending architectural elements and structures.
VALIE EXPORT: The 1980 Venice Biennale works will be on display at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London from 29 November 2019 until 25 January 2020.
Featured images: VALIE EXPORT - Geburtenbett, 1980. Installation view, Museum moderner Kunst, 20er Haus, Vienna; VALIE EXPORT and Hans Hollein at the Venice Biennale, Venice,10th June – 28th September 1980; VALIE EXPORT - Geburtenbett [Birth Bed], 1980 [detail, monitor]. Wedge, rusted steel structure. Bed: steel frame with bedsprings covered with polyester. Women's legs: fiberglass reinforced with synthetic resin. Upholstery: stainless steel. Fluorescent tubes: red ruby glass. Video: sound, monitor, DVD, looped, 150 x 470 x 165 cm (59,06 x 185,04 x 64,96 in). © VALIE EXPORT / Bildrecht Wien 2019. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg.