VALIE EXPORT Insists on Taking Up Space

LOS ANGELES — The Austrian conceptual artist VALIE EXPORT engages with a cityscape’s concrete like it’s a playground. In her “photo-graphic” series Body Configurations (1972–76), she bends, folds, and stretches along the infrastructure in a seemingly desolate city, making her body one with the architecture of a built environment.

MAK Center for Art and Architecture installs a number of photographs and two videos from this series within the Schindler House for VALIE EXPORT: Embodied, curated by the center’s director, Jia Yi Gu. In these works, EXPORT exaggerates the instincts people have to disobey a built environment. In public parks, pedestrians may ignore walking paths in favor of more direct shortcuts across grass, carving “desire lines” into the dirt with their footsteps; or they may cut a hole in a chain link fence as they search for a direct path between public and private property.

Most of the time, EXPORT matches the low-stakes, playful attitude of disobeying city planning. In the photograph “Einkreisung” (1976) the artist lays on the ground, stretching her body into a convex form to hug the curves of a bright red curb, while in the Super 8 film “Adjungierte Dislokationen / [Adjunct Dislocations]” (1973), she two-steps around the perimeter of a sidewalk. Her restricted movement reminded me of the people in the amusement park simulation game Rollercoaster Tycoon who can only trod along the forms of a walking path.

Some images, however, are haunting. For “DER MENSCH ALS ORNAMENT” (1976) she folds her body forward, draping over the A-frame of a wooden storage container built into the sidewalk. Her limp figure, hair trailing against outstretched hands, conjures an unsettling sense of helplessness, but the street is empty, with no one to discover the rag doll of a woman.

With this image, EXPORT’s urban interventions alert us to the risks of being read as femme in a highly visible, public space. The spectacle of her feminine body opens her up to the possibility of harassment, like the common cat call or more severe acts of physical violence. 

Six Los Angeles-based performance artists were invited to respond to EXPORT’s interventions during the performance program In Their Own Image on March 23, curated by Chloë Flores. With “sURGE,” Lara Salmon was hooked up to a muscle stimulator and allowed people to control the current of electricity that flowed through her body. She lay with her legs up against the wall, positioning herself as a vulnerable target, open to the abuse. Another performance, “Minotaur,” staged by Emily Lucid with Kyle Patrick Roberts, reenacted the Greek myth of Hercules and the Minotaur as a trans feminist love story. Hercules, played by Lucid, is embraced, rejected, and re-embraced by the beast, expressing the volatile landscape transgender people face in society.

EXPORT performed her series over 40 years ago, but the responses devised by In Their Own Image artists shows that little has changed for feminine bodies in urban environments. With this in mind, EXPORT’s Body Configurations are transgressive acts. They show a woman taking up as much space as she can, unafraid of how she is perceived.

VALIE EXPORT: Embodied continues at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Schindler House (835 North Kings Road, West Hollywood, California) through April 7. The exhibition was organized by MAK Center Director Jia Yi Gu with Seymour Polatin, Brian Taylor, and Maeve Atkinson. 

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