Valie Export

Camden Arts Centre, 10 September Ė 31 October 2004

The work of Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT has become a celebrated point of reference in the history of feminist art practice, though her profile in the UK is less than established. Late 60s pioneer of a vital, often confrontational art that took as itís subject the politicisation of the female body, EXPORTísart has nevertheless been somewhat eclipsed by the not-so-different feminist achievements of artists such as Carolee Schneeman, by accident of the barriers of language and the vagaries of Anglo-American art history.

What is fascinating about Camden Art Centreís rich monographic exhibition is however how EXPORTís explicitly feminist strategies were, early on, but one part of a voracious engagement with a multitude of still-fresh avant-garde developments. Such memorable, high-impact works such as the 1968 street Ďactioní TAPP und TASTKINO - where EXPORT wore an enclosure that allowed the public to feel her breasts without however seeing them - are but one aspect of an extraordinary diversity of tendencies that were to emerge in the late 60s. From structuralist film and photography, to expanded cinema, to aspects of land art, to interactive performance and video, EXPORTís work from the 60s and 70s bears witness to a magpie, speculative engagement with, and assimilation of, the most advanced artistic inquires of the period.

Such categories today tend to be seen as discrete art historical lineages, but EXPORTís work sets itself apart by how it synthesises these strands into a coherent and sustained investigation into the stress points between cultural and essentialist conceptions of male and female subjectivity, and the translation of the experience of gender inequality as a social form into the subjective expressions of body and biography. When one remembers that the monologue of Schneemanís much-cited performance Interior Scroll (in which the artist, naked, read from a roll of paper drawn from her vagina) rails against the supposedly masculine rationalism of a (male), structuralist film-maker, one starts to recognise the subtlety and intelligence of EXPORTís appropriation of multiple artistic resources.

EXPORTís understanding of experience is anyway broader than a narrowly literal feminist iconography, moving from the fictionalisation of biographic experience in her child-fantasy drawings of 1971, through to meditations on the politics of the built environment in photographic actions such as the Figurations of 1972. The feminine maybe the foundation of her work, but it is a springboard into its wider contexts and conditions. In the 80s EXPORT moved for a time into narrative film, and the show deserves praise if only for presenting the extraordinary 1986 short A Perfect Couple or Indecency Sheds its Skin, a surrealistic tale of glossy, corrupt bodies, in which casino femmes fatales casually sell their attributes to the attentions of logo-adorned body builders, politicians and other male drones. EXPORTís art is at its most rewarding when her formal imagination is brought to bear on the complex process whereby the individual subject is confronted with its cultural, social and material surrogates.


Published in Modern Painters Dec/Jan 2004-05 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated