To What I Might Become: Ursula Mayer at Moderna Museet, Malmö


Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012 © Ursula Mayer. Courtesy Juliètte Jongma Gallery, Amsterdam; Krobath, Wien/Berlin

A figure wearing clothes the colour of rock scrambles across a volcanic landscape. I am sitting on a lilac carpet in front of a large projection, too close because the sound is turned down too low. Fifteen minutes later, the model’s face appears to crumble: a face made of compressed shimmering powder, of something mineral like rock, or makeup. It’s as if the cosmetic – the surface – runs all the way through, as if it’s not a veil or a shield, but the matter that orders the whole. As Michel Serres writes in The Five Senses, ‘Nothing goes as deep as decoration, nothing goes further than the skin, ornamentation is as vast as the world.’

Ursula Mayer’s 2012 film Gonda (2012) stars Dutch model Valentijn de Hingh, born male, who was the subject of a documentary about growing up transgender. Art writer Maria Fusco developed the polyvocal and fractured script “around” Ayan Rand’s play Ideal (1937). Ideal is about a Hollywood movie star named Kay Gonda, who seeks refuge from her fans after being accused of murder. Gonda has been screened as part of solo shows at Juliette Jongma in Amsterdam, 21er Haus in Vienna and now at Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden.

de Hingh has perfect skin. She has perfect hair, teeth, lips, slim hips, angular shoulder blades, and hard, long limbs – she is all cheekbones and exaggerated proportions, a luxury cyborg in gold Gareth Pugh, shining and armoured. Beyoncé wore similar costumes in her video for Sweet Dreams – silver Pugh, gold Thierry Mugler. Sweet Dreams directly referenced a video Ruth Hogben made for Gareth Pugh Autumn/Winter 2009, mirrored struts and all – Gonda implicates itself in this tradition of imitation and re-interpretation. de Hingh is joined by four others, who mouth along to the script as they pose for a fashion shoot. The models look like they should be mouthing names of perfume (“pour hommes”/“pour femmes”). Instead they deliver lines on the mundanity of exchanging money for goods and labour: “But it clearly says on the window you close at 5.00pm”; “Oh, and a box of matches.” What kind of dream is this?

Gonda is the first in a trilogy of films. Cinesexual (2013) also stars de Hingh. Medea (2013) features the band Le Tigre’s JD Samson. All to some extent assume the visual language of fashion, its dramatic landscape settings and photography studios, its materials, glinting and shimmering, metallic and organic, as well as its bodies. In recent years, fashion has moved beyond androgyny, an in-between-ness, which never seems to go out of fashion. Casey Legler models in men’s shows, Andrej Pejic models in women’s shows, and trans models such as de Hingh and Lea T make these distinctions meaningless. The model body, perhaps more than any other body, has the potential to overcome gender binaries. de Hingh is a cyborg not a goddess. The volcanic landscape, like the photo studio, is an inhospitable environment – barren, dusty and grey.


Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012 © Ursula Mayer. Courtesy Juliètte Jongma Gallery, Amsterdam; Krobath, Wien/Berlin

‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,’ writes Donna Haraway in her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1991). Haraway’s cyborg is a machine-organism hybrid in a post-gender world, ‘a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.’ Whereas eco-feminism advocates the rejection of technology as inherently patriarchal, returning women to nature, Haraway’s cyberfeminism registers the potential of liberation and resistance in hegemonic power, or, ‘the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.’ Technologies recognised as inherently patriarchal – neurotechnology, biotechnology, reproductive and hormonal pharmaceuticals – have the potential to erode gender binaries, reconstructing gender as a matter of choice. Mayer’s cyborgs exhibit both masculine and feminine traits that nonetheless cannot be definitively either, challenging patriarchal hegemony with its own readable codes. Their poses, costume (tailored and loose, oversize and minimal), faces and bodies figure gender traits as a set of choices that order and re-order the self, and trans identity as a way of living in a body. As Haraway writes, ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.’

Mayer’s solo show To What I Might Become includes a second film, The Lunch in Fur/Le Dejeuner en Fourrure (2006), installed in a room about Dora Maar within the exhibition Pablo Picasso: From Arcadian Bliss to Painted Exorcis. It’s not a typical solo show: installed in two different locations, and brought into relation with other works, neither of the films is technically “new”. It’s an imaginary meeting of the kind explored by Mayer in the film itself, and figures the whole building as porous.

The Lunch in Fur imagines a meeting between Maar, the artist Meret Oppenheim of Fur Cup fame and the performer Joséphine Baker, a wistful girl gang. They don’t seem to have taken advantage of their meeting – they don’t gossip and plot; they don’t discuss or confer. Instead they speak about memory and perception, trapped by their rituals and the building they inhabit, a series of loops and repetitions. The late modernist home appears as a literal site, a place, and a character, another ghost that nonetheless seems to have invoked their spirits. A tape recorder, which promises to remember and record for posterity, becomes an emblem of their endless repetitions and loops, their questions and speculations. One of them walks up the exterior steps several times, and the film plays as a seamless loop. “I put diamond dust on my face,” Baker sings, her voice emerging as if it is being played back.


Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012 © Ursula Mayer. Courtesy Juliètte Jongma Gallery, Amsterdam; Krobath, Wien/Berlin

Maar, an established photographer, met Picasso in 1936. He painted her countless times, sometimes as herself, sometimes as “the weeping woman.” In these paintings, Maar’s likeness is split and re-ordered, universalised, contorted into expressions of pain and grief. In contrast, Maar looks decidedly unimpressed in Picasso’s named portraits, like she really couldn’t give a shit.

As the past threatens to disappear irretrievably, Oppenheim, Baker and Maar hint at the possibility that it was always lost, only belonging to a present: ‘Sometimes one can remember the same scene from one’s own perspective.’ The perspective here is that of muse, grace, ghost and artist.

In Gonda, several still images – an Egyptian cat statue, a crystalline rock, leather cap (another fashion accessory), a gold USB stick (as gold as de Hingh’s cyborg costume) – are cued in by grammar in the script, as if summoned:

full stop

full stop

comma     full stop


comma     full stop

Repeated words turn into chanting: Arterial Venereal Immaterial Ethereal. GONDA is a kind of incantation, a song for cyborgs that value gendered identity as a choice not a curse. The diamond dust, surface ornamentation as vast as the world, goes all the way through.

Alice Hattrick

Ursula Mayer: To What I Might Become continues at Moderna Museet, Malmö to 24th August 2014.

Alice Hattrick is a writer and producer based in London. She co-produces CAR, a podcast about art and ideas.

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