Still from Ursula Mayer's Gonda, 2012.
Austrian-born London-based artist Ursula Mayer works across film, sculpture, installation, and photography to create “kaleidoscopic” spaces in which various source materials intersect and boundaries of all sorts are dissolved. Informed by the modernist focus on materiality and process, her single and multi-channel films fuse formal experimentation with queer politics in ways that open up new possibilities for thinking about gender, film, and spectatorship in material terms.
Her most recent body of work, for which she won the prestigious Derek Jarman award in 2014, consists primarily of a film trilogy that challenges binary systems and engages viewers in a multi-sensory, affective experience. In Gonda (2012), Medea (2013) and Cinexesual (2013), Mayer worked with androgynous performers whose identities embody the porous, border-crossing worlds she stages in her films. In this conversation with curator Maud Jacquin, she discusses these films and the trilogy as a whole, looking at what she calls the “liquefaction of grammar” that is at work in her practice.
“Queer does not predominantly mean a sexual orientation, but is really about extending your desire and pleasures beyond the dialectical game of female or male, object or subject, screen or spectator.”
Maud Jacquin: You have already discussed Gonda in several interviews, so let’s talk about Medea first. Medea revisits Pasolini’s film of the same title. You cast JD Samson, a musician from the band MEN, in the role originally played by Maria Callas. But where Pasolini staged the clash between the archaic and the modern capitalist world—by opposing the figures of the barbarian priestess Medea and the Greek hero Jason who is driven by greed and ambition—you almost condense the two characters into one by having JD play both roles. Can you explain this decision?
Ursula Mayer: Pasolini used the ancient text of Medea as a basis for a costume drama, a portrait film, and an anthropological investigation resonating on all these different levels.
He was thinking through the story’s core idea of “stealing the golden fleece, which can give you all the power in the world”. But the fleece also represents the sun, burning anyone who comes too close. It is the turning point in the myth, and an interpretation of a capitalist vision of humanity. In a way it’s about the collapse of human society through greed. Pasolini’s interpretation is timeless like the myth itself.
He cast Maria Callas in her only role in any film. I liked the idea of using a contemporary icon, – so I replaced Maria Callas with JD. It’s just a generational swap, and as we know humans are still the same, destroying themselves on all different levels. Or better yet, we’re simply the source for damage in the world. I thought JD could carry the substance for that idea. She is strong, but also soft. It was interesting for me to use just one person, to run with this idea, which doesn’t mean that it runs into a dead end.
MJ: The androgyny of JD can be seen as a form of condensation as well, one that undermines normative notions of gender and sexual difference.
UM: This too. And I assumed that as an androgynous, political figure, she could carry all of these different layers that Pasolini gave us in his work.
MJ: In Medea, you inserted footage of political protests from the Arab Spring. Was this another way for you to explore how the issues raised by the myth and by Pasolini’s film resonate in the present?
UM: I wanted the film to be an experiment and a mixture of methods from social anthropology and ritual theatre. But it actually was not planned from the beginning. When I filmed in Turkey, it just happened that there were these waves of demonstrations and civil unrest in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. Back in London, I found a lot of footage about it on Youtube, and used it in the editing process – in very short intervals, these images punctuate the flow for a second.
In a way it helped me to further develop the idea that every event in the film should be doubly presented as both ‘magical’ and ‘rational’, or ‘real’ and ‘imagined’.
MJ: You told me once that you felt you had to include this footage, that you couldn’t remain blind to what was happening in Turkey.
UM: I have never really used political protest imagery found online, but it seemed appropriate with this film. After we shot the material in Cappadocia, there was a lot of unrest in Turkey. It was a powerful moment in that country. I wanted to work in the spirit of Pasolini and not just quote him. The work was planned as a very conceptual piece, in that it involved going to the location of the Pasolini film, and reimagining and shooting a scene from the film that had already been shot there. With the civil unrest in Istanbul, for me everything became even more pertinent as a contemporary subject.
MJ: Several of your past films, such as The Lunch in Fur (2008) or The Crystal Gaze (2007), combined different layers of time, exposing how the past resurfaces in the present. So, in some ways, your choice of anchoring Medea in contemporary times can be seen as a continuation of this exploration.
UM: Yes, in my earlier films, like the ones you mentioned, I was interested in film as a possibility of magnifying the past in a way, by destabilizing the present with the past.
