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Performer, photographer, avant-garde filmmaker and ardent feminist. In spite of the many controversies, in spite of the endless discussions to which her art has given rise, today, finally, the undoubted importance of VALIE EXPORT is worldwide acknowledged.

Everything began with a cigarette…

Her name is Waltraud Lehner. Yet very few people today know this. If, in fact, her original name was soon put aside, the whole world knows the unconventional VALIE EXPORT. Because, in fact, the controversial director, performer and photographer from Linz, chose this stage name – written strictly in capital letters – from the very beginning of her career.

Born, precisely, in Linz on May 17, 1940, Waltraud grew up with her mother – a war widow – and her two sisters. From a very young age, she was given a strongly religious education, which she herself remembers almost with tenderness. As a child, little Waltraud amused herself by inventing non-existent sins during her confessions, just to see what reactions this would cause. One could already guess, then, her marked personality and her desire to shock everyone around her. Yet it still took a few years before Austria – and later the whole world – began to take notice of her.

She married at the age of eighteen, in 1958, and in the same year her daughter Perdita was born. However, her marriage did not last long and already two years later, young Waltraud divorced her husband, claiming that by denying a purely chauvinist family setup at all costs and being able to look after herself she would finally be free and independent. And this attitude, among other things, would characterise her entire future art.

After graduating in Design from the Federal Institute of Higher Education and Research for the Textile Industry, VALIE EXPORT (whose stage name was officially chosen in 1967) took her first steps into the film world as a screenwriter and editor. At the same time, her contacts with her colleagues from Viennese Actionism were numerous and constant, and she undoubtedly took inspiration from them (especially with regard to the use of her own body, subjected to pain and suffering, during performances), although she differed in many respects and soon took her own path.

The name VALIE EXPORT was therefore chosen according to a precise logic: inspired by the logo of an important Austrian cigarette brand – Export Smart – Waltraud denied both her father’s surname and that of her first husband – Höllinger – as they had both given her the idea of a chauvinist family. In the same way, the surname EXPORT stood for the figure of the artist who was considered as an export commodity, to be made known beyond national borders. And so, even within her name, we can already see the constants of her rich artistic production, strongly marked by feminism and willing to break every established pattern. In any case, the work that best represents her singular stage-name is the photograph VALIE EXPORT – Smart Export (1970), where EXPORT appears holding a packet of cigarettes with a photo of herself printed inside the logo.

Always fascinated by the film world, VALIE EXPORT initially joined the Expanded Cinema movement, giving birth to the so-called Touch Cinema, which consisted of a series of performances in the streets of the city, during which the artist herself wore a box and asked passers-by to touch its interior. This performance – her first important one – took place in 1960 and deeply shocked the respectable and well-thinking society of the time. Mission accomplished, therefore, for the artist from Linz, who did not let herself be influenced by the criticism, but continued her work by going straight ahead.

Another equally noteworthy performance was undoubtedly Portfolio of Doggedness (realised in 1968), during which the artist simply strolled through the streets of Vienna holding a leash on her partner at the time: artist and performer Peter Weibel, with whom she began a relationship after leaving architect Friedrich Hundertwasser.

Always fascinated by the world of tattoos, VALIE EXPORT did not hesitate to include this practice in another of her performances, which took place in 1971. Initially, the idea was to have a snake tattooed, which, starting from her leg, was supposed to go up her back to her cheek. However, in this case, it was the tattoo artist himself who refused to do such a tattoo, so the woman had to make do with a garter on her thigh, an undisputed symbol of female seduction.

Between sudden irruptions in theatres and during film shows, then, by now the media world was perfectly familiar with the name VALIE EXPORT. And, as was to be expected, not everyone reacted positively or with genuine interest to her art. In this regard, a journalist at the time wrote: ‘We cannot burn witches, because it is forbidden, and we cannot burn celluloid because it does not burn easily; so, we cannot burn VALIE EXPORT either’. And, by EXPORT’s own admission, her reputation in Austria was constantly frowned upon. However, the whole world, too, slowly began to take notice of her. And numerous artists – including, above all, Marina Abramovic herself, who revived the performance GenitalPanik in her honour – began to be inspired by her.

But while her controversial and innovative performances used to immediately capture the attention of the audience and the press, VALIE EXPORT also used to devote a great deal of her time to the film world, where her films faithfully echoed the themes of her art. This, for example, is the case with experimental short films such as Body Tape (1970), Hyperbulie (1973) and Body Politics (1974), as well as feature films such as Invisible Adversaries (1977), Woman Females (1979) and The Practice of Love (made in 1985 and presented in competition at the Berlinale that year). All these works of hers, which, in reality, represent only a small part of her vast film production (which currently sees her most recent work in the video installation VALIE EXPORT – Metanoia, made in 2011), were donated by EXPORT to the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, where special retrospectives are periodically organised.

In spite of the many controversies, in spite of the endless discussions to which her art has given rise, today, finally, the undoubted importance of VALIE EXPORT is worldwide acknowledged. Particularly appreciated in Germany, the artist – who turned eighty in 2020 – currently lives in Vienna with her second husband – Robert Stockinger – and for years taught design and media production at the University of Wisconsin, at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin and at the University of Cologne.

‘There was a big campaign against me in Austria,’ said VALIE EXPORT herself at the time. And yet, today, her native Austria has finally acknowledged her merits, also awarding her with numerous prizes over the years, the most bizarre of which is undoubtedly the creation of the VALIE EXPORT Centre in the tobacco factory in Linz, which inspired the artist to choose her stage name. To this same factory, by the way, will one day be transferred the entire legacy of EXPORT, who, currently, still continues to produce art, albeit at a much slower pace. And who knows how many surprises she will give us.

Info: the page of VALIE EXPORT on iMDb