One of the best known feminist photographers of the 20th and 21st century avant-garde movement, VALIE EXPORT (b. Waltraud Lehner in Austria, 1940) has been producing groundbreaking media projects since the inception of her artistic identity.
Born and educated in Linz, VALIE originally studied at an arts and crafts school before travelling to Vienna to study textiles. Designing her ‘VALIE EXPORT’ moniker as both a name and logo in 1967, she embarked on her career via the Viennese art scene, which at that time was dominated by performance art. Alongside her male contemporaries, VALIE frequently made her own body an element of her work.
This approach situated her practice squarely within the Actionist movement which was shaping the trajectory of Vienna’s art scene; however, VALIE’s work was distinctive. Integrating the female body rendered her art explicitly feminist; her performances directly challenged the parameters of the taboo, confronting the power relations which dictated women’s representation in the media.
In performances such as Action Pants: Genital Panic (1968 – 9), VALIE used nudity to address the hypocrisy of cinematic conventions. During the performance, VALIE wore crotchless pants while walking among a theatre audience – a critique of cinema’s stereotypically passive portrayal of women. Explaining her reasons for performing her art in public, away from traditional gallery spaces, VALIE has stated, ‘In the streets I provoked new explanations. […] I sought to change the people’s way of seeing and thinking.’
Notions surrounding ‘the body’ have long been a staple of VALIE’s practice. In a 2002 interview with Roswitha Mueller, she expressed her perspective on life ‘as an incessantly moving sculpture, as an expansion of body space into the galactic labyrinth. It’s a genetic sculpture, billions of years old and unfinished. The trope of this sculpture moves in the area between reality and potential. “
The metaphor of the universe as a ‘body’ perhaps explains why VALIE has consistently interpreted the human body as fertile ground for artistic exploration, a microcosm of – and platform for – wider social and political institutions. Discussing her 1983 film Syntagma with Devin Fore of Interview magazine, VALIE commented that ‘the female body has always been a construction’.
One of the most highly decorated women in photography, VALIE has been the recipient of a plethora of awards and has featured prominently in numerous international exhibitions. Her work is included in the collections of Center Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Reina Sofia, Madrid; MOMA, New York; and MOCA, Los Angeles, to name a few.