Action Pants: Genital Panic is a set of six identical posters from a larger group that the artist produced to commemorate an action she performed in Munich in 1968. The posters show EXPORT sitting on a bench against a wall out of doors wearing crotchless trousers and a leather shirt and holding a machine-gun. Her feet are bare and vulnerable, as are her genitals, and she holds the gun at chest level, apparently in readiness to turn it on the viewer towards whom her gaze is directed. Her hair stands up in a wild mop above her head, emphasising the strangeness of the image.
The action that gave rise to the photograph Action Pants: Genital Panic has become the subject of apocryphal art historical legend. EXPORT performed Genital Panic in Munich in an art cinema where experimental film-makers were showing their work. Wearing trousers from which a triangle had been removed at the crotch, the artist walked between the rows of seated viewers, her exposed genitalia at face-level. This confrontation challenged the perceived cliché of women’s historical representation in the cinema as passive objects denied agency. In a 1979 interview with Ruth Askey published in the Los Angeles-based performance magazine High Performance, EXPORT is quoted describing her action as having taken place in a pornographic film theatre. In this version of the story, the artist carried a machine gun and offered her sex to the audience while pointing the gun at people’s heads. As she moved from row to row, people silently got up and left the theatre (High Performance, Vol.4, Issue1, Spring 1981, p.80). Although it fulfils the promise of the image in the poster, this version of events has been emphatically denied by the artist (VALIE EXPORT, p.32).
The performance of actions outside of traditional art venues was a central concern for EXPORT during her early years of art-making. Born and educated in Linz, EXPORT attended an arts and crafts school there before going to Vienna to study textile design. In 1960s Vienna, the artistic avant-garde existed in small groupings such as the Wiener Gruppe, the Viennese Actionists and the experimental film-makers. EXPORT’s earliest works, such as Abstract Film No.1 1967 (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna), played with the medium of film, and in 1968 she was invited to participate in a meeting of international independent film-makers in Munich. During this visit she performed Genital Panic in a cinema and presented another well-known work, Tapp und Taskino (Touch Cinema), on the street. Wearing a wooden box fronted by a curtain on the upper half of her body, EXPORT invited people to reach inside and feel her breasts. Like Genital Panic, Touch Cinema forced people to encounter in public parts of the female body that they would normally touch or view in a private space or in darkness, where they would not be observed by unknown others. EXPORT has commented:
I didn’t want to perform in a gallery or a museum, as they were too conservative for me, and would only give conventional responses to my experimental works. It was important for me to present my works to the public, in the public space, and not within an art-conservative space, but in the by then so-called underground ... When I was performing my actions in public, on the streets, in the urban space, new and different forms of reception developed. In the streets I provoked new explanations. I wanted to be provocative, to provoke, but also aggression was part of my intention. I wanted to provoke, because I sought to change the people’s way of seeing and thinking ... If I hadn’t been provocative, I couldn’t have made visible what I wanted to show. I had to penetrate things to bring them to the exterior.
(Quoted in VALIE EXPORT, pp.148-9.)
The black and white photograph, Action Pants: Genital Panic, was taken by the photographer Peter Hassmann in Vienna in 1969. EXPORT had it screenprinted as a poster in a large edition of unknown size in order to flypost the image in public spaces and on the streets. At the end of the 1960s, the notions of guerrilla warfare and revolution on which it played were particularly pertinent – in 1967, the famous Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara was executed, and the following year students rioted in Paris, and the American cities of Baltimore and Washinton DC were shaken by civil unrest after the murder of Martin Luther King. In 1994 the image was flyposted in Berlin, where EXPORT was teaching at the Hochschüle der Kunste (the Academy of Arts). Tate’s holding of six, which the artist has specified should be exhibited as a group, reflects this history of the image by emphasising its status as a multiple. Another photograph with the same title taken by Hassmann in 1969 shows the artist sitting on a wooden chair next to a wall in a room with a parquet floor. She wears the same outfit and holds the same gun, but she has incongruously feminine sandals on her feet and holds the gun pointing upwards. This version of the image was issued in 2001 as a gelatine print in an edition of twenty. In Action Pants: Genital Panic EXPORT defends her female body with the male phallic symbol of the gun. Her self-exposure emphasises her lack of a penis, demonstrating the symbol of power to be a prosthetic and its possession to be a product of role play, positing action over biology. The combination of macho aggression with femininity is typical of EXPORT’s imagery from the late 1960s and early 1970s.
VALIE EXPORT, exhibition catalogue, Centre national de la photographie, Paris, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva and Camden Arts Centre, London 2003, pp.20-22 and 145, reproduced p.14.
VALIE EXPORT: Ob/De+Con(Struction), exhibition catalogue, Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, Santa Monica Museum of Art and Otis School of Art and Design, Los Angeles 2000, pp.13, 18, 32.