Bright Lights Film Journal

Finger Envy: A Glimpse into the Short Films of VALIE EXPORT

“EXPORT’s antagonistic body undergoes a bloody rebirth, her mutilation inhibiting the screen’s attempt to dominate the body and recentering a commodified humanity whose “eros” struggles to leave its sanguine imprint.”

When the Austrian performance artist, filmmaker, and feminist provocateur VALIE EXPORT (born Waltraud Lehner) rose to notoriety in the early 1970s, she quickly became a necessary fixture in the Austro-German art world, a counterpoint not only to the predominantly male signatories of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto but also to the insurrections of fellow Actionists Otto Muehl and Günter Brus, whose antibourgeois performance-actions and short films never truly rejected the primary of the male body. Much in EXPORT's work evinces themes familiar from '60s-era Actionism: the body as a sensory canvas; the body as, alternately, mediator, inhibitor, and conduit of reality; the artist's ritual self-mutilations as an inverted projection of an insufficiently mutilated reality or objectivity; and the supplanting of traditionally framed cum commodified art with living performances in ambiguously bounded public spheres. Yet the primitive (rather than neoprimitive) actions of Muehl, inspired by Wilhelm Reich at his most irrational, have at their core a metaphysical rhetoric. When Muehl makes love to the goose he slays in the action O Sensibility, he imagines himself engaged in primeval trance and high spirits, enacting both a mock-pagan sacrilege and a mock eternal return in which the object of ceremonial slaughter stands in for every ardent organism and every inconsequential death. Muehl's physiological offense, emboldened by ego and a little humor, quickly turns into a philosophy. EXPORT's feminism, on the other hand, dispenses with such metaphysical pretense — though not the humor — and instead positions the female body as an expressly political actor and antagonist, rebelling against the tepid objectifications of commercial art and the male egoisms of her contemporaries.

In her early public actions, EXPORT typically deploys her body as a feministic weapon and mobilizes her unabashed nudity as an organic assault, not as passive pornography. In the 1969 action Pants: Genital Panic (Aktionshose: Genitalpanik), perhaps her most discussed, simplest action, EXPORT descended in open-crotched pants upon unwitting members of a theater and taunted them with her unmediated clitoris (an action that seems rather less shocking today). The omnidirectional assault on the audience becomes turned inward in the 1971 action Eros/ion, in which EXPORT rolls "naked on a plate of glass, and then on a paper screen,"1 such that her broken skin no longer becomes a unitary, unresisting surface onto which consumerist Austria can impose its homogenizing projections. The "cuts and tears in the projection surface" (that is, her skin) then taint the paper screen on which she subsequently rolls, revealing traces of the bleeding humanity that projected surfaces — by extension, the cinema — conspire to absorb, bury, or camouflage. Eros/ion's punning link between the erotic and the decadent becomes a sardonic inversion of the Wagnerian Liebestod — rather than harboring a romantic tragedy in which love passively surrenders to death, EXPORT's antagonistic body undergoes a bloody rebirth, her mutilation inhibiting the screen's attempt to dominate the body and recentering a commodified humanity whose "eros" struggles to leave its sanguine imprint.

While self-inflicted wounds stain the limp paper screen of Eros/ion, EXPORT's Tapp — Und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema, 1968) more playfully addresses the ways in which frames — aesthetic and ideological — ensconce and reflect the particularly feminine body. Of this, one of her earliest public provocations, EXPORT says, "I wore a cardboard box with openings over my naked breasts. The visitors stuck their hands in there. I said: 'This box is the movie theater . . . my body is the screen.'"2 As the autonomous body now frames the theater, rather than the theater enveloping anonymous spectators, EXPORT undoes the traditional bounds in which erotics and catharses allegedly transpire. The work of transformation is no longer given over to the master auteur; actor and audience become coconspirators in an organic cinema — what EXPORT called "expanded cinema" — whose ephemeral frames know neither fixity nor exclusion. "There was a time when the artist mobilized all his defects to produce a work which concealed himself," says E. M. Cioran, in a characteristically bitter denunciation of the Western tradition of the novel.3 For the Actionist, the antiquarian age of the novel is justly dead, its authorial concealments an artifact of aristocratic propriety. If cinema is to legitimately persist, it must reinscribe personhood, communality, the erotics of touch, and every other sign of human sensation an increasingly digitized commercial cinema schemes to neutralize.

The scarifying body politics that are part and parcel of Actionism inevitably conjure up a repetitious, even numbing art-world jargon, as the body, whether tormented or ecstatic, is invariably mapped, charted, marked, inscribed, reinscribed, excavated, engraved, regenerated, reframed, unframed, doubly or trebly framed, and so on. It is therefore refreshing to encounter the directness of EXPORT's nine-minute short film Mann & Frau & Animal (1970-73), a deceptively simple, three-part allegory of gender. The first section ("Man") begins with lengthy, languorous close-ups of a bathtub whose metallic knobs and snaking hoses later accrue phallic significance, even if the male body itself remains tendentiously invisible. In the second sequence ("Woman"), a female hand intervenes to activate the tub, turning the knobs to release not seminal flow but abluting water. When the shower head lets loose a thin, trickling stream, the film cuts to an unashamed, seemingly endless closeup of the filmmaker's vagina undergoing a masturbatory bathing, while the soundtrack groans with sounds of female elation. The spectacle is neither sacred nor titillating, however; the cleansing is as unassuming as EXPORT's unpruned, deglamorized body, and the spectator, witnessing a masturbation striking only in its mundanity, feels oddly cleansed as well.

