‘My artistic work centers on the human body as a medium of information, as a signal bearer of meaning and communication. In this sense my artistic self-representation is also the representation of society.’
In 2019, after being invited by Anselm Kiefer to contribute work to La Ribaute, VALIE EXPORT installed stills from two of her pivotal performances: Asemia – The inability to express oneself through facial expression (1973) and Causalgia (1973).
Asemia – The inability to express oneself through facial expression
A bird is tied down on a platform with thin strings. I kneel in front of the bird and pour hot molten wax over it, then I pour wax over my feet and my left hand; I knock over the container with my head to pour wax over my right hand. Then I free myself by cutting around my hands, using a knife I’ve picked up from the platform with my mouth. The platform is surrounded by a circle of nails.
The starting-point is a specific communicative disorder, APRAXIA (inability to perform purposeful movements), a neurological disorder resulting in motor or sensory impairment. It is the inability to make signals in order to communicate with others (expressive asemia) or to understand such signs (receptive asemia).
The human drama is played out in images on the high civilizational level of the platform. On the same level as the bird, the human being shares the experience of the bird. The human being longs to be free, as the bird flies. He seeks this freedom in communication, wishing to express and convey this message of freedom. However, by casting this longing in a form, attempting to integrate it into the regulated code of comprehensible communication, he causes the message to expire, as the bird weakens under the wax, symbolically suffering the drama of human perspectives. Just as the human motor function stiffens under the wax, the human being stiffens into a lifeless wax figure incapable of communication, though having so much to communicate. In the tensions between the materials, the human being and the bird, as partners in/parts of an anthropomorphic sculpture – sculpture (the visual arts) as the solidification of the visual power of expression (human communication) – demonstrate:
bird (symbol of imagination and freedom), wax (symbol of lifelessness), human being, and in the tensions between the forms (motion and solidification) the tragedy of human self-presentation.
The shadow of a man standing on a swastika falls on a large sheet of wax. In its aura of softness, of malleability, the wax represents the man’s wish to be able to shape the woman in his own image. Adipocere: known as corpse wax, this is generated by dead bodies in an environment with high levels of moisture and lack of oxygen. The outline of the shadow is burned into the wax with a gas flame, and the woman lies down within this outline. Then the man uses electric wire to fence in the woman formed in his image. The wire, hanging on nails and charged from a battery, forms an enclosure; it begins to glow and smoke, signalizing causalgia: my body warmth, my own warmth slowly changes the wax, so that my image flows gradually into the cold wax.
The woman slowly relaxes from her rigid pose and moves towards the boundary of the shadow and thus to life outside the man’s conceptual scheme. The electrically-charged glow wire knocks her back. She learns self-awareness and rolls over the wire. She accepts the pain caused by this process of liberation, for it is better to be a free person than a mask, a mere mascot.
Causalgia, a painful process: the dark pain of oppression and the bright pain of liberation. Then the remaining traces in the wax are filled with molten lead, the imprint buried, obliterated.
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