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The women who channelled violence into art

3 June 2024

From the June 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In Chantal Akerman’s first short film, Saute ma ville (‘Blow Up My Town’) the artist climbs the stairs of a tower block and enters her kitchen carrying a bunch of flowers. To a soundtrack of humming that slips between insouciance and derangement, she performs a sequence of eccentric actions. She prepares a bowl of pasta, forks it into her mouth with Neanderthal voracity then abruptly stops and offers the remnants to her cat. She slings the contents of a high cupboard on to the floor, then slops a bucket of soapy water over everything. She tapes over the gaps around the kitchen door while eating a pear. She dons the PVC raincoat and headscarf of a diligent femme au foyer and clumsily mops the floor. Akerman is infused with manic ennui – fleeting enthusiasms, changes of mood and claustrophobic listlessness. In the final frames she lights a sheet of paper, turns on the gas hob and tenderly lays her cheek on it. The screen goes black to the sound of an explosion.

Currently screening in the retrospective ‘Travelling’ at Bozar in Brussels, Saute ma ville was made in 1968 when Akerman was an 18-year-old film school dropout. Seen today, it feels like a dark prefiguring both of the artist’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder in the 1980s and also of her suicide in 2015. While it is hard not to read this early work through a biographical lens, Saute ma ville is also of its moment. Its teenage protagonist tries on identities available to her in conservative post-war Belgium – housewife, teenybopper, lowly job-seeker – and can face none of them. The constraints of her life are echoed by the tight dimensions of the kitchen. She’s a misfit, in rebellion against a world that won’t make space for her, and in the end she piles her energy and frustration into an act of violence.

Touch Cinema (1968), Valie Export. The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Photo: Werner Schulz; © Valie Export, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023

Akerman was not the only young person pushing back against a conservative society: there were student demonstrations in Paris and beyond, and heated clashes over the Vietnam War and civil rights in the United States. It was a violent year: students protesting against racial segregation in South Carolina were shot by police on campus; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; 4,600 Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia; in Frankfurt, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader protested against the war in Vietnam by torching two department stores; in New York, the dirt-poor polemicist and playwright Valerie Solanas rode the elevator up to The Factory and pumped two bullets into Andy Warhol’s stomach. In her essay Which As You Know Means Violence (2022), Philippa Snow explores the spectacle of violence as art and entertainment, cautioning that harm to the self is seldom either plain or simple (though it can, unquestionably, be dumb). ‘The difference between men’s and women’s self-injurious art and entertainment does not fall exactly along clichéd hetero-centric gender lines, but it skirts close,’ Snow decides. ‘When men do hurt themselves, it tends to be in order to create a show of strength, and when women do, it tends to be either expressing a resistance to oppression, or embodying it physically in such a way as to unnerve or fuck with those watching them.’

In the same year that Akerman made Saute ma ville, Valie Export stood on a street in Vienna with her partner Peter Weibel and invited passers-by to reach into a box strapped to her front and feel her breasts. A film made of Tap and Touch Cinema – as Export and Weibel called their performance or happening – shows a rowdy crowd gathering around the artists. It is hard not to fear for Export’s safety. In the event, most are cowed by her gaze once they have their hands in the box. Export would go on to create performances that submitted her body to various kinds of pain or hazard. Documentation included in a retrospective just ended at C/O Berlin showed her creeping naked between electrified wires, pouring hot wax over her feet and hands, and inviting the public to slice into a rounded loaf of bread tied to her belly.

Photograph from the series From the Portfolio of Dogness (1968) by Valie Export in cooperation with Peter Weibel

Export was a wild proto punk who, in 1967, had shed her patrilineal surname and renamed herself after a cigarette brand. She saw little prospect for herself in Catholic Vienna (even the creative avant-garde was quite the boy’s club). In her manifesto of 1972, she called on women to ‘destroy all these notions of love, faith, family, motherhood, companionship which were not created by us and replace them with new ones in accordance with our sensibility, with our wishes’.

Seeing so many of her early works together, and watching her triumph over pain again and again, Export’s boldness and bravery seem remarkable. The cumulative effect of all those straps, hot wax and electric shocks also starts to feel a little kinky. This feeling is compounded by another public performance from 1968, From the Portfolio of Dogness during which Export led Weibel through the streets on all fours attached to a dog lead. It is a feminist statement, one designed, as per Snow, to fuck with those watching, but the dynamic is also unapologetically S&M. Bound in with all this pain is pleasure.

Like Export, Akerman deployed violence as a mode of expression. The performance of harm testified to her strength of feeling and desire for a degree of control over her circumstances. After the explosions of Saute ma ville, her voice appears, girlish and breezy, reciting the credits. Not dead after all, though the shadow remains.

From the June 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.