I met with VALIE EXPORT about three months ago at MoMA when she came to New York to preview her friend Marina Abramović’s exhibition. It was a sunny morning in March, and we sat down outside the staff cafe sipping glasses of grapefruit juice and talking about her signature work, Action Pants: Genital Panic.
The story goes like this: In 1968, at age twenty-eight, Austrian artist Waltraud Hollinger changed her name to VALIE EXPORT, in all uppercase letters, to announce her presence on the Viennese art scene. Eager to counter the male-dominated company of the group of artists known as the Vienna Actionists—including Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Herman Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—she sought a new identity that was, she says, not bound “by her father’s name (Lehner), or her former husband’s name (Hollinger).” She transformed herself into VALIE and appropriated EXPORT, the name of a popular cigarette brand, as her last name.
This act of provocation would characterize her future performances, specifically Action Pants: Genital Panic, for which she is best known. For this performance, the artist walked into an experimental art-film house in Munich wearing crotchless trousers and a tight leather jacket, with her hair teased wildly. She roamed through the rows of seated spectators, her exposed genitalia level with their faces. Challenging the public to engage with a “real woman” instead of with images on a screen, she illustrated her notion of “expanded cinema,” in which the artist’s body activates the live context of watching. Born of the 1968 revolt against modern consumer and technical society, her defiant feminist action was memorialized in a picture taken the following year by the photographer Peter Hassman in Vienna. As you can see, in this picture the artist also holds a machine-gun. EXPORT had the image screenprinted in a large edition and fly-posted it in public squares and on the street. The grouping of six vintage posters that the Museum has recently acquired preserves the idea of her original, guerilla-style installation. It was thrilling to speak to EXPORT about this legendary work, which is featured in our exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.