But it worked differently by recycling film in its materiality. In doing so, certain questions are raised, such as what is the essence of film? What can it do? And what happens when we remake it? How do we deal with sheets of time both past and present? The idea of Medea takes its power from someone standing in the world now and actually portraying that in the work. My approach was to update the core elements of Medea by casting an active political icon of the moment, JD Samson, as a queer icon of pop culture, standing in for empowerment, in the same way that Maria Callas did in Medea. When she stands on the caves in Turkey, she could be on a rock stage, with all its rebellious potential–her ritual habitus is identical.
MJ: In both your and Pasolini’s films we barely hear the singers’ voices. Not only do they not sing, but they hardly speak at all. The fact that the actors’ vocal capacities are left untapped imbues the characters with a sort of contained intensity. But it also suggests that something is at play beyond or before language. The images in Medea do not always signify on a symbolic or semantic level, but they perform on an affective level. The vibrant use of colors, the emphasis on the textures of sounds and materials, and the rhythmic quality of the editing, all take us beyond meaning into sensation and embodied experience.
UM: There is a permanent collapse between image and text in this film. It is a filmic language that I have been experimenting with for a while – a language against the grammar that we would normally be used to, and which is deeply rooted with conventional norms. There is no ground you can just walk on, you need to create a path while watching, to develop while you are experiencing. I am interested in testing possibilities of new ways of seeing. When you say “beyond meaning”, I think it creates another meaning, but with a permanent collapse somehow. It’s not giving you the comfort of knowing, but it’s mixing images together, and in a way developing something else, knowledge beyond meaning. It is like drifting with images in a more haptic visuality. It functions almost like the sense of touch by triggering all forms of bodily experience.
As the spectator you are totally embodied (embedded?) in the images – the eye is an organ of touch. It travels like the camera on the surfaces, which means it is like caressing and entering (or intruding upon) an image.
MJ: What you are saying about the constant undermining of stable meaning makes me think of a particular sequence of the film: we see JD’s hand in close-up with a viscous, transparent material slowly running along her fingers. For me, this recurring sequence encapsulates the permanent tension that exists in both Gonda and Medea between the sculptural and the fluid, integrity and disintegration. It is a perfect image for the process of dissolution at work on many levels in these films: dissolution of forms, identities and language conventions. “I am texture over form; vibration frequency over name”, says the voice-over in Medea.
UM: Yes, absolutely a “liquefaction of grammar”, and it is happening quite literally in that film with images of running liquids, exploding powders on skin surfaces. I often show my films as installations or cinematic environments. This time, the films were presented alongside glass sculptures that materialize the encounter between liquid and solid forms, and the passage from one to the other. I was interested in how we can liquefy bodily physics, and see a more fluid grammar.
MJ: This liquefaction is also a movement towards abstraction. I am thinking of those moments when JD’s face disappears in a colored mist (most notably at the very beginning of the work), or when the filmed scenes are partially obscured by abstract planes of changing colors. Why did you decide to add these digital inserts?
UM: Yes, I used a lot of abstract images next to representational images. When images fade into abstraction, we have to try hard to distance ourselves from the image. It is easier to become one with or to merge with the image, and this leaves the self in often unsettled moments.
The digital images are part of larger collages of the actual footage and the original film poster of Medea. In the installation, you will find large pieces of fabric related to these images, and the idea of extending this grammar off screen amplifies the work outside the contained cinematic screen.
MJ: I wonder if you think the abstract image might have political potential? Because it is no longer recognizable, it potentially allows for things to happen that are unpredictable. The film evokes a moment when “knowing means emptiness and the unthinkable opens out the world.”
UM: Abstract images make the spectator aware of the apparatus of projection, and the voice and sound create enough of a vibration to evoke an image in our head, so that we can project our own imaginations. We can also imagine a boundless void that can open up a new space for political potential.
MJ: Abstraction also seems to work against the subject as a false unity. JD’s face slowly becomes indistinguishable from the background before disappearing entirely. And there is constant slippage between human flesh and the mineral world…
UM: Yes, it is a collapse, everything is melting into one source. It’s melting fabric, melting flesh, melting surfaces, and collapsing viewpoints. The voice-over also talks about multiplicity, which means I like to challenge and go beyond binary systems to open up an in-between space instead. This borderless, in-between space opens up multiplicity in terms of its endless range of images and its kaleidoscopic perspectives of space.
