Ursula Mayer

This review was published in frieze d/e:

Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012, Film still

Located in an old mill on the edge of Kraichtal, the Ursula Blickle Foundation has turned the sleepy German town into something of an art destination since the private art space opened in 1991. The London-based Austrian artist Ursula Mayer – who previously took part in the 2003 group show at the Foundation, Love/Hate, alongside Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Isaac Julien, Runa Islam and Tadeusz Kantor, among others ­– returns with a solo exhibition a decade later. A partnership between the 21er Haus at Belvedere, Vienna – Blickle recently gifted a cinema named after her to the museum – the show is curated by Bettina Steinbrügge from 21er Haus, where the show will travel in October 2013.

Built around two formally and thematically connected films – Gonda (2012) and Pheres (2013) – the show includes photographs, collages, wall-printed quotations, sundry objects and mixed-media installations that grew out of the films. Immaculately displayed like archaeological or geological finds, not all the objects (from books and original film posters to perfume bottles and agate stones) hold the same interest; the rationale for displaying film props in particular is not entirely clear. The cumulative effect of this filmic debris, materially anchoring an art form that’s essentially immaterial, is to turn cinematic viewing into a museum-going experience.

Rather than presenting a continual narrative, the films deploy a range of montage techniques, collating stylized and mundane imagery, sounds and textual fragments read out in voice-over. Written by author and critic Maria Fusco, who worked with materials that came out of workshops which focused on Ayn Rand’s 1934 play Ideal, Gonda ’s script is particularly evocative. Considerably longer and the more formally complex of the two films, Gonda builds up a visual grammar of five ravishing colour fields matched by as many marble surfaces and symbolic objects – an Egyptian cat, a die, a skipping robe, a USB stick and a saddle – which correspond to different punctuation marks within Fusco’s text and to the five characters in the film. In Pheres, these visual interludes have their counterpart in DayGlo-coloured vignettes, alternating abstract geometric motifs with images of a downward-pointing hand, a ram’s head and the protagonist’s face viewed in profile, fringed by a wave-like pattern commonly found on ancient Greek vases. References to art history, architecture, dance and film inform Mayer’s practice – from the surrealist blend of dream and reality in Lunch in Fur/Le Déjeuner en fourrure (2008) to The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (2010) which takes as its starting point a Roman frieze depicting the Medea story – endowing the work with a mythical kernel of sorts that complicates its reading.

The first two parts in a trilogy, the films shown here feature androgynous leads: the Dutch transgender fashion model Valentijn de Hingh in Gonda, and the New York-based queer icon, musician, DJ and activist JD Samson in Pheres. (The two are paired in the third installment due to be unveiled at the 21er Haus show.) The choice of the actresses was intended as a critical comment on gender stereotypes perpetrated by the film industry. Gonda is named after the 1930s Hollywood star, Kay Gonda, who embodies the ‘virtues’ of self-interest in Rand’s play Ideal. De Hingh’s tall, gaunt body is as stark as the volcanic landscape in which she poses, wearing either a gleaming golden outfit or nothing at all, whereas JD Samson with her short, curly dark hair and hint of a moustache resembles the toga-clad youths from fresco paintings in the ancient cave churches of Cappadoccia. Straddling documentary and fiction, Gonda and Pheres were shot on Mount Etna, Sicily, and Cappadoccia, Turkey, respectively – where Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 Porcile and Medea, starring Maria Callas in her only filmic role, were filmed. Though their unusual physiques – combining masculine and feminine traits – make the two actresses fascinating to watch, by the end of a show that features ubiquitous representations of each, on collaged posters and rather redundant photographs as well as in the films, you may be left feeling that you’ve overdosed on both.

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