Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Valie Export - Action Pants: Genital Panic
Valie Export (often written as 'VALIE EXPORT') (born May 17, 1940 in Linz as Waltraud Lehner, later Waltraud Höllinger) is an Austrian artist. Her artistic work includes video installations, body performances, expanded cinema, computer animations, photography, sculptures and publications covering contemporary arts.
In her 1968 performance Aktionshose:Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), Valie Export entered an art cinema in Munich, wearing crotchless pants, and walked around the audience with her exposed genitalia at face level. The associated photographs were taken in 1969 in Vienna, by photographer Peter Hassmann. The performance at the art cinema and the photographs in 1969 were both aimed toward provoking thought about the passive role of women in cinema and confrontation of the private nature of sexuality with the public venues of her performances. Apocryphal stories state that the Aktionshose:Genitalpanik performance occurred in a porn theater and included Valie Export brandishing a machine gun and challenging the audience, as depicted in the 1969 posters, however she claims this never occurred.
The contrast with what is usually called "cinema" is obvious, and is crucial to the message. In Valie Export's performance, the female body is not packaged and sold by male directors and producers, but is controlled and offered freely by the woman herself, in defiance of social rules and state precepts. Also, the ordinary state-approved cinema is an essentially voyeuristic experience, whereas in Valie Export's performance, the "audience" not only has a very direct, tactile contact with another person, but does so in the full view of Valie Export and bystanders.
The story goes like this: In 1968, at age twenty-eight, Austrian artist Waltraud Hollinger changed her name to VALIE EXPORT, in all uppercase letters, to announce her presence on the Viennese art scene. Eager to counter the male-dominated company of the group of artists known as the Vienna Actionists—including Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Herman Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—she sought a new identity that was, she says, not bound “by her father’s name (Lehner), or her former husband’s name (Hollinger).” She transformed herself into VALIE and appropriated EXPORT, the name of a popular cigarette brand, as her last name.
This act of provocation would characterize her future performances, specifically Action Pants: Genital Panic, for which she is best known. For this performance, the artist walked into an experimental art-film house in Munich wearing crotchless trousers and a tight leather jacket, with her hair teased wildly. She roamed through the rows of seated spectators, her exposed genitalia level with their faces. Challenging the public to engage with a “real woman” instead of with images on a screen, she illustrated her notion of “expanded cinema,” in which the artist’s body activates the live context of watching. Born of the 1968 revolt against modern consumer and technical society, her defiant feminist action was memorialized in a picture taken the following year by the photographer Peter Hassman in Vienna. As you can see, in this picture the artist also holds a machine-gun. EXPORT had the image screenprinted in a large edition and fly-posted it in public squares and on the street. The grouping of six vintage posters that the Museum has recently acquired preserves the idea of her original, guerilla-style installation. It was thrilling to speak to EXPORT about this legendary work, which is featured in our exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.
It should come as no surprise that Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) has become Valie Export’s signature work. A volatile mix of Fluxus happening, Situationist subversion, Viennese actionism, media critique, sexual politics and anarcho-terrorism, the work continues to influence and elicit debate. A defiant gesture born of the turbulence of 1968, it teeters between ideological inspiration and hopeless nihilism. Problematic from every angle - is it an act of female empowerment or feminine hysteria? - Export’s anti-spectacle is, at heart, a paradoxical affirmation of the self via a masochistic (and militant) fragmentation and exposure.
The few photos from 1969 are now iconic: Export sitting on a stone bench, leaning against a wall, bare footed, in a tight leather jacket, legs spread with the crotch of her jeans cut out to reveal pubic hair and labia, her facial features set in a stony stare, machine gun clenched in her fists, hair teased into a puffy mane, à la Robert Smith circa 1984. As the title indicates, Export is ready for action, but not perhaps the kind you’d expect. Dressed to kill, she’s a subculture of one: her disobedient pseudonym, cut-up fashion and predilection for self-abuse anticipating Punk by half a decade. And, like Punk, which in the wake of failed Situationist efforts to overthrow the Spectacle, adopted a strategy of undermining the Capitalist machinery from within (hence the Sex Pistols much-lauded ‘swindle’) Export seized upon the media as a means of talking back.
I didn’t want to perform in a gallery or a museum, as they were too conservative for me, and would only give conventional responses to my experimental works. It was important for me to present my works to the public, in the public space, and not within an art-conservative space, but in the by then so-called underground ... When I was performing my actions in public, on the streets, in the urban space, new and different forms of reception developed. In the streets I provoked new explanations. I wanted to be provocative, to provoke, but also aggression was part of my intention. I wanted to provoke, because I sought to change the people’s way of seeing and thinking ... If I hadn’t been provocative, I couldn’t have made visible what I wanted to show. I had to penetrate things to bring them to the exterior.
(Quoted in VALIE EXPORT, pp.148-9.)
The black and white photograph, Action Pants: Genital Panic, was taken by the photographer Peter Hassmann in Vienna in 1969. EXPORT had it screenprinted as a poster in a large edition of unknown size in order to flypost the image in public spaces and on the streets. At the end of the 1960s, the notions of guerrilla warfare and revolution on which it played were particularly pertinent – in 1967, the famous Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara was executed, and the following year students rioted in Paris, and the American cities of Baltimore and Washinton DC were shaken by civil unrest after the murder of Martin Luther King. In 1994 the image was flyposted in Berlin, where EXPORT was teaching at the Hochschüle der Kunste (the Academy of Arts). Tate’s holding of six, which the artist has specified should be exhibited as a group, reflects this history of the image by emphasising its status as a multiple. Another photograph with the same title taken by Hassmann in 1969 shows the artist sitting on a wooden chair next to a wall in a room with a parquet floor. She wears the same outfit and holds the same gun, but she has incongruously feminine sandals on her feet and holds the gun pointing upwards. This version of the image was issued in 2001 as a gelatine print in an edition of twenty. In Action Pants: Genital Panic EXPORT defends her female body with the male phallic symbol of the gun. Her self-exposure emphasises her lack of a penis, demonstrating the symbol of power to be a prosthetic and its possession to be a product of role play, positing action over biology. The combination of macho aggression with femininity is typical of EXPORT’s imagery from the late 1960s and early 1970s.