Laudation for VALIE EXPORT on the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize, 27 September 2019 at the Kunsthaus Zürich.
Dear VALIE EXPORT, dear guests
It is a great honour and pleasure for me to deliver the laudation for VALIE EXPORT today on the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2019.
This accolade for the Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT recognizes the achievements of an individual who is held in high regard internationally. Her works are an integral part of 20th-century art history and are represented in numerous important museum collections.
VALIE EXPORT is a trailblazer of experimental film and cinema and a central figure in feminism. Her book and exhibition projects, as well as the many texts she has written herself, attest to her profound and enduring influence not just as an artist, but also as a curator and theoretician.
Over the last five decades she has, with great intensity and unfailing rigour, interrogated the conditions and potentials of media, both technical and non-technical, and their relationship above all to the female body and society in general. In the process she has produced everything from space-enveloping installations, through film and photographic works, to sculptures and other three-dimensional objects.
But how did it all begin? Her emancipatory approach first manifested itself back in 1967, when she set aside her given name of Waltraud Lehner and resolved henceforth to work solely under the name VALIE EXPORT – always written in capital letters. She consciously assumed a new identity, one specifically chosen to liberate her from the family name of her father or husband, with all that implied in terms of patriarchy. Equally, she liked the idea of using a name as a logo that would encapsulate the spread and distribution of her causes.
Against this backdrop, a readymade that she modified and that is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York could be seen as the first artwork by VALIE EXPORT. Her starting point was a ‘Smart Export’ brand cigarette packet. She swapped the first part of the brand name for her real first name – those close to her called her Valie rather than Waltraud – and exchanged the globe for a photographic self-portrait. There are photographic works in which VALIE EXPORT thrusts the cigarette packet with the montage directly into the camera, setting up a dialogue between the various levels of object and portrait. The ‘Made in Austria’ label is appropriate, as is the slogan ‘semper et ubique, always and everywhere’ – a status that, half humorously and half seriously, she very much aspires to for her art.
VALIE EXPORT soon polarized public opinion through her deployment of her own self to, as it were, confront her audience with the whole of her being. In so doing, she raised awareness of questions that reflect on institutions and the specifics of gender: questions that – if they were raised at all – were inadequately addressed by the largely male-dominated discourse which prevailed in the early days of her career in the 1960s.
She came to international attention largely due to her now-legendary performances such as TAP and TOUCH CINEMA, for which she placed a box over her bare breasts and invited passing pedestrians to put their hands inside and touch her body. Whereas in a conventional cinema the woman is passively exposed to gazes as an object of lust, in her performance VALIE EXPORT took control and dictated the precise timing of the action. Photographs and videos of the action show the embarrassed looks of the men and the behaviour of the bystanders, who seem unsure whether to be astonished, amused or outraged.
Her action ‘Genital Panic’, which survives only in the form of texts, is no less radical. This was what VALIE EXPORT termed an ‘expanded cinema action’:
‘I walked through the rows of seats wearing the action pants, switched on the cinema light on the screen and announced that what the audience would normally see on screen they could now see in real life. Expanded cinema was about swapping around materials that had different connotations. I wanted to bring reality into the reality of the cinema, the cinematographic reality of the cinema. Because reality often disappears in the cinema. Cinema – film – always tells of realities without knowing or showing reality.’
The ‘Action Pants: Genital Panic’ photos are not a documentation of the actual performance but were taken later on in an empty cinema. We see the artist sitting in her crotch-revealing jeans on a chair or bench with her legs wide apart, brandishing a machine gun. Another version shows her standing, again with her hair teased into a lion’s mane.
‘I wanted to use a self-portrait to further reinforce the sexual element of a machine gun that I’m holding in various positions in order to appropriate a principle of dominance and power and turn the tables. In general the power principle is assigned to the man and it’s the man who defends it. By presenting myself in that way I became entirely self-determined, through my stares and the poses I struck with the machine gun, and especially the front-on view through the camera. Front-on, at the front.’
The original pants are now part of a display conceived by VALIE EXPORT in the collection of Mumok in Vienna.
Although she attracted international attention early on, it took longer for VALIE EXPORT to be recognized in Austria. It was not until 2010 that a major overview exhibition befitting her importance was mounted at the Belvedere in Vienna and the Lentos Kunstmuseum in her birthplace of Linz. The city is also home to the VALIE EXPORT Center Linz, which has been researching and mediating a donation of her production since it opened in 2015.
I myself had the opportunity and honour to realize an exhibition with VALIE EXPORT at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2011. Unlike the retrospective, the presentation at the KUB concentrated primarily on her archive. Her most important works, such as TAP and TOUCH CINEMA, Action Pants: Genital Panic and BODY SIGN ACTION were not simply shown in isolation as autonomous exhibits but were presented in context with the reference materials relevant to their creation. When making her films, for example, VALIE EXPORT produced visual screenplays as well as drawings and Polaroids. In the presentation, which was developed by Kühn/Malvezzi in conjunction with the artist, display cases devoted to the individual films brought together photos of the shooting, posters, scripts and reviews and, through these diverse elements, shed light on the complex process of their genesis and reception. So in Bregenz, many of VALIE EXPORT’s key works were contextualized with the help of the preceding, preparatory concept drawings, statements, collages and photos.
The 57 large-format displays created a panorama that both showcased the multifaceted nature of her work and, through correspondence, newspaper cuttings and texts, offered an eloquent account of experimental art in the 1970s.
In 1971, for example, VALIE EXPORT invited some of her protagonists including Günter Brus, Robert Filliou, Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, Arnulf Rainer and Carolee Schneemann to participate in a book project entitled ‘Acta Occidentia Scientia’. In Bregenz the project was presented not just in the form of the completed book but also with a voluminous folder of materials and, for detail, with letters from Yvonne Rainer and Michael Snow. No less important was the publication and exhibition ‘MAGNA. Feminism: Art and Creativity’ that VALIE EXPORT conceived at the same time and that, looking back, involved a veritable ‘who’s who’ of feminist art. Also among VALIE EXPORT’s invitees was Maria Lassnig, with whom she jointly represented Austria at the Venice Biennale in 1980. Maria Lassnig, incidentally, received the Roswitha Haftmann Prize in 2002.
VALIE EXPORT’s connections, which I have only briefly touched on here; her endeavours, often in concert with others rather than as a lone actor; and her unconditional dedication to securing the widest possible audience for her causes (as she put it on her earliest photographic self-portraits with the cigarette packet: ‘semper et ubique, always and everywhere’) also came to the fore in the many years she spent teaching in Vienna and San Francisco, at the Berlin University of the Arts and, most recently from 1995 to 2005, at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne.
VALIE EXPORT has already received numerous awards, many of them in memory of artists, including the Gabriele Münter Prize in 1997, the Gustav Klimt Prize in 1998 and the Oskar Kokoschka Prize in 2000, not forgetting the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts, which was presented to her at MoMA in New York in 2014.
But it seems to me especially appropriate that VALIE EXPORT should be receiving the Roswitha Haftmann Prize today, because like the dedicated gallerist and mediator of art that Roswitha Haftmann was, VALIE EXPORT has always striven to make art accessible: both the work of like-minded artists and, in her highly emancipated way, her own position and the social issues that are bound up with it.
On behalf of the jury of the Roswitha Haftmann Foundation Board I offer my warmest congratulations to you, dear VALIE EXPORT.