'People were afraid of me': The artist who turned her breasts into a cinema

Hettie Judah, The Guardian, 3 December 2019, Visit external site

Valie Export outraged Viennese society with her fiercely feminist art – then sent her own audience racing for the exit as she paraded in crotchless clothes. Fifty years later, she still likes to shock

In 1980, women artists represented Austria at the Venice Biennale for the first time. One was the 60-year-old painter Maria Lassnig; the other was 39-year-old firebrand Valie Export, notorious for plastering Vienna with provocative posters in which her exposed crotch played a central role.

Export was a controversial choice for Austria, to say the least. As the organisers stated in the catalogue, back home she was “exposed to continuous obstruction and defamation”. Fearing uproar at the opening, they scheduled two press conferences on consecutive days in the hope of mitigating full-scale outrage. The first was a small gathering of sympathetic press. The second was everyone else and, as expected, they kicked up a storm. Export became a lightning rod of outrage, accused of everything from killing animals to being – God forbid – a feminist.

Dressed all in white, her hair the copper of exposed wiring,Valie Export (or VALIE EXPORT as it’s often styled) is now, at 79, a revered figure. Why did her work stir up such fury back then?

“The Austrian scene was very traditional, and they didn’t know about conceptual art,” she says. “The second thing was that I am a woman.”

The Viennese underground scene of the 60s and 70s was dominated by the actionists: transgressive and, at times, violent performance artists. They may have been artistically avant garde, but their attitudes toward women and the female body remained old-fashioned.

Export took the energy, aggression and provocation harnesses by the actionists and turned them to very different ends, raising questions about how women were portrayed in film, how their bodies were sexualised, and the everyday oppression they faced at the hands of the state, society and the Catholic church. As a result, even within the avant garde, Export was regarded with suspicion. The attitude was: “She’s a woman, and she’s against us, fighting for feminism.”

At the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery in London, Export’s 1980 Biennale exhibition has just been restaged in its entirety. The centrepiece is Geburtenbett (Birth bed, 1980) a raised resin platform set with mattress springs from which an outsized female abdomen erupts, legs crooked, with red neon strip lights springing from her vagina like fresh blood. Perched where her head might be, a black and white TV transmits a Catholic mass.

Lining the walls are photographs, among them religious tableaux restaged with domestic appliances, which were portrayed in advertising of the time as women’s salvation. One is a version of a Michelangelo Pièta in which a young woman appears devoutly perched on a washing machine as it belches out a blood-stained towel.

Born Waltraud Lehner in Linz in 1940, she rebranded herself Valie Export – a name inspired by Export brand cigarettes – in 1967. In a self-portrait a year later, she appears hand on jaunty hip, cigarette between pursed lips, holding out a soft pack carrying her face and logo. It’s irresistibly cool, delivered with a knowing smile – two qualities that are Export’s stock in trade. Both were crucial elements in the two works that made her name. TAP and TOUCH Cinema and Action Pants: Genital Panic (both 1968-69) are both forms of what Export terms “expanded cinema”. In the first, the “cinema” is a small box strapped to her naked chest, which in turn becomes the screen. The cinema is so small that only one pair of hands may enter and encounter the screen. In Genital Panic, the action enters the space of the audience in a real cinema. Export arrived at a screening in trousers with a triangle cut out of the crotch and started perambulating the rows with her exposed pubis at face level, causing a “genital panic” within the audience, who scuttled for the exit as she approached.
Even as a child, Export had no regard for prim niceties. Her father died during the war, and she was sent with her two sisters to board at a convent while their mother worked as a primary school teacher. The nuns’ private world fascinated Export, and her first expulsion came when, aged 10, she snuck into their living quarters. “I had to tell my mother that they’d thrown me out. She slapped my face then took me back to the school. They were nuns, my mother was a war widow bringing up her children alone, so of course they were obliged to take me back.” The pattern repeated itself many times.
Despite this, Export is philosophical about convent life. “I learned a lot. I learned that I needed my own territory, my own space, and I had to defend it if I wanted to become strong,” she recalls. “Otherwise, it was like any convent – strict discipline.” She left at 14 to study at the School of Arts and Crafts in Linz, and, at the age of 18, she got married. Within a year she had a daughter, but the vision of adult independence offered by matrimony turned out to be another trap. “I thought: this is not my life, being married and a mother.”

So she divorced, placed her daughter temporarily in her sister’s care and moved to Vienna to study. There she encountered a society that remained intensely conservative. “The students around me knew I was divorced. Mostly the male students looked at me and said, ‘She’s a divorcee, a young woman, so she must be ...’” Export throws a lascivious look. “It was really awkward.” Women, too, were suspicious of her. Her evident sexual experience – and by extension, availability – marked her out as a threat.

The legend surrounding Exports Genital Panic had it that the performance took place in a porn cinema, with an audience of men; in fact, it was at an arthouse screening. Export’s intended audience was male and female: her target, conservative Viennese society as a whole.

“Marriage, the Christian church, religious themes and the traditional side of Vienna at the time – this fossilised Nazi realm, really – all this influenced the work I wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t want to draw, I didn’t want to paint.” Instead, she wanted to determine a space for herself, just as she had at the convent. At first, she worked with film and photography, always with her own body at the centre. Both Genital Panic and TAP and TOUCH cinema were initially shown within the context of experimental cinema. Export was co-founder of the Austria Filmmakers Cooperative, but the response from fellow film-makers was hardly approving.

“I first showed TAP and TOUCH Cinema on stage at a small film festival in Vienna,” she recalls. “Other film-makers rushed on to the stage and yelled at the audience, ‘Is this supposed to be film? Do we have to put up with this?’” Fear that the box strapped to her front would be destroyed by the angry mob forced Export off stage.

Subsequent performances out on the street were less alarming. “There wasn’t aggression because it was so unbelievable. A woman stands there, and you can put your hands in and touch,” she says. The ‘film’ was 33 seconds long, and as payment you had to hold Export’s gaze, her knowing smile firmly in place. Women and children participated (“It was a U-certificate film” she laughs) but most of the participants were male. “They didn’t really touch the screen: they were a little afraid. But I wasn’t afraid, because I knew that no one was going to hurt me.”

Export also brought Genital Panic into the public realm through a series of large screen-printed posters in which she appears barefoot in her crotchless trousers, legs spread, hair teased, brandishing a gun. Now retitled Action Pants: Genital Panic the image was flyposted across Vienna.

The furore surrounding her participation in the Venice Biennale changed little. Despite international recognition, Export did not receive a survey show in Austria until the 90s.

Canonisation of a very particular kind arrived in 2005, when Marina Abramović re-enacted seven key performance works of the 20th century at the Guggenheim museum in New York under the title Seven Easy Pieces. Alongside works by herself, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys, Abramović performed Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic. For the record, it was still shocking, 35 years later.

 Valie Export: The 1980 Venice Biennale Works, is at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, until 25 January.

 Everyday oppression … Gerburtenbett (Birth Bed), the centrepiece of Export’s Biennale exhibition. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

 Street protest … one of Export’s works from the Venice Biennale. Photograph: Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

Devout … Export’s version of a Michelangelo Pièta. Photograph: Galerie Thaddeus Ropac