June 2, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Action Pants: Genital Panic

VALIE EXPORT. Action Pants: Genital Panic. 1969. Screenprints. Photographed by Peter Hassmann. The Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the generosity of Sarah Peter. © 2010 VALIE EXPORT

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.


I was always under the impression that Export’s performance took place in a porn theater, rather than an “experimental art-film house.” A pity, really, as the former would have involved a much more scathing (and confrontational) feminist critique.

And this behavior differs from psychotic behavior how?

Sigh, children are so lame and needy of parental attention..

art collegia delenda est

I don’t understand the significance of the machine gun. Is it phallic power? Why does MoMA only have the posters? I’m sure someone would reenact the original piece. Pictures of nudity are less urgent I think.

Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.


CORRECTION. The photos here were not taken at the performance, they were taken days later for a publicity shoot by the artist. The gun was not used in the original performance, it was added as a prop in the photographs. NO documentation of the performance actually exists – only these performative photographs

There is an article by Mechtild Widrich, “Can Photographs Make it So?” in Photography between Politics and Poetics (2008), partly visible on Google Books, that examines the claim of an actual performance in a cinema (a claim first advanced in High Performance Magazine in 1979, a decade after the photos). The article, considerably expanded, is being reprinted in Amelia Jones & Andrew Heathfield, Perform, Repeat, Record. This is a photographic performance if ever there was one, and it is a bit worrisome to see MOMA purveying the same tired myths.

I’ve read some article says that there are a number of picture styles which can be used when shooting in modes such as manual, aperture and shutter priority. The creative control modes can only be used as their own independent modes, but you can increase or decrease the level of their affect.

@patricia – The gun signifies that she is fed up.

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