A Major Retrospective:

A Major Retrospective:<br>VALIE EXPORT in Berlin

Few artists have made a more profound impact on performance art than the Austrian-born VALIE EXPORT. Exploring the marginalisation of women in patriarchal society, her radical, often controversial performances – utilising inter-media techniques and focused on the interaction between the actor and audience – imprinted themselves into the collective visual consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s. Alongside pioneering feminist artists like Yoko Ono, Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann, she helped open the door for a new wave of female artists, as they pushed into the male-dominated art world. 

C/O Berlin presents the first contemporary retrospective dedicated to her solo work. It begins with one of her most famous performances, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), for which she played into the voyeurism of the audience by showing her exposed genitals to a packed cinema. In the series of monochrome self-portraits, her legs are spread wide open. Her enigmatic expression is almost concealed by her wild, unkempt hair as she stares off into the distance. Like so much of her early output, what first appears lighthearted and playful masks a sophisticated critique of conservative Austrian society, forcing onlookers to confront uncomfortable ideas around the depiction of women and the sexualisation of the female body. 

After the initial excitement of this work – and the scandalous Tap and Touch Cinema (1969), for which she openly invited strangers to put their hands through a curtain and touch her breasts – the exhibition drops in energy; photographic documentation is not always capable of capturing the full extent of a performance. This is exasperated by the number of technical works, such as Photo Notes for Film (1974), one of a series of exploratory films and photo works that systematically, if a little laboriously, explore the limits of human perception. In the final two rooms, with the focus back on female representation, her deceptively aggressive sculptural and wall works bring out a characteristic provocativeness. The oddly captivating kinetic sculpture, Fragments of the Images of a Caress, features illuminated bulbs that dip slowly into tubes filled with milk, oil or water. Surrounding it are her Reenactments from 1976: spectral collages that superimpose self-portraits over famous paintings from art history, such as Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. They reveal how gender roles and prejudice are passed down, visually, from generation to generation. It is telling that this icon of feminist art, at 83-years-old, is only now getting the institutional recognition she deserves.

VALIE EXPORT, Retrospective runs until 21 May | co-berlin.org

Words: Duncan Ballantyne-Way

Image Credits:
1. BODY SIGN B, 1970, The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – The ESSL Collection © VALIE EXPORT, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023; Photo: Gertraud Wolfschwenger © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
2. Injuries I, 1972, The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – The ESSL Collection © VALIE EXPORT, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023; Photo: Hermann Hendrich
3. After-Fitting, 1974, Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac © VALIE EXPORT, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023; Photo: Eric Timmer- man