A feminist body of change

In 1968, Valie Export, a pretty, young woman artist, stood with a box hanging over the upper part of her body on a Vienna street. The box revealed a stage on a mini scale – and behind the curtains were the artist’s bare breasts. Anyone passing by could touch the artist’s breasts for 12 seconds. In an effort to dissociate the female body from sexual desire, she said to each passer-by: «This box is cinema. My body is the screen. This cinema is not for watching – it’s for touching.» The Vienna performance was titled «Touch Cinema.» In 1973, Export sat on a stool and gave herself a manicure: she tore off her hangnails with a nail cutter, until her fingers bled. That film was called «Remote Remote.» These images perfectly describe what the internationally acclaimed Austrian artist and theorist described as «Feminist Actionism» in the 1960s. An artistic movement bringing together the era’s feminist values, it was also part of the Viennese Actionism of Hermann Nitsch, Gunter Brus and Otto Muhl, a movement that went against social conformity, conventional rules and the bourgeoisie. Besides taking her art outside her country’s borders, Export went beyond the boundaries of conventional art, experimenting with new media, photography, cinema, video and, above all, her own body. Export’s body became her canvas – a useful tool of expression aimed at a different depiction of female destiny. The irony is that this modern amazon of feminist art, once scorned and criticized in conservative 1960s and 70s Austrian society, was honored by the Austrian ambassador in Athens last week. The occasion also marked the opening of an exhibition of her work at the Athens School of Fine Arts. Organized in collaboration with the Galerie Charim and the Generali Foundation, the show is curated by Dr Brigitte Huck, Aphrodite Litti and Maria Komninou. While in Athens, the artist spoke to Kathimerini. Why did you pick Valie Export as your artistic name? Because I wanted to «export» my ideas and imagination. How did Austrian society treat you back then? It was hard being a feminist and working with your body in Austria back then. Many people were against me, and lots of journalists wrote lies. I had to fight back. I was more active in Britain and Germany. How difficult is it for a female artist to be successful on the arts scene? It used to be very hard for women. It took time for things to change. Things are much better now, because there are more women in key positions, like museum directors and curators, for instance, and some of them take care of women artists. Nevertheless, if you visit a group show you’re bound to come across more men than women. You have stated that your work communicates social change. Which issues are currently on your mind? Religion and how it affects politics. How implemented mythologies play an integral part in the changes on the political map. In my opinion this has to be analyzed and changed. You attended a religious school. What is your view on religion? I don’t believe in religion. Young women today find that feminism is outdated. What is your message to them? In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the women’s movement had its place. Today girls ought to discover a new kind of feminism that suits them. I showed a friend of mine photographs of your work and he seemed shocked. Do you feel that we still haven’t gotten used to seeing women in a different light? Not all men see women through conservative eyes. To me, behind shock lies fear. How can you go against conservatism? You can think about what you can do and then actually do it. I know it sounds easier said than done. If we feel that conservatism surrounds us, then we must take action, make a statement… through a poem, a text, a photograph, a performance, anything really. The aim of conservatism is to make you lose your identity, that is why you have to fight it. Valie Export at the Athens School of Fine Arts, 265 Pireos, to June 1. The godmother of body art Born in Lind, Austria, in 1940, Export studied the fine arts in her home city before abandoning her degree to get married and become the mother of two. Her marriage didn’t last long, however, and, following her divorce, Export returned to her studies. Export is considered the godmother of performance and body art. Her works have gone on display in landmark institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Documenta in Kassel and the Venice Biennale (at the latter in 1978, 1980 and 2007).