VALIE EXPORT: The Body is the Medium

Radical aspirations in the arts of the 1960s swayed one of two ways–a quest for a puritanical medium specificity leading to the path of minimalism where representational reality is replaced by material or structural reality of the medium, or, expanded and conceptual practices that replaced the autonomous realities of traditional media with new expanded realities operating with a double negation–of social reality by art and of art by social reality. The former posed an ontological challenge to traditional media by working against signification towards a degree zero of representation, while the latter posed an existential challenge by seeking new associations of meaning and unfurling novel relationships between the art object and what it stood for. The role of the arts in society was called into question differently by both camps with contrasting material concerns: traditional materials as the subject of art versus new material considerations. VALIE EXPORT’s Body Art, encompassing film, video, photography, installation, and performance, aligned with the expanded quest which, according to her, was a means to circumvent patriarchal stranglehold on both society and art. In doing so, EXPORT, among 20th century’s most significant feminist, media, and performance artists, used photography and film as tools for documentation, archiving, composition, and conceptualization–the focus of a major retrospective at C/O Berlin from Jan 27 to May 21, 2024.

Asemie or the Inability of Expressing Oneself through Facial Expressions, 1973, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and the artist, © VALIE EXPORT

Media theorist Peter Weibel, collaborator and EXPORT’s partner in the 1960s, said, “The human body itself is the work of art, the material”. The body acquired a centrality in all of EXPORT’s practice as it did in her theoretical writings. In the staged feminist action – ASEMIE OR THE INABILITY OF EXPRESSING ONESELF THROUGH FACIAL EXPERSSIONS (1973), EXPORT poured hot wax on a bird and subsequently on her own feet and hands before cutting herself free with a knife in her mouth. Here she alludes to the impossibility of communication for women through language, signs, or symbols. “It was not possible to “find one’s words” because words belonged to men”, she wrote. In similar actions from 1973 that centralized the experience of pain such as HYPERBULIA and CAUSALGIA, EXPORT negatively critiqued the gendered subjugation and punitive norms of society that bears down on the bodies of non-conforming women. Amateur photographers and filmmakers accompanied these actions to facilitate their documentation for posterity. The presentation of these works in exhibitions rely on these recordings as well as textual elaborations. The same is true for the Expanded Cinema performances of the 1960s, her most famous works – TOUCH CINEMA (1968) and ACTION PANTS: GENITAL PANIC (1969). These provocative works allowed physical and visual access to the female artist’s own sexual organs and denied the one essential precondition for male voyeuristic pleasure serviced by societal taboo and censorship–privacy–by switching the site of experience to the public.


TOUCH CINEMA, 1968, The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – The ESSL Collection © VALIE EXPORT, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023; Photo: Werner Schulz


Using photography and film for documenting was also common among artists involved with Happenings and Land Art. But mechanical reproduction wasn’t the only use EXPORT put photography and film to as evinced by her rarer conceptual photographs–the heart of the exhibition–and some of the short films. In the remarkable photo series titled FROM THE HUMANOID SKETCHBOOK OF NATURE: ONTOLOGICAL LEAP I – III (1974), EXPORT uses the image within an image schema: first photographing her feet on sand in black and white from above, then standing next to her feet on the first photograph and rephotographing in color, and then similarly (re)rephotographing with the second photograph and her feet with a quirky shift– her feet now resting in the interior on a carpet. Here EXPORT is dealing with levels of reproduction and the interactions between the body, its image, the cultural space as the determinant of the image, and nature.


Variation C from the series Body Configurations, 1972 © VALIE EXPORT / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VBK, Austria

Nature and landscape figure prominently in other conceptual excavations of photography such as the GLASS PLATE WITH SHOT (1972). Set in the landscapes of Belgian dune, here EXPORT is seen holding a glass plate with a hole that, across 4 photographs, aligns with the artist’s eyes, forehead, breasts, and genitals. Configurationally recalling the pioneering mirror-in-landscape works of Joan Jonas before it turned into a trepid cliché, this work, where the gaze penetrates rather than being reflected, emphasizes the skewed power relation at work between the photographer and the subject by a playful interpretation of shooting– with a camera and a gun. The crowning jewel from this rich period is undoubtedly the BODY CONFIGURATIONS (1972-1982) series where EXPORT, or a model, occupies and shapes their bodies in landscapes and around postwar architectural structures in Vienna that are sometimes overlaid with drawn geometric patterns. These works express internal states and interrogate the relationship between body language and environment. In rare non-corporeal photo series such as STUDY ON MOVING PATH PICTURES (1970/1972) and TIME POEM / 24 Hours Photographed 24 Times (1970), EXPORT explored interval photography to temporalize natural and urban topography that mirrors filmic thinking.


Less convincing though is the filmic-allegorical claim of the slightly unnerving installation FRAGMENTS OF THE IMAGES OF A CARESS (1994) combining liquids and electricity. Spaciously installed in the main hall at the ground level of the exhibition, the 18 light bulbs and the liquids with varying transparency in which they submerge share a weak referential bond to film projection speed and the film strip.


SYNTAGMA , 1983, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and the artist, © VALIE EXPORT

Filmmaking itself however remained central to EXPORT’s artistic pursuits in the 1970s and the 1980s. The 16mm film … REMOTE… REMOTE… (1973), digitally installed on a monitor at the ground floor, depicts the self-mutilation of a female body foregrounding a photograph of abused children from police archives. Blood flowing from the fingers testifying to violence is dipped in milk, the maternal source of nourishment. The symbolically charged film, like many of the actions and photographs, becomes the realization of an injured female psyche under patriarchal duress. In SYNTAGMA (1983), shown as part of a suite of short films upstairs in the screening room of the venue, EXPORT photographed sprocket holes to hint at the co-dependence of the material and the representational in film, deployed a host of formal manipulations to the image such as overlayering, mirroring, and splitting to problematize conventional identification, and placed her photographs from the HUMANOID SKETCHBOOK and the BODY CONFIGURATIONS series within a narrative field. SYNTAGMA is the filmic encapsulation par excellence of EXPORT’s conceptually dense work in photography exploring perspective, cropping, and temporalization.