VALIE EXPORT, VALIE EXPORT – SMART EXPORT, 1970, gelatin silver print, 19.5 × 17.2 cm. All images: © VALIE EXPORT, Bildrecht, Vienna 2024. Photo: Gertraud Wolfschwenger

VALIE EXPORT at C/O in Berlin

In Berlin, a documentary exhibition of the Viennese Actionist underscores the shock of her meta-media performances fifty years ago and their interim saturation of our visual language.

An “iconic” photograph of a woman’s naked belly, pubic hair, and thighs, the left one tattooed with a suspender belt. Another of this same woman smoking a soft-pack of cigarettes emblazoned with her own face. More still of her sitting in crotchless trousers while holding a machine gun. Each of these grainy, black-and-white images appears familiar, partly because they belong to a canon of feminist performance art, and partly because this visual language of sex, provocation, and self-conscious dishevelment is now the norm within our contemporary media landscape (think fashion shoots, music promos, or perfume advertisements in which such signifiers imply “something retro”).

In the 1960s and 70s however, these same visual languages didn’t merely symbolize the reimagined style of the past, but were imbued with the shock of the new, courtesy of a woman who, as much from the wish to escape her male relatives and partners and their histories, as from a desire to reference how thought might be conveyed via one’s physical self, renamed herself VALIE EXPORT.

View of “Retrospective,” C/O, Berlin, 2024.

Views of “Retrospective,” C/O, Berlin, 2024.

View of “Retrospective,” C/O, Berlin, 2024.

Much has been written on the intersection of national and gender identity politics in EXPORT’s work. A native Austrian, she came of age during a period when feminists were trying to address how Nazi ideology still informed attitudes towards women, at the same time that the predominantly male Viennese Actionists with whom she soon became associated were painfully and dangerously attempting to confront their parents’ complacency under that same regime. Yet the choice of venues for this retrospective, which is largely derived from the collection of the Albertina in Vienna and has otherwise been shown at the Fotomuseum Winterthur and now the photography center C|O Berlin, emphasizes her relationship to still and moving images, her action of documenting her performances as much as the performances themselves. The exhibition opens with Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), an entire wall covered in framed posters marking a 1968 performance wherein the artist walked through a Munich movie theater in crotchless trousers, confronting rows of seated viewers with her pubis. Similarly, the infamous Touch Cinema (1968), which involved EXPORT placing a curtained box or “auditorium” over her naked torso and inviting passers-by to touch her breasts, is here reproduced through wall-mounted photographs and film. Ever aware of the media-reflexive nature of her work (or its potential to become so), the performance we see here is a re-staging of the original, with one of EXPORT’s colleagues acting as a surrogate for previous passers-by. Indeed, it is the very fact that her works are rarely observed beyond their relation to media recreations that makes them so compelling. The social purpose of EXPORT’s original performances becomes ever more apparent via the further, imagistic act of self-commodification, in that it draws attention to the mechanisms through which the female body is continually repackaged and reframed according to the then-current viewer’s tastes.


Still from TAPP und TASTKINO (TAP and TOUCH CINEMA) 1968/1989, black-and-white video, sound, 1:11 min. Photo: Werner Schulz

These decisions not only draw attention to how synthesis plus disruption of the “real” event and the artist’s recreation of it foreshadow what sociologist Eva Illouz has termed “scopic capitalism” – a phrase denoting how value is now created primarily through images – but also the ways that these kinds of “meta-media” approaches have come to be viewed as hallmarks of feminist performance art. In 1964, Carolee Scheemann filmed herself and her partner having sex, but from their cat’s perspective, then burned, drew upon, and spliced the film together with nature footage to create Fuses. Cosey Fanni Tutti posed for numerous adult magazines throughout the 70s and displayed the resulting pictures within her collages. These interlocked acts of recording, distributing, and consuming images are likewise integral to EXPORT’s presentation of a simultaneously fetishized, radicalized, and subjective view of female agency. As a result, the works that comment on pornography are pornography, their female artist at once artist, pornographer, and pornographic model.

Yet would these pieces work if the female artist were old or ugly? The EXPORT who appears in her films and photographs is a conventionally attractive woman. Said films and photographs “work” precisely by providing the viewer with a conflicted and uncomfortably titillating form of entertainment. In a (slightly) later work like Reenactments (1976), where poses from classical paintings are re-staged by a model, not EXPORT herself, the frisson is lost. Likewise, Fragments of the Images of a Caress (1994), an installation in which eighteen light bulbs are repeatedly dipped into cylinders filled with oil, milk, water, or another single liquid, purportedly in reference to the number of frames per minute used in Super-8 film and notions of risk, is slightly boring. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, in a show that highlights the numerous reasons why EXPORT deserves her place in the canon (as well as a fashion photography reference). This varied, multidisciplinary analysis is not always considered woke by today’s standards, but it is still intelligent, relevant work. This is not least because of how it both appropriates mass media as a form of political activism in a manner that resonates with fourth-wave feminism, and resists the #MeToo movement’s tendency to align female identity with victimhood. In short, VALIE EXPORT remains a woman in charge of her image, and her image is of a woman in charge.

Train II, 1972

Train II, 1972, silkscreen print on glass plates, 60 x 240 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg, Seoul

From the Geometric Sketchbook of Nature: TREE TRIANGLE, 1973

From the Geometric Sketchbook of Nature: TREE TRIANGLE, 1973, gelatin silver print and red india ink, 31 × 42 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg, Seoul


C|O Berlin
27 Jan – 21 May 2024