As Annie, a character in Valie Export?s first feature film, Invisible Adversaries, explains, ?images penetrate me like psychic meteors, they frighten me?but they mirror the reality that surrounds me as a paranoid.? Throughout her long career as an artist, Export has emphasized the amazing power of images to shape psychic and external realities, especially when the images depict women?s bodies. With an international reputation as a challenging and prolific avantgarde artist, Export has noted that her body of work includes ?films, expanded movies, video, body actions (body-material-interactions), photography, drawings.? In general, her work explores psychoanalytic themes regarding femininity, sexuality, and desire, and critics have complimented her imaginative use of film to counter the conventions of mainstream narrative films and their depictions of the female body.
In the 1960s Export earned recognition for her avant-garde performance pieces, films, videos, and installation work. She has explained that her work is linked to and inspired by the avant-garde movements of the first half of the 20th century and their developments after World War II. In addition, her artistic development is productively understood in relation to contemporary art trends in Vienna, especially to the work of progressive artists who sought to connect with prewar trends and deployed a variety of media in their work to question the relationship between and meanings of language, culture, and reality.
Export is the author of several brave and challenging works that suggest an acute interest in contemporary feminist film theoretical and critical attention to the function of the female body, along with a remarkable willingness to put her body on the line?literally. One of her most acclaimed ?expanded films,? Tapp und Tastkino, considered the kind of cinematic male voyeurism and fetishism of the female body that film scholar Laura Mulvey gained renown for writing about much later, in her 1975 article, ?Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.? Export titled the piece ?touch cinema? because it consisted of inviting a ?spectator? to take pleasure in a real woman?s body: Export?s own. Specifically, she donned a ?movie theater??a box with curtains that contained her bare chest, while Peter Weibel encouraged passersby to participate by touching her breasts.
Indeed, much of Export?s work uses the female body as a primary material element of film in order to suggest the interrelationships between the body and its social and cultural environments. . . . Remote . . . Remote . . . and Man, Woman, and Animal are short 16mm films that depict the body as the site of psychological and sociological examination, via both pain and pleasure. Man, Woman, and Animal investigates women?s pleasure by depicting a woman?s genitals as she masturbates in the bath. . . . Remote . . . Remote . . . shows a woman who methodically undertakes the bloody mutilation of her hands by cutting away her cuticles with an Exacto blade. At intervals, she washes the blood in a bowl of milk that sits in her lap. Significantly, she is linked symbolically to a poster-size black-and-white photograph of two infants who were abused by their parents and are apparently being exploited by their rescuers?the legal authorities who have permitted the children?s pain to be recorded by a news photographer. The film foregrounds Export?s interest in making internal states visible; as she puts it, she is preoccupied with ?the pictorial representation of psychic conditions, with the responses of the body when its loses its identity.?
The defining characteristics of Export?s work are her emphasis on materials and objects, spontaneity and randomness, transgressions of the lines between art media and between life and art. Moreover, her aim is to alter the conventions that govern typical depictions of the female body and to intervene in the audience?s passive consumption of more typical representations. Her expanded cinema pieces from the 1960s and 1970s experimented with new considerations of the film medium, and include a number of works that documented the multimedia events or ?happenings? she created, occasionally with her collaborator Peter Weibel. Among her best-known expanded films are Cutting, and Genital Panic, in which she walked through a row of spectators with the front of her pants cut out. Likewise, her expanded films Instant Film and The Magical Eye elide the gap between production and consumption so as to force spectators out of their typically passive viewing modes into a more active engagement with the film experience. Thus, Instant Film, which Export also called an ?object film,? consists of a sheet of transparent plastic that viewers were encouraged to look through to create their own ?films.?
Export?s first feature, Invisible Adversaries, enjoyed critical acclaim for its meditations on feminine identity and representation and for the refusal to provide unambiguous meanings. The film echoes Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the extent that it features a photographer, Anna, who is convinced that unknown forces are controlling the minds of the people around her. Specifically, she believes that Earth has been colonized by a foreign enemy, the Hyksos?an ancient Egyptian tribe known for sudden appearances and disappearances. Unlike the earlier film, however, the mind control to which Export?s film refers is related to patriarchal attitudes about and representations of the female body. Accordingly, Anna, like Export, uses the tools of her trade to observe hidden ?truths? that reveal how the female body has been ?constructed? by male artists and medical discourses. For example, the men in the film either are uninterested in taking up Anna?s system of understanding or they think she is crazy. Thus, when she confides her concerns about the ?invisible adversaries,? her doctor recommends drugs to control her ?hallucinations.?
Export?s second feature, Menschenfrauen, works like a ?consciousness-raising? film in its focus on the ?true? life stories of four women. Her third feature film, The Practice of Love is about a professional journalist, Judith, who discovers during a criminal investigation that she is surrounded by corruption when she learns that one of her two lovers is an illegal arms dealer. Part of the film?s task is to consider the integration of the public and private realms, a salient theme in much of Export?s work.
In addition to her work as an artist, Export has written several published pieces on the subjects of contemporary art and feminist theory. Like her films and performances, her writing offers poetically jarring, direct challenges to the function of patriarchal language to deindividuate women and it exhorts viewers to challenge dehumanizing ?realities.? Accordingly, she has advised that ?if sentences devoid of general meaning are spoken . . . then it is no longer a question of testing a theory of existence but of saving individuation, naked existence in a reality of senseless destruction.??CYNTHIA FELANDO