“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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- Huck, ibid. [↩]
- Cioran, E. M. The Temptation to Exist. "Beyond the Novel." Trans. Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 137. [↩]
- EXPORT's later feature Invisible Adversaries (1980) does (briefly) employ more experimental montage effects, though only within a narrative about a female photographer. [↩]