Valie Export entered a cinema wearing trousers with a triangle of fabric removed at the crotch and walked between the rows of seated viewers with a machine gun in her hands. Her action was intended to confront the cliché of women’s cinematic representation as passive objects. The posters were then fly-posted in the streets. ‘I wanted to be provocative, to provoke, but also aggression was part of my intention…I sought to change the people’s way of seeing and thinking’.
It should come as no surprise that Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) has become Valie Export’s signature work. A volatile mix of Fluxus happening, Situationist subversion, Viennese actionism, media critique, sexual politics and anarcho-terrorism, the work continues to influence and elicit debate. A defiant gesture born of the turbulence of 1968, it teeters between ideological inspiration and hopeless nihilism. (…)
The few photos from 1969 are now iconic: Export sitting on a stone bench, leaning against a wall, bare footed, in a tight leather jacket, legs spread with the crotch of her jeans cut out to reveal pubic hair and labia, her facial features set in a stony stare, machine gun clenched in her fists, hair teased into a puffy mane, à la Robert Smith circa 1984. As the title indicates, Export is ready for action, but not perhaps the kind you’d expect. Dressed to kill, she’s a subculture of one: her disobedient pseudonym, cut-up fashion and predilection for self-abuse anticipating Punk by half a decade. (…)
One of the first female artists to exploit film and video, Export’s work, perhaps more than anything else, is a meditation on the mediated subject. Everywhere in her hybrid practice one discovers the camera’s lurking gaze, sometimes discreetly recording her public interventions, while, in others it becomes an explicit (and invasive) instrument of physical deconstruction. Continuously placing her own body at risk, Export’s performances are the links that connect Yoko Ono’s seminal Cut Piece (1965) with Chris Burden’s Through the Night Softly (1973). Indeed, Export’s Eros/ion (1971), for which she rolled naked on shards of broken glass, was done two years before Burden’s quite similar work. Those eight years, from 1965 to 1973, marked a fundamental shift in the way artists understood and affirmed the body. It was a shift from relatively tame acts of defiance to an aggressive taking up of arms, from civil disobedience to riots, from the body as a contested site to an all-out battleground. (…)
Twenty years before Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) Export’s work proposed a subjective model based on a conscious process of transformation; a continual becoming something else; a continual moving elsewhere. Embracing the monstrous, the abject, the animal and the machine, Export presents a loaded, contradictory set of self-signifiers that cannot be easily absorbed, controlled or agreed on by either the spectacular commodity culture or the culture of criticism.