The Anagrammatic Flesh. VALIE EXPORT 3 Experimental Short Films

A DVD Review by Diana Bulzan

In the Index DVD Series

The exploration of the medium as enacted by Kurt Kren, favoring an interpretation of language as a dominant means of expression that shapes reality while also prescribing a normativity – the foundational brick of any society – is furthered by re-thinking the unity of that same medium, also including an analysis of the social encodings that result from it. As such, a film process can be described as presupposing a unity that consists of the projection screen, the montage, the camera, the celluliod, the projectionist, a movie theatre, an audience and their expectations, each element having an ascribed role in the signifying chain. The materiality of film is no longer confined to the materiality of the filmic image, used to re-define the image as image, but refers to an inter-materiality between image as reality and reality, as if to see which one is more real. Therefore, a tearing apart of this apparent unity and the reassignment of each element, as well as an exchangeability in terms of the material used (for example, a performance by Peter Weibel, in 1967, in which the film is projected on his body) allow a re-interpretation and re-formation of context and meaning. In other words, the appeal to materiality invokes the embodiment of the significant, while inter-materiality (the exchange between the different materials used) points to the material’s signifying power. It all comes down to the expansion of the cinematic medium into reality – by placing accent on the materiality of objects used, the identity between representation and object is put into question alongside its ideological determination. Not only that, but the process of identification is also brought into question: “the ontological difference between representation and the object becomes the point of departure and at the same time the identificatory transfer occurs again”, thus demonstrating that the identity of the representation and the object lie in the identity of the site [1]. Even more, by projecting a film onto his own body, Peter Weibel presents the world “no longer simulated, but rather the possibility of producing ‘world’ is demonstrated.” [2] The deconstruction of the embodied significants and the consecutive release of elements from their (socially) constrained significance into the mobility space opened by inter-materiality produces an expressive expansion that should result in a new reality. This capacity for inter-mobility calls for an anagrammatic procedure – re-placing the elements in a disordered state so that an original significance may re-surface, while also making visible the dyslexic nature of the social coding. The negative value of “woman” (the lost significant, empty and non-existent) thus becomes the battleground for interiority vs. exteriority, or the Self against the world. In this instance, the flesh would also become the perfect projection site, engendering subjectivity, inscribing the image – a receptacle marked by absence that in turn produces a symbolic reality.

VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The deconstruction of the body as a codified system of social signs runs parallel and analogous to the deconstruction of the filmic apparatus. The body is seen through the lens of its cultural and social encodings, its apparent transparency is deconstructed as it is progressively removed from its immediat significance. The focal point thus becomes the female body and the socially constructed idea of femininity, as well as a woman’s inability to recognize herself through these socially accepted values. Most often than not, a woman’s experience of her body is a painful one, portraying a struggle and a rejection of the body, perceived as representing the outside and therefore an alienation from her Self. Thus, the fact that a female body is constructed through the cultural values of a patriarchal society leads to a distinction between an interior Self and an outside that is imposed on the Self, pain being the main denominator for this experience that seemns to offer no real choice here – it’s either the Self or the body. The affirmation of the Self would then imply a total anihilation of the body – in this sense, the anorexic Self refusing food, refusing to ingest something exterior would be the precise description of the Self’s domination [3]. Even more so, VALIE EXPORT’s conclusion is that there is no female body, but only an image of the female body, turning the focus of the investigation towards the problem of representation. If the image of the female body is the product of sexual difference (the main features that give the characteristic of ‘female’ to the body are precisely those that aim to distinguish from the male one), the most relevant would be the mother figure that reduces the whole experience of a woman’s body to the bearer of a womb – a discussion also highly relevant for the psychoanalytic discourse of the female experience. If Freud names the Phallus the subject of the unconscious, then the woman is forced to recognize herself as castrated and unable to become a subject. Her realm becomes the one of the object, preventing the actualization of her Self: instead of becoming an identity, she is forced to become the embodiment of difference. As VALIE EXPORT brilliantly puts it, the traversing of the phantasm, the passe then becomes an impasse [4]. The feminist aesthetic of VALIE EXPORT portrays this struggle of the Self against a representation and seeks to undermine it through overexposure, by appealing to the naked body and to the image’s cultural decoding [5]. Against their theoretical backdrop, the three films presented on the DVD attain a particular relevance in this deconstruction of the body as the bearer of social signs – Syntagma creates an intermingled displacement of the body and its social codes, while …Remote…Remote… seems to evoke a private (and perhaps general and anonymous precisely because it is meant to remain private, a sort of “everyone does it” that yields no pronoun) experience of a metaphorical (and not so much) mutilation of the Self. Yet, Mann & Frau & Animal, serving as the starting point, strikes the viewer with its re-affirmation of the female organ and its denial of the representation usually found in mainstream pornography, boldy swtiching the focus from pain to pleasure.

VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In this affirmation of the female anatomy, both the sexual acts and the sexual organs are used as statements. They are offered conceptually to the viewer, in the form of visual evidence, in order for the assertion to take place [6]. The female orgasm is freed from its designated use in the erotic arousal of the (male) viewer and the rendition of masturbation is done through an almost anatomical (medical) eye. The short film begins with a detailed inspection of the faucet soon-to-be-instrument, its close rendering giving off the feeling of a ritual taking place. The faucet is then turned on, the shower head screwed off and the flow of water is used as pressure against a woman’s clitoris, presumed to be the artist. For the next minutes, the masturbation is followed closely, accompanied by an appropriate soundtrack, as if the sound is another facet for the illustration of the same statement carried out through the film. Moreover, by choosing to depict honestly (denying any influence of male phantasy) an unprocessed (any form of processing would involve a cultural component) act of masturbation, the male component of the sexual act is virtually rejected and excluded in favour of the singularity of female anatomy and pleasure (and perhaps even its replacement by the shower is ironic and somewhat funny). Even when it comes to the expression of pleasure, the male gaze is completely removed – opposed to pornographic content, there is no visual pleasure for the viewer here.

VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The entire film is cleverly organised in three stages. Firstly, it portrays the act of masturbation, after which follows a caption of the vagina covered in cum, the visual evidence of female pleasure in a brutal exposure, accompanied by growling sounds (which could stand for the rawness of an attempt to escape the cultural confinements of interpretation that cannot encapsulate female orgasm, an exit out of language or it could be a literary reference which describes the painful transformation the female body undergoes at the time of puberty – the time it becomes an extension of the outside: “the… sex of a violated virgin howled” [7]). Thirdly, the last sequence shows the vagina covered in menstrual blood, the final evidence needed for the recovery of female anatomy. The three stages are separated by the image of a triangle on a white backgroud, referencing a trinity, a reference also noticeable in the title, placing an animal – a sign of nature – along the cultural designations of man and woman: “Instead of the holy trinity: father, son, holy spirit, instead of the profane trinity: mother, family, state, instead of the social trinity: father, mother, children the film treats the real trilogy in 3 sections. What unites man and woman (not uniquely for sure, but what is being concealed) is the history of nature.” [8]

Nevertheless, the last sequence of the film is doubled, the camera quickly switching to a picture of the vagina in the same position, still in its developing bath while a wounded hand is held above it, bleeding on the photograph and thus reproducing the previous frame. While the re-animation of the female anatomy through its recovery stems from what seems to be a natural point of view, only used here as a means to deconstruct and outline the cultural categories in which this body has been confined, the doubling of the last frame can also be seen as a comparison. Such a comparison would be the reality of the bleeding hand (another metaphor for pain) versus the image of the vagina, also including the blood that stains the image, inscribing itself and raising a question: in the cultural construction of subjectivity and identity, which reality does the subject subscribe to – the body or the image still in its developing tray? Or, even more clearly, “the image that is developing itself now in the culture (developing tray), is it the ‘real’ image of a woman? Is it the image of a woman at all? And how can the feminine object of portrayal develop itself into a photo of itself, the photo of woman into the subject woman?” [9] That is the urge for woman’s reappropriation not necessarily of her body or even of her image, but of her subjectivity and identity. Hence the ambivalent reality of body and image and the need to undermine or stain the image in the developing tray.

VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Mann & Frau & Animal / Man & Woman & Animal, 1970-73, 16 mm, bw & colour, 9 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The struggle of the Self to adjust to an identity furnished by cultural context is interpreted in ….Remote…Remote… as a self-mutilation. The film opens with the close inspection of a child’s photograph and while the camera moves away it reveals the setting: VALIE EXPORT sitting on a chair against a white backgrough with an enlarged photo of two children behind her. She is holding a box cutter in her right hand, a bowl of milk sitting on her lap and after the camera has a close-up of each eye and surverys her blank stare, she begins cutting her cuticles. The repetitive and rhythmic soundtrack lends weight to the entire film as it portrays VALIE mutilating her cuticles and dipping her fingers in the bowl of milk. The photograph behind her creates a metaphorical connection between the events: it’s a photograph of two siblings after they had been rescued from abusive parents, therefore allowing the film to be read as reenacting one of the possible consequences of parental abuse in which a split Self becomes abusive with another part of the Self. In the meanwhile, the bowl of milk could be read as a intertextual reference to Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, namely the passage where Simone dips her vagina into a bowl of milk, further linking the abuse of the Self against another part of the Self (here, the body) with female sexuality. [10] Throughout the film, the divided Self is symbolized by aggravating the act of cutting the cuticles, perhaps extending the metaphor to include the rituals through which a woman would re-shape or fix her body in order to fit a certain standard or an image. The rituals of beauty become here acts of self-mutilation, the wounds periodically dipped in female sexuality. The psyche reconstructs the body so it would fit a representation, while also attempting to redress its perception of itself. The end of the film does not see VALIE EXPORT walk away from this self-mutilation, but vanish, leaving no trace but an empty chair – a lack of subject, revealing the joined hands of the siblings in the photo.

