As the Austrian artist Valie Export once drew her name from a popular brand of cigarettes, so, too, the artist Paris Avanzino – born in 1981 in New York City, to a blonde, toothy actress and her childhood-sweetheart husband – chose to reinvent herself with a wink to international commerce, legally adopting the "branded" surname "Hilton" from the popular five-star chain of hotels.
The pomo bimbo persona she created, laquered with weird, hyperfeminine quirks (a hammy, breathy, naïve delivery; a permawinking lazy eye; a slew of clothed and shivering pets, routinely shoved into shit-stained handbags), was a skewed, cartoonish socialite who appeared as if God himself -- in this analogy, a horny, redneck convict -- had carved her face and body from a bar of prison-issue soap, and was a cultish overnight success in the showier, Koons-and-Prince-buying cadres of Californian contemporary art.
Over thirty years after Export's first performance of Tapp- und Tastkino, 1968-71, which saw the artist allowing passers-by to fondle her breasts for thirty-second intervals, shielded by a curtained miniature cinema, Hilton released a video work entitled 1 Night In Paris, 2004; purporting to be a "leaked" nightvision sex tape, its highly-orchestrated public release made early and innovative use of the internet, bypassing the usual gallery space in lieu of reaching the public virally, via mobile phones and laptops. Expanded cinema, according to a lecture given by Export in 2003, “also refers to any attempts that activate, in addition to sight and hearing, the senses of smell...and taste,” a description which seemed to vividly describe the admirably gonzo 1 Night In Paris for a great deal of its viewers, for better or for worse. The original press release for Tapp- und Tastkino suggests that “as long as the citizen is satisfied with the reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state is spared the sexual revolution” -- in 1 Night..., the artist known as Paris Hilton embodies the “reproduced copy” wholesale, appearing detached from the sexual act. “It's [supposedly] sexier when a girl is flirty, but she doesn't do anything,” she told critics as context: the film portrays her answering her mobile phone during coitus.
Paris Hilton, 1 Night in Paris, Performance on Video; Courtesy the artist.
During the same year, Andrea Fraser’s Untitled, 2003, showed the artist orchestrating a paid sexual encounter to an unidentified art collector and then screening the resulting videotape at Chelsea’s Friedrich Petzel Gallery, prompting allegations that the two works were uncomfortably similar. Fraser, an appreciator of Hilton's work, told the New York Times with magnanimous candor that both pieces, realized independently, were equally valid responses to “a very old metaphor -- that selling art is prostitution.” Hilton, by way of dealing with the controversy, stayed true to her dumb persona: "I haven't seen it,” she responded, via her representation, “but when people copy you, that's like the most flattering thing, so whatever people can say, I just laugh about it.”
“Is that a film? No!” the Vienna Express asked of Tapp- und Tastkino, and with 1 Night..., Hilton's reviews were hauntingly similar. Valie Export may have been labelled a "witch" by the press – the Express, in a fit of hysteria, even added the suggestion that she be burned like one -- but the fictional Paris Hilton, too, bore hatred for her outrageous sex-positive media stunt from critics and tabloids alike (the satiric art blog Cathedral of Shit, which had already gifted many of art's leading lights with poison-pen nicknames, began to refer to her in its items simply as "Saggy Valtrex"; kinder comment came from the Guardian's Marina Hyde, who thought that the work had “a pared-down quality...and an interesting metatext.”)
Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969; Courtesy the artist.
Valie Export's most famous artwork is, in all likelihood, Aktionshose:Genitalpanik, first executed in 1969: bursting into a pornographic cinema with a replica machine gun, Export wore a bodysuit with mons and labia exposed, the hair on head and body alike as wild and tousled as one might expect from the turn of the seventies, and in 2006, Hilton began a series of public art "happenings" which aped these attacks from a modern perspective, as a kind of homage. Both artists' interventions were shocking in their own right. Though she arrived unarmed, and made no effort to draw attention to her nudity, Hilton's repeated exposure of her hairless genitals (rumoured by some to be a rubber replica) at a random series of high-profile public events was a guerrilla tactic with the self-same message as Export's Aktionshose – that although the female public self had been endlessly sexualised, such aggressive and incongruous presentation of the sexual organs was anything but, and the result, as it was with the gun-wielding Export, was profoundly unsettling. Watching her unannounced Actionist-style performances, said the writer Alexis Petridis, “you are gripped by the fear that civilisation as we know it is doomed, and that brimstone is going to start raining from the sky any minute.”
Paris Hilton, Genital Panic, 2006; Courtesy the artist.
When asked by an interviewer at the Guardian at the peak of her success, Hilton described the noughties as "hot, sex[ist], [patriarchal] and huge.” “Every decade has an iconic blonde,” she added, “like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana, [or David Hockney] -- and right now, I'm that icon.” Despite remaining a fairly cult artist, largely misunderstood aside from the relative success of 1 Night..., she has not been forgotten by the art world. She is still occasionally photographed at Art Basel, for instance, which she attends in character, and at Cannes; a photo-realistic spray-painting of Hilton's own Genitalpanik was recently shown by American artist Paul McCarthy, and in 2005, she was painted by Karen Kilimnik. Her memoir, Confessions of an Heiress, deconstructed the "Paris Hilton" meta-brand, and was released in 2004 -- an Observer article from this year cites a highly-rated Amazon user review, which proclaims it "a huge [boon] to the medium of literature as a whole." “For five [years] I was stuck doing this character,” she told a reporter at the 2012 Venice Biennale, who had cornered her next to a Jeff Koons. “It was kind of hard always having to play that character when it’s not who I am.”
"Hilton is to Valie Export," the art critic Matthew Warner remarked, at a retrospective viewing of 1 Night In Paris, "as Damien Hirst is to Francis Bacon."
(Image on top right: Valie Export, Tapp und Tastkino (Tap and Touch Cinema), 1968. Performance view, Munich. Courtesy the artist.)