Tate Liverpool is pulling out all the stops at the moment with the current Marc Chagall exhibition, upcoming Constellations collection and the two incredible, real life macaws stealing the limelight on the second floor, as part of the Tropicalia installation. One piece which caught my eye however, even from its inconspicuous hiding place, was the row of photographic images comprising Action Pants: Genital Panic. Its interesting that amidst the interactive rainforest, sizeable Mondrians and irresistable mirror cubes, this relatively small piece can still project such a powerful message and maintain such longevity in my memory. I suspect this may be the case for me due to the amalgamation of art and cinema in the piece, which is a feature that instantly attracts me to any artists work. Film and photography are two mediums that fascinate me to no end and when both are combined, I can’t help but get excited.
Action Pants manifests itself as a series of six, identical photographic images presented as a provocative horizon of both visual and conceptual controversy. The image featured in each poster was shot by Peter Hassmann in 1969, commemorating the confrontational act of protest staged by its subject the year before. The disturbing woman in the shot is an artist going by the name of VALIE EXPORT who, in 1968, entered an occupied cinema in Munich wearing a leather shirt and crotchless pants, weilding a machine gun. EXPORT proceeded to walk amongst the audience with her genitals at face-level, demonstrating an extremist protest in defiance of the presentation of women as objects of pleasure in cinema.
Certainly a million miles from the Brigitte Bardots and Graces Kellys of the filmic era she contested so strongly, EXPORT sits in the centre of the frame with gun at crotch level, encouraging eye contact with the viewer.
Her poignant line of vision can be affiliated with the work of Feminist theorist, Laura Mulvey who took issue with the ‘male gaze‘, which sought to objectify the female subject purely for sexual pleasure. Here this paradigm is subverted as it was in the Feminist cinema which would be alligned with EXPORT’s work. Films of the time like Jean-Luc Godard‘s, A Bout de Souffle (1960) and those in following generations (Thelma and Louise, of course -the ultimate tale of girl power) sought to turn patriarchy on its head, fronting powerful women as protagonists.
Hassmann has also borrowed relevant techniques from cinema in positioning the phallic symbol of the gun as point of focus, addressing the issue of patriarchal dominance over vulnerable femininity, which is represented by the exposed genitals. The duplicity of the image as it is displayed can be read as a subtle allusion to the riots and protests following the failure of radicalism and lack of substantial developments for women in society during the time EXPORT was working on this.
Some many perceive this somewhat outlandish gesture as valid form of performance art while others may dismiss EXPORT as a raving lunatic with a chip on her shoulder, pining for attention. I probably lie somewhere between the two as I tend to be drawn to anything that has been born of slight insanity and revel in a good taboo. Whatever category you many fall in, you can’t deny this piece is effective. Its perverse, its crazy and its definitely teetering on the verge of just plain wrong – I love it!