The female body conforming to its surroundings and the conflicts of modern societal and technological evolution are themes explored through the exhibition of Valie Export’s archival collection at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein in Berlin. In this show, entitled ‘Valie Export. Research – Archive – Oevre,’ viewers familiarize themselves with Export’s fighting, feminist artistic journey from the 1970s onwards with films, documentation of performances, photographs, sketches and installations. A wide range of mediums articulate messages that grapple with the impact of mediatized society on women and how the principles, circumstances and mechanisms of this society have treated the female figure.
The exhibition greets viewers with a diagram of circles interconnected with text and lines that cover the wall—a complex web of Export’s thoughts and logistics when collecting and displaying her archives—and immediately provide insight into her mind. A projector also covers another wall with written excerpts of the artist’s ideas and inspirations throughout her career. Sitting on the bench in front of it, visitors can dive into Export’s mind yet again.
Inside vitrines placed throughout the gallery, we see archival images of female portraits deformed by skyscrapers and other symbols of urban, modern media and societies. These are joined with other photos, notes, poems and scribbles of ideas and concepts processed by Export over the years. For example, images of Export adapting her body to buildings—straddling a corner or lying flat on steps—allude to societal conformity, and how architecture and urbanization impact our consciousness.
Another wall hosts a projection of her 1983 film Syntagma, which speaks about how the female body reacts to its surroundings. There are shots of Export typing and speaking as well as still frames of her naked, colored body overlaying black-and-white photographs thereof. Close-ups of high heels walking up stairs comment, yet again, on women’s conformity to architecture and societal expectations. Some of the explicit nature of this film—and her other works as well—reflect the style of her early inspiration: Viennese Actionism, a movement which sprung from her hometown of Vienna.
Old projectors screen other films that show documentation of previous performances, one of which is a poem that she shares in front of a camera using only her hands and fingers, almost as if in sign language. A common theme in Export’s work, creatively and abstractly positioned hands also appear in sketches and other pieces. Export interprets the many characteristics of hands, which are inherently personal but can also be intimate and provocative, and have the ability to control much of our daily lives.
The exhibition makes clear that Export’s art is anthropological through its examination of pre-modern behavior and its evolution into current gender roles. She protests what she calls a “deformation” of consciousness imposed by an oppressive culture, essentially trying to cut the leash of media and conformity tied tightly around the necks of its indulgers.