Currently reading : Viennese Season: Feminism, Richard Saltoun gallery
Picture This: Constructed Identities in the work of VALIE EXPORT and Friedl Kulbelka (vom Gröller)
A review of Viennese Season: Feminism, Richard Saltoun gallery, 10 April – 23 May 2014
Mounted on the wall facing the gallery window is a series of portraits of a woman who looks directly into the camera. Sometimes she looks bored, mildly amused or distracted. She is sometimes clothed and sometimes nude. Her age ranges in the portraits; her body changes over time. These images are selected from an ongoing series of self-portraits by FriedlKubelka (vom Gröller) and part of the Viennese Season: Feminism exhibition at the Richard Saltoun art gallery where the work of VALIE EXPORT and Friedl Kulbelka (vomGröller) are exhibited together for the first time within the UK.
EXPORT’s work in the exhibition is limited to two iconicportraits, Smart/Export II (1968/1970) and Action Pants:Genitalpanik (1969) and a third photographic series, DreiFigurationszeichen Drei Körperkonfigurationen (1972/1976).The rest of the gallery space is occupied by a selection from Friedl Kubelka’s impressive body work, including some of her early films, portraiture and fashion photography. Smart/Export III is one of the first works you see as you walk into the space; it sets the context in which all subsequent works are viewed. EXPORT stands like a gunslinger with her belt hanging off her hips and her left hand resting confidently on her hip. She holds out a pack of cigarettes, slightly blocking her face, rebranded with a photograph of her face on the packaging. Although her eyes are not fixed on the camera, and consequently her audience, she uses the cigarette pack to cleverly confront the viewer with her returned gaze.
In the space of the gallery, this image is placed between FriedlKubelka’s Jahresportrait 1997/98 (1997/98) and Pin-ups(1971-1974). The juxtaposition of these particular works ofKubelka’s to EXPORT’s, gives them a particular political charge – one that Kubelka asserts she never aspired to. For EXPORT, however, art was “a medium of self-definition” and in many ways, synonymous with women’s liberation. While EXPORT’s appropriated cigarette pack explicitly engages with the objectification of the female body in art, Kubelka’swork is much more subtle. Kubelka gazes back at her audience her Jahresportrait 1997/98 and at her younger self across the space in the Pin-ups.
VALIE EXPORT’s work is often confrontational; thecrotchless trousers worn in Action Pants: Genitalpanik were worn during an action she performed in Munich in 1968where she walked through an art cinema wearing trouserswith her genitals exposed. The audience members, used to passive representations of the female body and in particular, female nudity, were confronted with this deliberate display of agency. As Laura Mulvey points out, the rise of feminism and the development of a politics of the body in the same period“led to a politics of representation of the body.” Mulvey’sarticle focusses on the work of Cindy Sherman but the practice of self-representation is present in the work of many women artists from this period, particularly in the work of VALIE EXPORT and Friedl Kubelka.
Kubelka’s Pin-ups reconstruct her body through mirrors and increasingly more elaborate juxtapositions that truncate and distort her body. The interplay between the mirrored surfacesdouble her body, creating multiples within the frame. This strategy becomes more evident in Jahresportrait series. Beginning in 1972, Kubelka photographed herself daily for the period of a year and repeats this action every five years. She presents the images compiled over a year in photographic tables – many small images comprising a greater whole. Over time, her body ages and this too becomes part of the whole. Although Kubelka is acutely aware of the camera in each self-portrait, there is no shame or modesty as she enacts this process over and over again. In this sense as she returns our gaze we become the witnesses of her construction.
Although there is a uniting sexuality to the works – one that is distinctly sex positive – it is present as an aspect of a whole. The nudity, as it is presented, is as part of a construction of an identity. Both Kubelka and EXPORT have sculpted their identities through their assumed names and the ways in which they chose to depict themselves. Although this exhibition features erotically charged images, what we see is documentation of two women artists enacting an awareness of the constructed nature of their identities and the positive role that the lens can play in controlling this process. Strangely, the most erotic photograph in this exhibition is on the floor – one that was not intended to be included. It is a framed print by Renate Bertlmann, Tender Touches (1976), showing two inflated condoms penetrate each other in black and white.