VALIE EXPORT, still from ...Remote...Remote..., 1973, 16 mm, colour, 10 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from ...Remote...Remote..., 1973, 16 mm, colour, 10 min. Cinematographer: Didi. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The last on the list and also the most known, Syntagma immerses the viewer in a world of disintegration and fragmentation, clearly addressing the body as a social sign torn between its function in communication and its psychosomatic quality as the Self’s interior experience. The R. D. Laing quote from The Divided Self that practically introduces the film attest to this schizophrenic experience of one’s own body in a society: “The body clearly takes a position between me and the world. On the one hand, the body is the center of my world and on the other it is the object in the world of others.” [11] The breakdown of identity manifests itself throughout the film in a disociative state reinforced by the split screen and the thematization of the dissonance between body and speech (“words tear at the shores of my mouth” [12]). Seen through the function of the image, through the idea of feminity infused by culture (symbolized through the red nails – the epitome of femininity, as well as through the stockings and the heels), the resulting representation is placed alongside its reenactment, performing a tear and releasing the body from its cultural grasp. This disruption also manifests itself in the division of presence, namely the sequence where the woman is only perceived/present through her reflection in the mirrors of cars – this corporeal absence points to a shift in the function of the mirror, which no longer is an instrument in the recognition of the Self, but transforms the woman’s body into an image [13], hindering recognition and leading to the presence of an absence and to the imposibility of cohesion. Fragments of the body are taken one at a time, confrunted as if to probe the difference between the image and the body. Additionally, those fragments are also fetishized by portraying them lying in bedsheets – in one sequence the bedsheet even cuts through the body, ricocheting to the sound of nails and evoking the idea of the woman as the housewife, as lying down, as assuming the passive position traditionally assigned to the woman.

The body is also addressed as being merely an instrument, as having a mechanical function. The woman is shown using a modeled plastic hand to touch her own image, an action also doubled by its negative. Aside the distance and mediation this introduces between one and one’s reflection, the artificial hand is a component of a body seen as a machine. The natural body is using the techonological one as means to reach to oneself – identity begins to resemble a syntagma. What’s more, the functions of the body are also expanded to its environment as the relantionship between body and architecture is examined. Thus, a woman is shown lying face down, fitted into an opening next to a staircase, accentuating the triangle the gap describes. The domination of the female body could not be more clear. However, by doubling it and aligning the two – instead of describing an identity, it creates a difference and therefore a possibility of subversion. The layered shot of feet ascending and descending the stairs relentlessly, of the woman entering and exiting a chamber numerous times evoke the body as incessant mobility and as having an inherent power. Meanwhile, the sequence right before the closing titles, the closing of windows introduces a further division of the screen into four parts – as the windows are closed they become mirrors recreating the view of the inside circumscribed by the exterior, describing two opposite directions: looking in and looking out. The next shot reveals the windows opened once again, a passage between inside and outside, but no human presence detected. As the closing titles take over the screen, they only set the path for the final image – heels and bare feet obsessively walk up and down the stairs, leaving a haunting and lasting impression on the viewer.

VALIE EXPORT, still from Syntagma, 1984, 16 mm, colour, 17 min. Cast: Irmilin Hoffer. Cinematography: Fritz Köberl. Music: Hans Hartel. Production: VALIE EXPORT Filmproduktion. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
VALIE EXPORT, still from Syntagma, 1984, 16 mm, colour, 17 min. Cast: Irmilin Hoffer. Cinematography: Fritz Köberl. Music: Hans Hartel. Production: VALIE EXPORT Filmproduktion. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

As if continuing Peter Wiebel’s analysis, the identity of the site providing cohesion can be understood in Syntagma as being either the body or the urban environment. However, in both instances the site is duplicated, building up to the feeling of an alien familiarity, schizophrenic in its very constitution and further explored in the main theme of Invisible Adversaries as aliens taking over the body. The origin of the urban environment is identified with the originar loss of woman, “as the site of absence of the woman in whose place a league of men gather together, bound to each other through the lack of feminine.” [14] This invisible of the city is also evoked in that reflection of the woman in the rearview mirrors of cars, as a ghost passing through. As such, this dysfunctional syntagma emanating from the film renders visible the repressed other that is most often sacrificed for the sake of collective meaning – for what holds together words and letters in a syntactic construction is precisely the paradoxical invisible space between them, simultaneously holding together and separating.

This unyielding attention to the construction of the feminine through photographic images and cinematic situations will play a significant role in further analyses of the medium, for instance in Peter Tscherkassky’s manipulation of found footage in his Cinemascope Trilogy, that re-focuses and accentuates the relationship between the cinematic medium and the woman. The three films chosen on the DVD provide the exploration of the same theoretical thread, one that is also sketched through the excerpts of interpretations in the DVD’s brochure, tackling each film, guiding the eye of the spectator and allowing him to stand his ground, as a basic knowledge of context is in this case required. The presence of VALIE EXPORT in the range of DVDs produced by INDEX, however, needs no further explanation, as the films themselves attest to their instrinsic avantgarde quality. Feminist Actionism takes its toll on elements of performance and video art, continuously expanding the scope of the cinematic medium to fit its denominator, the body. It is aligned to further expand on its avant-garde premises, feverishly creating new contingencies and gaining dimensions of an archaeology of representations of existence, to which there is nothing more central than the mother figure.

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