ACTION PANTS, GENITAL PANIC
VALIE EXPORT (Linz, Austria, 1940) is one of the fundamental artists of the second half of the twentieth century and one of the most brilliant exponents of the first wave of feminisms that arose with emergence of conceptual art at the end of the 1960s. She adopted this name – Valie as a first name and EXPORT taken from a then popular brand of tobacco– in 1968, when she was twenty-eight years old. This was an anti-patriarchal gesture, rejecting the imposition of having to bear the name of her father (as Waltraud Lehner) or later the name of her husband (as Waltraud Höllinger). VALIE EXPORT functions as a concept and as a logo.
The point of departure for her work was Viennese Actionism, practiced in the majority by men, and the context of the social revolutions at the end of the 1960s: in 1967 Che Guevara was condemned to death, in 1968 the May student revolts erupted in Paris, and African-American radical actions began as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Within this context VALIE EXPORT carried out a series of guerilla performances in public spaces in a variety of nearby cities.
The series of silk-screen posters Action Pants: Genital Panic arose from one of these performances. Invited to screen a film at a festival of experimental film in Munich in 1968, she decided instead not to show the film and entered the cinema wearing a leather jacket, her hair in curls, and trousers with triangle cut-out at the crotch, exposing her genitals. She walked among the rows of spectators confronting them with her vagina at eye-level. While she did this she told them: “Now you are seeing in reality what you usually see on the screen”. The action was conceived as a direct confrontation with the voyeurism of film: the audience was capable of bearing the objectification of the female body on the screen, but fled the cinema when faced with the reality of the female body without the filter of the filmic construction of male desire.
With this action VALIE EXPORT began a series of works that she called “expanded film”. In a conversation with the journal Interview in 2012, she explained: “In the 1960s our attempts to elaborate a direct and uncontrolled language in art were based on the idea that language is a form of manipulation. Our plan was to evade these forms of social control, to develop other forms of language outside the system dominated by men. This was the power that a woman’s body possessed: the capacity of expressing directly, without mediation.”
The series of photographs was taken in 1969 in Vienna by the photographer Peter Hassmann. He made them to subsequently edit a series of posters that he put up in various public spaces, distributed in the same way that activists intervened in the flow of commercial information in the city with their own posters. The repetition and the variations in color tones caused by the printing process refer precisely to this non-conclusive, multifaceted nature of public space and launch a provocation of a public space whose dominance is, still, masculine.