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.