Richard Saltoun is currently exhibiting works in photography and film by two women artists as part of its “Viennese season” series. VALIE EXPORT is one of the most important “feminist” artist, and a photographic documentation of her iconic performance Genital Panic features in this exhibition. Only three of her pieces are included in this show, alongside a larger body of works by Friedl Kubelka. While this exhibition calls for commentaries on conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s, on performance art and on the history of feminism in art, I want to apply myself to reflect about its photographic aspect. I am interested in how the artists use the medium, and what their images look like.
Friedl Kubelka’s photographs are visually striking and have the very beautiful quality of vintage analogue images. For instance, the small sized images of the “Voyage” series (1970s) showing rumpled bed sheets have a sharpness and evocative character. Their title elevates them to a metaphor and illustration of travel, which gives them a timeless aesthetic.
Friedl Kubelka adopts, as many other practitioners of photography, the method of the series, be it in “Voyage”, in the “Year Portraits” or even in the “Pin Ups”: with a more or less systematic methodology, the work builds up with time, relying on repetition and consistency to reach its finished form. It is the series that constitutes the work, rather than the individual free-standing image. It is the visualisation of all the images at once that matters, as in the “Year Portraits”, where Kubelka takes a photograph of herself everyday for a year (she did several of them at different stages of her life).
Interestingly, the exhibition at Richard Saltoun shows various examples of how to display this series. The visitor first sees fewer but larger images upon entering the gallery; then a whole year in the middle room, this time with images just slightly bigger than on a contact sheet; finally a flurry of tiny little frames at the back, where one can barely identify the content of the images. In this last one, it is the process and the conceptual aspect of this work that matter, more than what the images actually represent.
The question of feminism is evidently at the core of both artists’ work. But where VALIE EXPORT’s photographs function as documents of her performances, Friedl Kubelka’s seem closer to the core concerns of photographic and film art (the construction of a narrative, the attention to framing and angles, the use of the series…). She does make a performance of her body – as does VALIE EXPORT – and of her self as a woman, but the images don’t come after the action; they are an intrinsic part of it. Process remains a central concern in her practice, as it is for the performance artist, but the actions that she undertakes are addressed to the camera from the start. Since she imprints her questioning of identity on the film, one can say that photography is her primary mode of expression, whereas it is VALIE EXPORT’s tool, or vehicle, for the dissemination of the action she performed for a live audience. This can be found to have an impact on the political and social message that is conveyed: is VALIE EXPORT’s work closer to direct activism? Can Friedl Kubelka’s work be defined as a more private expression? Do these differences have an impact on the visibility and efficiency of their message?
Albeit less public in its process, Friedl Kubelka’s work still struck me as frontal and even confrontational. She shamelessly lays herself bare under the viewers’ gaze, with seemingly no sense of modesty – a traditionally feminine attribute that she wants to shake off, understandably. Admittedly, her naked body is not always exposed in an aggressively sexualised manner; it is often just neutrally shown without innuendos, just as a fact (in the “Year Portraits” especially). But more often than not, and above all in the pin-up series, she does refer to and expand upon the reification of the female body and the way it is perceived by society [men].
The collages of cut-out photographs were my favourite objects. One of them shows a beautiful portrait framed by strips of photographs. Its precise and delicate craft is one of many examples of Friedl Kubelka’s emotionally and politically charged, yet beautifully made works.
I recommend this exhibition for the beauty of the images and the reminder it constitutes of what feminism used to look like. It is historically significant and shows off a slice of contemporary art history and of the history of photography that is too rarely seen on the art market.
Viennese Season: Feminism | VALIE EXPORT & Friedl Kubelka | 10 April – 23 May 2014 | Richard Saltoun Gallery, Great Titchfield Street, London