With masculinity now reduced to sterile plumbing and femininity revealed without cosmetic enhancement, the third sequence ("Animal") begins. A fleeting image of a black (vaginal) triangle gives way to a new image of EXPORT's frontal orifice, first smeared with seminal glop and then sloppily with blood, the feminine groans in the second sequence's soundtrack now transformed into the shrieking, animalistic, and altogether preposterous grunts of an imaginary male spectator. We then see the vagina lifeless within a photo, and then the image of a bloodstained hand, raining down upon the photographically reframed vagina. Maleness had already been exiled to the status of mere utilitarianism in the film's first sequence and reduced to libidinal, futilely voyeuristic snorting in the third. Now in the coda, the camera abandons its genital-centrism to focus on the ultimate tool, the hand, eminently capable of not only usurping the rule of the penis but transforming the sexual fixations of psychoanalysis into the outward, worldly interactions of EXPORT's "expanded" cinema.

The bloody hand that bids adieu in Mann & Frau & Animal reappears more sinisterly in the digital self-mutilations of EXPORT's less humorous (and indeed more polemical) ten-minute short . . . Remote . . . Remote (1973). Here, EXPORT, miming the pose of a despondent housewife, sits before a black-and-white image of two impoverished children (the "remote" children of the title?), a bowl of (mother's) milk cradled in her lap. The camera, now in long shot, reveals a box cutter in her hand, its blade readied. Preparing us for the sedulous flaying we know is to come, the film nervously cross-cuts among EXPORT in medium shot, her ominous eyes, and the voiceless, frozen children. Wielding the box cutter, she begins to scrape her fingertips as soullessly as a hausfrau peels an apple or potato; the camera soon becomes more intimate, obsessing on the box cutter as EXPORT obsesses with carving her cuticles. She pauses to wash her hand in the mother's milk seen earlier, but, as in Mann & Frau & Animal, the gesture of cleansing yields no easy catharsis; on the contrary, the skinned, dripping fingertips only pollute the milk's pallor. The ritual resumes, slowly, methodically, and above all stoically, as though her decortication were as bourgeois — and, indeed, as culturally humiliating — as cosmetic attendance to the wiles of the feminine nail. After another round of cutting, the camera moves in excruciatingly closely, fixating upon ripped cuticles that receive succor from neither a second dip in milk nor from EXPORT's own sucking lips.

As the camera focuses on the finger, something unexpected happens: we've seen the torn cuticle in such extended closeup that it accrues an uncanny appearance, and when glimpsed anew, the loose skin appears almost as a foreskin and the protruding nail as the tip of an uncircumcised penis. The masculine element that in Mann & Frau & Animal was a sterilely metal hose reemerges as phallic flesh; yet the phallus is here the savagely torn remnant of a far greater, gender-neutral tool, the evolved human finger, that which separates us from the lower species and facilitates every technology and every movement beyond the narrow inheritances of nature. What is "remote" in the film's title becomes the penis, mystified by a century of Freudianism and now revealed as a ragged sham. Our social strivings are not Freudian sublimations of phallic frustration — rather, the weeping phallus is an inferior sublimation of the technological, gender-superseding finger. This, truly, is EXPORT's feminism, suggesting that beneath the beautiful, adaptable, versatile finger is a degraded, savage totem better left to the ancients. Thus is EXPORT, for all her self-flagellation, not a psychoanalytic "primitive" in the manner of Muehl but a modern who sees the truly creative appendage as the evolutionary finger, an appendage that must resist masochistic devolutions into bloody phallic tragedy.

Though concerned superficially with the fracturing of femininity, the unblinking, sometimes ascetic style (especially in Mann) of EXPORT's shorts opposes the film collaborations between Muehl and Kurt Kren, whose "stroboscopic" style of rapid montage fractures the Actionist's singular act into quavering infinities of time-space. While Kren's anarchic montage seeks to disrupt (albeit temporarily) the monolithic masculinity of Muehl as actor, EXPORT's feminism, at least in the context of the avant-garde short4, must assume the contrary position, reconstituting in lengthy, barely edited shots a female body that, in reality, has already been endlessly riven, economically, spatially, and bodily. The female body's fractures become literalized in EXPORT's seventeen-minute Syntagma (1983), in which multiplying split-screens and superimpositions represent the working woman's "divided" self, as variously seen through video monitors, mirrors, and the reflecting windows of the shopping arcade the heroine — mainly viewed from the legs — relentlessly stalks. Most important in Syntagma, however, is its opening sequence, in which the two hands of the heroine, alternately confident and confused, push apart images of two leaders of celluloid such that she can better emerge from a cinematic center. The liberated organism is again represented by the evolutionary hands, ones now unbloodied, literally rending the frame as the self-excavating hausfrau of . . . Remote . . . Remote once ripped apart herself, and undoing the mediations that have entombed her far too long.

  1. Huck, Brigitte. "VALIE EXPORT: Expanded Arts." Liner note booklet to Austrian INDEX DVD release (#004) of VALIE EXPORT: Three Experimental Short Films, pp. 9-10. []
  2. Huck, ibid. []
  3. Cioran, E. M. The Temptation to Exist. "Beyond the Novel." Trans. Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 137. []
  4. EXPORT's later feature Invisible Adversaries (1980) does (briefly) employ more experimental montage effects, though only within a narrative about a female photographer. []