MJ: I would like to move on to discussing the trilogy as a whole. The films share some obvious similarities: they feature androgynous performers, result from collaborations with writers (Maria Fusco for Gonda and Patricia McCormack for Medea), and revisit preexisting works (the play “Ideal” by Ayn Rand, Pasolini’s Medea, and Two Sides to Every Story by structural filmmaker Michael Snow). But there is a deeper connection between the films that I believe is to be found in Cinesexual, which seems to function as a sort of prism for viewing the other films. Is that how you conceived of Cinesexual?
UM: The film is definitely a bridge between Gonda and Medea. In this case, I made it for a particular space and it functions as a physical and mental bridge in that particular space. On the one hand it keeps the two films together, and on the other hand it unravels them again.
Gonda and Medea deal with political content (like the original text of Medea and Rand). I cast two personalities who are standing in as canvases for what they are. They are like screens for the projection of these political myths, but they also discharge the content through the seditious potential of what they stand for in real life.
This structural piece of Michael Snow, where you can see both sides of a screen, but are never able to catch the same moment, makes the audience a performer and a spectator at the same time. It makes you move and walk around the work and start to perform with them and see through their eyes. You are totally engaged with this work in a way that is different than sitting in front of a screen viewing a film. Film becomes an event, a performance.
MJ: Cinesexual has the same basic configuration as Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, but it is not a literal reenactment. Whereas Snow literally sits in the director’s chair and delivers his instructions to a female performer, you chose to remain invisible and have JD Sampson and the transgender model Valentijn de Hingh play the role of the woman. Was this a way for you to expose the gender overtones of Snow’s film and to open it up to difference?
UM: Yes, it is definitely not the classical role model of the film director and the female performer, we can call it the male gaze. Valentijn and JD are directing or self-directing as they float around the space between the two cameras pointing at each other. They open it up for each other by slicing the plastic wall between them, giving each other space, sharing the space, or swapping space. As spectators we share their movements by watching through our own physical movements. The spectator is actually much more guided than in the films of Gonda and Medea, but is also more physically involved in the work.
MJ: The reason why I see Cinesexual as a prism through which to see the other two films is because it takes the screen-viewer relationship as its subject matter. The direct reference to McCormack’s concept of cinesexuality points to a reconfiguration of film spectatorship as an affective encounter between the body of the film and the body of the viewer. This idea resonates with what we have been talking about in relation to Medea.
UM: Yes, Gonda and Medea are definitely informed by McCormack’s idea of the skin/screen as an entrance. The spectator has to open him or herself to the image and join with the image. I am not just surrounded by the image, but actually coming towards the screen.
Cinesexual also has to do with a conception of spectatorship as being already queer, which basically means going beyond this dialectic of object and subject, image and meaning, man and woman.
Contrary to Snow, there is an exchange, but no director is involved – it is about them, the way they look at each other, their gestures. For me what Cinesexual actually talks about is this shift between the spectator and the image – the image comes towards you, just as you can move towards the image. The spectator and the image have the same power. It doesn’t mean the subject can analyze the image, but rather that images themselves are invested with a life force: the image is coming towards you, and you can enter it and become as crystalline as the image itself.
MJ: I am very interested in the idea that this form of spectatorship can be theorized as queer. Can you expand on that in relation to your films?
Queer does not predominantly mean a sexual orientation, but is really about extending your desire and pleasures beyond the dialectical game of female or male, object or subject, screen or spectator.
It entails developing a language in-between, with fluidity in any direction. You’re challenged to think beyond this dualism, be it gender or whatever. It is a territory for asemiotic bodies, a world without descriptive bodies, and a very sensual appeal to the gestures of cinema. We’re not talking about an interpretive experience of cinema, but suggestions that express elements in cinema as sound, light, color, framing, and pacing. I think it’s really this idea that images and the spectator have the same power. One’s images are credited with power that becomes an agent. Images have a life of their own. They cannot be simple communicative rhetorical instruments. They give order to the boundary between the animate and inanimate. It is not just asking ‘what do they mean’, but ‘what do they do’? What is their secret of vitality? What do they want?
There is a lot of discussion at the moment about thingness, vibrant matter, how objects have power, how they are engaging with you. I like this shift. I am interested in talking about these issues, but in relation to the cinematic screen.
Maud Jacquin is the curator of “From Reel to Real. Women, Feminism and the London Filmmakers’ Co-operative”, at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in September 2016 in partnership with LUX and supported by FLUXUS.