VALIE EXPORT created her black and white photographs Identity Transfer 1, 2 and 3 (P79178, P79179 and P79180) soon after creating her artistic identity as ‘VALIE EXPORT’. Born Waltraud Lehner, she rejected both her father’s name and that of her former husband (Höllinger) and reinvented herself using the name of an Austrian cigarette brand, EXPORT, that marketed itself as unique – ‘semper und unique, immer und überall’ (quoted in Ob/De+Con(Struction, p.26). In a mock advertising shot she had herself photographed holding out a packet of VALIE EXPORT cigarettes, bearing her own face on its side, to the viewer (VALIE EXPORT – SMART EXPORT, 1970). Her pose is confrontational and macho – a burning cigarette clamped between her lips, she looks down at the viewer from under virtually closed eyelids – while an area of breast visible above the low neckline of her leaf-patterned dress emphasises her femininity.
EXPORT has recounted that as a teenager she had wanted to act and, that when she was eighteen, she and a boyfriend switched gender by exchanging their appearances for a series of photographs, now lost (VALIE EXPORT, p.144). For the Identity Transfer works she wore tight black trousers, a curly short-haired wig with blonde highlights, heavy gold chains around her neck and wrists, full 1960s make-up (heavy black eyeliner and pale lipstick) and a short androgynous jacket which appears white in Identity Transfers 1 and 3 and coloured in Identity Transfer 2. In 1 and 3 the jacket is unzipped, showing a narrow section of chest and the long chain hanging under the jacket; in 2 it is zipped up and the chain lies over the fabric. EXPORT’s poses in 1 and 3 are identical – her left hand rests on her hip at waist level pulling the jacket zip, hooked between her index and middle fingers, vertically downwards and her right hand secures the jacket edge to her waist, ensuring it remains in position. Only her head changes – in the first picture it tilts to the right and she has a sad expression, while in the third she holds her head straight up and stares ahead with a faint smile. In the second Identity Transfer picture EXPORT smiles out at the viewer while her hands rest on her hips as though she is about to slide them into her trouser pockets. Another self-portrait photograph made in the same year and using the same wig and jewellery, entitled Pop, also features the hands-on-hips pose.
EXPORT has commented: ‘All my works are self-portraits in different characters ... in which I communicate my identity’ (quoted in Ob/De+Con(Struction), p.24). In her most famous image, a photograph taken in 1969, she appears sitting on a bench against an outside wall, her legs spread wide, wearing crotchless trousers and holding a machine gun. This work, entitled Action Pants: Genital Panic (see Tate P79233), commemorates a performance in which EXPORT confronted film viewers with her naked genitals, forcing them to encounter her femininity as object, a historical cliché of cinematic representation, in the flesh. The image appropriates a male symbol of phallic aggression constituted by the gun to defend the artist’s female body and in this way confronts gender stereotyping and power relations directly. By contrast, the Identity Transfer images are ambiguous in their representation of gender and reflect a particular historical moment – the end of the 1960s – when male and female clothing began to merge and become confused, as men donned tight trousers and jewellery and grew their hair long, at the same time as the feminist movement began to gain cultural visibility. EXPORT’s Identity Transfer images anticipate a suite of works produced by artists in Europe and America in the early 1970s concerned with gender issues. Such performances and photographic series as Jürgen Klauke’s Transformer, 1973, Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being project, 1972-5, Eleanor Antin’s King of Solana Beach, 1974 and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled A-D, 1975 (Tate P11437-40) highlight identity as performative, based on costume and role play. More recently, in her Self Portraits 1990-1998 (Tate P78443-54), British artist Sarah Lucas uses her androgynous appearance in a photographic series to subvert traditional representations of women.
Identity Transfer 1, 2 and 3 were photographed by Viennese photographer Werner H. Mraz, who documented several of the artist’s actions in the late 1960s. They were not exhibited until the 1990s, when they were printed in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof. Tate’s copy is the third in the edition. In 1973 EXPORT created a second Identity Transfer series differentiated from the first through the use of roman numerals.
VALIE EXPORT, exhibition catalogue, Centre national de la photographie, Paris, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva and Camden Arts Centre, London 2003, reproduced p.11.
VALIE EXPORTt: 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, p.26.
Donna De Salvo, Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2005, reproduced fig.31, p.113.