Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT has been an influential and provocative figure on the international art scene for over three decades. Her practice includes film, video, photography, text and performance. Initially expanding the Actionist project to confront a complex feminist critique of the social and political body, her works achieve a compelling fusion of the visceral and the conceptual.
(Electronic Arts Intermix)
A multimedia artist who’s amassed a vast body of work over the past forty years, VALIE EXPORT isn’t likely to be best served by a single DVD. Indeed, even as a representation of her filmic output this disc falls short inasmuch as it contains only three shorts totalling a little over 30 minutes. A true reflection would surely encompass her most widely seen and well known work, the 1978 feature Invisible Adversaries, yet to complain would ultimately be churlish. Such is the scarcity of any examples from EXPORT’s oeuvre on the digital format that any additions are to greatly welcomed and warmly received. Moreover, taken on their own merits the three films contained on this disc - Mann & Frau & Animal, Remote… Remote… and Syntagma - are undoubtedly important. Collectively we find three of EXPORT’s boldest works, at once essential viewing for the newcomer and an essential purpose for the more seasoned follower.
They also share a similar thematic ground, each short being autobiographical in nature and concerning itself with the representation of the self. Of course, given that EXPORT is one of the foremost feminist artists of recent times, considerations also extend beyond this to encapsulate the whole female experience. The films are deeply, shockingly personal on the one level, yet also marked by a certain anonymity on another, one renders the onscreen activities less immediately exclusive to EXPORT’s own experiences. Moreover, these are also incredibly intense works, ones which are often difficult to sit through and come to terms with. There’s an aggressive, almost militant quality at play as she sets about asserting herself in (seemingly) the fiercest manner possible.
The first film, Mann & Animal & Animal which was made between 1970 and 1973, was one of EXPORT’s earliest and can be read as a spectacular declaration of intent. Ritualistic in its style, the film begins with a near-fetishistic catalogue of shots detailing a bathtub’s various appliances. Though rendered partially abstract courtesy of the black and white photography and the reliance on close-ups, there’s nonetheless a great precision and deliberation at work. From here we cut, quite startlingly, to a woman in masturbating in the same bathtub, towards the camera and using water from one of the previously seen faucets. We never once see that woman’s face, and her breasts are covered by her bra (though it is recognisable EXPORT thanks to the garter tattoo on her thigh), yet her vagina and clitoris are rendered in stark close-up. Given the fact that the image is more gynaecological than it is pornographic it effectively becomes completely desexualised, more a statement of femininity from a female perspective than something we’d associate with a top-shelf magazine and low-rent website. Indeed, it’s a statement enhanced further by the concluding moments: full colour shorts of EXPORT menstruating whilst the soundtrack emits a disturbing guttural-like growl. Ultimately, Mann & Frau & Animal comes off as an astonishing taunt, as raw a piece of cinema as you’re ever likely to find.
Remote… Remote…, from 1973, is less immediately confrontational, but also no less affecting. Again there’s a sense of deliberation and ritualisation, this time augmented by a slow rhythmic soundtrack seemingly without beginning or end. The camera tracks slowly forward and then back from its subject at this same pace, the focus once again being EXPORT centre-frame. In this case she also appears in front of a large photographic reproduction bearing two children, both of whom are rhymed with her. We cut from EXPORT’s eyes to their eyes, from EXPORT’s ears to their ears; the suggestion being that they are either her children or that she is one of them many years later. Meanwhile EXPORT is also seen cutting away at her cuticles with a Stanley knife in as stark a close-up as those used in Mann & Frau & Animal (the 16mm film stock being just sharp enough to pick out the details). The self-mutilation is also similarly intense, personal and exposed, this time however the pain is eased a little when she places her hands into a bowl of milk, seemingly another association towards the children. And once again this private, individual moment is contrasted with an overall air of anonymity: we see EXPORT’s face but it’s deadpan and impersonal; she may look into the camera, yet she never once acknowledges it.
The final film on the disc, 1984’s Syntagma, takes this idea to its next logical step and replaces EXPORT with an actress. Once more, however, there’s autobiographical thinking behind this as by this time, courtesy of various controversy and acclaim, she had become something of a media icon, an object if you will. Indeed, VALIE EXPORT is herself a creation for the art world, a persona assumed by Waltraud Lehner in the late sixties (with intentional capital letters, as per this review) which again blends the anonymous (EXPORT doesn’t really exist…) and the material (…yet she very clearly has a physical presence as the early films show).
As such Syntagma concerns itself with the objective and the subjective, with self-awareness and the perception of and by others. Here our female subject (and again EXPORT uses intermittent nudity as means of underlining her femininity) is represented through various representations; her image being repeated, rhymed, echoed and divided through split screens. It’s a testament to EXPORT’s cinematic prowess – an element often forgotten in lieu of the body politics – that all of this is so persuasively handled and so concisely done. We’re able to both see and see what is being seen as it were, yet with such a remarkable ease that it never feels over-theorised or overburdening.
The message is abundantly clear: that EXPORT’s role as some kind of figurehead, not to mention as a woman, are no longer her realm, rather through time she’s becomes subsumed and objectified by all those around here. (In fact, in writing this review I’m doing the very same thing.) Indeed, Syntagma has been seen as a culmination of her work up until this point given its acceptance of this idea and its fitting combination of many techniques which has occupied her pieces thus far. Yet it should also go without saying that this was over 20 years ago and as such EXPORT’s work has since continued to progress and grow further. With this in mind we can therefore only hope that this particular disc becomes just the first in a whole series of digital outings for EXPORT, one which will continually allow us to retrace her preoccupations and obsessions on innumerable occasions. Anthony Nield, DVD Times, 13.01.2006