Friedl Kubelka, a 68-year-old photographer from Vienna, is looking at the first self-portrait she ever published. It is 1972; she is posing in front of a mirror in a Parisian hotel she rented by the hour. She is 26, dressed in nothing but high-end lingerie, twisting her lithe body in front of a mirror, everything on show for nobody but her camera.
In a deep, grainy monochrome, Kubelka looks fantastic; aggressively sexual, yet so vulnerable she might break into pieces. But how does she feel, looking at them now? “I think what a pity I was such a nice-looking young girl and I was so unhappy,” she says in a soft Austrian accent. “I see a very pretty and very unstable, very very very melancholic girl.”
We’re in the Richard Saltoun Gallery off Oxford Street on the opening night of an exhibition Kubelka will share with her fellow Viennese feminist artist Valie Export, looking at a series of pictures Kubelka now calls her Pin-ups. They were taken almost at a whim: “I had some spare film, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” she says. But they were the first portraits of Kubelka’s 40-year-long Jahreportraits (Year Portraits) project, in which she photographed herself daily over the period of a year – repeating the process every five years since.
Kubelka was born in London to parents seeking political refuge. She grew up in East Berlin before studying industrial photography at the Graphic Instruction and Research Institute in Vienna from 1965 to 1969. Pin-ups were born from the period after her education; one of deep unrest and sustained unhappiness, spent trying to work out her own needs and desires by exposing them on film. “I wanted to be the object of desire,” she says. “I wanted somebody. But I wanted to also be the person that renders the object of desire.”
That want to be both photographer and subject was born from isolation, she says: “I stayed in my apartment, taking photographs, developing and enlarging them by myself. I didn’t have a telephone. I was lonesome, obsessed with my work. So I would dance in front of the mirror because I needed an intimacy in these hours. Unconsciously, I needed someone else in the flat with me. So I danced to free myself from being in alone the dark room, and I saw myself like a different person, like another young woman living with me who had none of the psychological instability, who was self-confident. She was an ideal in the mirror who didn’t have the troubles I had.”
Model and Artist
That blurring of who is the artist and who is the model, is still key to how Kubelka understands her work: “There’s a tension between voyeurism and exhibitionism,” she says. “You think of the model as the exhibitionist and the photographer as the voyeur. Infact the voyeur has to decide his desire in a split second, using the shutter of the camera. You can hear his desire. Good photographers always reveal themselves somehow more than the model.”
Kubelka is a celebrated artist in her adopted home of Vienna and across Europe. In 2005, she was awarded the State Prize for Photography, the highest prize for a photographer in Austria, and has had solo exhibitions at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris (1980), the Fotogalerie in Vienna (2004), and the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2005). Yet she is barely known in the country of her birth, and this is only the second time her work has been displayed in the UK.
It is our loss, for her photos are remarkable. They‘re political and rejectionist, indebted to – and part of – the Actionist ethos of fellow Viennese artists like Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch. But they’re also painfully personal, communicative of something that moves beyond intellectual statement. It’s indicative that Kubelka barely thought of herself as an artist: “Of course I had a lover,” she says. “And of course I wanted to please him. I thought he would like this (the pictures). I didn’t consider them art. I didn’t admit them to other artists in Vienna, because the women were very feminist.”
Kubelka’s work forms part of an exhibit about feminism, yet she rejects the foundations of the term. “I’m always astonished when people call me a feminist, but I don’t fight against it,” she says. “I have declared in front of many feminists that I am not one of them. Of course I was influenced by the times, by Actionism and feminism. But I am not like other artists. There was a lot of pressure; feminism was like a political party at the time. But I was never outspoken; I did not want men to be my enemy. I could not stand that thought.”
One cannot imagine that coming from the mouth of Valie Export, whom Kubelka shares the walls of Saltoun’s Viennese Season: Feminism. Export, now 74, defined herself as a Feminist Actionist, “an independent actor and creator, subject of her own history.”
Export is the more known of the two, with her work on permanent display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, London’s Tate Modern, La Reina Sophia in Madrid and MoMA in New York. She was born Waltraud Lehner but, in 1967, changed her name to mimic Brand Export, her favourite the cigarette brand, renouncing in the process the names – and patriarchal influence – of both her father and former husband.
One of the more dominant photos of the exhibition is Smart/Export, a self-portrait of Export, presenting to the camera the pack of the cigarettes that became her name. Her pose is confrontational – a lit cigarette between her lips, her breast visible from the neckline of her dress. She has rendered her face on the pack, surrounded by the motto “semper et ubique – immer und überall” – everywhere, always and unique.
She established herself with the 1968 performance piece Touch Cinema. She stood alone on a Viennese street, a Styrofoam case covering her naked body. As Vienna’s citizens passed by, she would part the curtains, inviting them to explore inside with their hands. Those who acquiesced walked away realising they had just stroked a stranger’s breasts.
Action Pants: Genital Panic
Export’s most iconic image, and a key part of Saltoun’s display, is Action Pants: Genital Panic, a set of six identical photographs taken in 1969 by Peter Hassmann in Vienna. Export is sat on a bench, her legs spread wide and her feet bare. Her leggings have a hole cut into the crotch. In her hands she holds a machine gun, and her hair rises in a wild shock as if she’s been electrocuted. The image was made as partner to a piece of performance art Export coined in a cinema in Munich. The same crotchless leggings were worn as she walked the crowd, exposing her genitalia to the seated audience at head-level. It’s become the stuff of avant-garde, and specifically feminist, legend, and various retellings exist; in an interview with the Los Angeles-based magazine High Performance, Export is quoted as saying Genital Panic took place in a pornographic cinema. She carried a machine gun, offering to have sex with anyone in the audience while levelling the gun at them. As she moved from row to row, people silently left the theatre in repulsion. Export has since denied this version of events, but it adds to the mystery.
“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,” Export wrote in the self-titled book Valie Export. “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.”
In very different ways, Kubelka and Export used their sexuality to express their innermost selves on camera. In a climate that could view sex as a surrender to patriarchy, these artists used it in ways that still have the capacity to fascinate.
“Feminist Actionism shall free men’s products, that is, women, from their thing-character,” Export declares in her manifesto. “Just as action aims at achieving the unity of actor and material, perception and action, subject and object, Feminist Actionism seeks to transform the object of male natural history, the material woman, subjugated and enslaved by the male creator, into an independent actor and creator, subject of her own history.”