Image of a still from Ursula Mayer's Medea

Jarman Award Shortlist Artist Profile: Ursula Mayer

Date posted: 12.11.2014

Ursula Mayer will be joining the touring programme at Nottingham Contemporary on Thursday 20 October for a Q&A after a screening of work by all of the artists.

About the artist

London-based artist Ursula Mayer works primarily with film and photography. She says of her London home "I'm happy to be in London because there's such a great scene of filmmakers and they really inform each other. It's great to be part of that group."

Mayer studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna and at Goldsmiths College, London. She has exhibited in major art festivals and institutions such as Performa 11, New York; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Tramway, Glasgow; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Whitechapel Gallery, London; MoMA PS1, New York; Garage, Moscow; and Kunsthalle Basel.

About her work

Mayer's films often use iconic architectural locations, and focus on the interaction between female figures. Her work traces narratives of individualism, consumerism, identity and models of femininity, and her exploration of these themes is particularly influenced by Patricia MacCormack's Cinesexuality. The book explores what makes a film feel erotic, from a film philosophy tradition, and how we can explain intense attraction to film. As in the book, Mayer challenges the relationship between the spectator and cinema, while also exploring the dichotomies in gender and sexuality. This is expressed with layers of multiplicity in her work, so "we can become as fluid as crystalline (the screened image itself)."

Mayer continues to talk about the theme of identity in her work, and how specific identities can be explored to give the work meaning, "the people I'm casting are very important - I'm casting people who are standing in with their own personalities, for example JD Samson [Medea] or Valentijn de Hingh [Gonda] who is a transgender fashion model. They're lending me their voices".

Ursula Mayer, Medea, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Influence of Jarman

Mayer talks about the influence Derek Jarman has had on her work, in particular his films Jubilee (1978) and Last of England (1988).

She cites Jubilee as an important to her as she also draws from the punk culture documented by Jarman, although she looks at punk through the lens of fashion, music and politics.

Last of England stayed with her longer as it's more open ended and abstract, which she tries to bring out in her work. Mayer continues, "the film mixes aesthetics and politics with the baroque in a very beautiful way". She finds the editing in the film particularly interesting, especially the sequences that repeat and inform each other, creating a circular pattern that Mayer returns to in her work. She also parallels the apocalyptic, post-Thatcher era feel in Last of England to her work Gonda which relates to a similarly controversial figure, the Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead,  Atlas Shrugged).

Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Journey to filmmaking

Mayer began as a practising painter, but found the medium increasingly limiting; "the canvas didn't give me enough satisfaction in the work and what you could do". Her practice developed as a response to the right wing climate in Austria in the early 90s. During this period, she led happenings and performance-based pieces which was increasingly filmed. The political climate eventually changed but she carried on creating performance for camera that naturally developed into something more formalised, with a set, script and performers.

Pushing the medium

The different elements of making a film, such as set, lighting and film gauges, are important to Mayer, especially in her early work. She uses these tools of the craft to push the medium itself. This way, she is able to explore the essence of cinema and play with traditional cinematic language, "I was not a trained filmmaker so this experience of learning through cinema was very important at the beginning". Mayer also develops a new visual language taken from the languages of experimental and mainstream feature film - "I try to find my own voice in that".

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