Displayed on 6 monitors, The Power of Speech shows the male epiglottis in action as it is speaking the words “The power of language is measured after the trace left even after silence.” On one level the piece is kind of a joke: here is the place where words come from – but of course that’s absurd! Yet isn’t the power of speech often to do with the register and intonation of the voice? Do not all psychoanalysts think about the quality of ‘voice’ as an important element in the power and effect of their interpretations? And hasn’t the male ‘voice box’ carried the ‘power of language’ in much of human history?
The installation itself put this history in tension with another element. As Time Out reviewer Sarah Kent observed, the mesmeric power of the piece lies not in the words, but in the quasi-sexual image. Isolated in a pool of darkness, the larynx uncannily resembles the female sexual organ, which makes its emphatic openings and closures distinctly alarming. Any anxieties you may have about female sexuality – in particular the existence and threatening potential of the vagina dentate – will be confirmed, especially given that you’re standing in the home of the man who specialised in repressed desires and fears.
Valie Export (b. 1940, Linz, Austria) came to prominence as a leading feminist artist with performance works which looked at the representation of women’s bodies in society. She broke social, sexual and cultural tabors, integrating art into life through spontaneous ‘actions’ which established her reputation as a leading feminist artist. Valie Export studied in Vienna and worked in conjunction with, and in opposition to, the Viennese Actionists. She was an innovator in using technology in visual art, particularly in the use of film and video and her practice has exerted a considerable influence on a subsequent generation of artists working in the UK and internationally.
This exhibition was shown in conjunction with the Valie Export exhibition, a major retrospective of her work, at Camden Arts Centre.