REVIEW: Filming, Cutting, and Tailoring: Ursula Mayer Sews the Cinematic Dress 

Justin Ramsey | August 28, 2014

Justin Ramsey, who is pursuing his Master of Arts in Comparative Media Arts at Simon Fraser University, has written an insightful and spirited review of Ursula Mayer: Not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn for us. As comes through in his text below, Justin's research interests are myriad (and he claims unfocussed), including but not limited to ecocriticism, animation, posthumanism, Japanese painting, and the geopolitical construction of cultural identity. We are particularly gratified to see him take up the issue of fashion - the "sign of play," indeed.

Filming, Cutting, and Tailoring: Ursula Mayer Sews the Cinematic Dress
By Justin Ramsey 
SFU Galleries, August 28 2014

Audain Gallery, Vancouver
June 12 - August 02, 2014

In analyzing the embodied experience of cinema, phenomenological film theory draws upon the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who defines flesh as "the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible body upon the touching body, which is attested in particular when the body sees itself, touches itself seeing and touching…" (1968, 148). Jane M. Gaines extends Merleau-Ponty's synaesthesia of visuality and tactility, by positing a filmic fabric, rather than flesh, that the spectator can wear. Juxtaposing the acts of looking with one's eyes and looking in a fashion sense - that is, wearing a certain look - suggests an "internal circularity that implies…[the] 'coiling' that sees itself, touches itself seeing" (2000, 181).

Admittedly, it is difficult not to think of fashion while taking in Not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn, an exhibition of recent works by London-based artist Ursula Mayer, showing at the Audain Gallery from June 12 to August 2, 2014. The first artwork on display, for example, is a garment titled Golden Fleece, which is featured in Mayer's film, Medea (2013). Beyond this, a dark wine colour cloaks the gallery's once-white walls, creating a quiet atmosphere of almost unsettling intimacy. The entranceway, however, is punctuated by images of Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand, female proponents of individualistic neoliberalism, whose ideologies are rooted in a patriarchal antifeminism. They too are accessorised, with patent criticality; in Revisions of Power (2013), Mayer has provocatively placed pyrite—christened fool's gold for its lack of value—over Rand's wrist to simulate an ostentatious, albeit worthless, bangle.

More striking still are the series of coloured photographs The Unbegotten (2013), which could be mistaken for tear sheets from an editorial fashion spread. Transgender model Valentijn de Hingh and queer icon JD Samson—the lead actors in Mayer's films Gonda (2012) and Medea (2013) respectively—bend their bodies elegantly to the contours of Bruno Gironcoli's sculptures; the sculptures themselves inhere a mechanical whimsy evocative of art deco film sets. Glancing over the list of artworks in the exhibition brochure, one might reasonably expect to find a list of the models' silver and gold adornments (and their designers) in lieu of the material and dimensions typically included on a credit line.

Next, a large screen occupies the centre of the space. Medea is projected on its far side, facing the south windows of the gallery. Samson plays both Medea and her husband Jason in the film. Her costuming alternates between crisp, black suits for the latter and flowing, otherworldly robes for the former, replete with jewellery that defies categorisation. On north side of the screen facing the entrance is Mayer's 32-minute film Gonda, inspired by Ayn Rand's 1937 play Ideal, and informed by a screenplay written by Maria Fusco. Herein, androgynous models strut, strike poses and recline next to their photo shoot set while talking amongst themselves. If not for the austere philosophical dialogue between the models, segments of the film could be mistaken for any one of the many fashion-themed reality series now ubiquitous on television. These sequences are intercut with other expositions of fashionable fallal; Gonda stands poised upon a grey, volcanic mound, sporting radiant gold raiment and holding a bare branch in each hand like an ascendant pagan goddess. In other scenes, she runs across this same terrain in a flowing, gossamer garb, as grey and ethereal as the dust in her trajectory.

It is due to these images and the glamour that pervades both the films and the supplementary photographs that we may read Gonda and Medea as filmic fabrics—textual textiles draped upon the leading characters, whose actions and transformations move the motion picture, and are felt in turn by the spectator. As a spectator in a phenomenological mode, I find that there is a curious gravitation and intensity that surrounds the figure of Gonda—like a whirlpool that draws me irrevocably into its own self-centredness. Why should I desire to identify with her? The answer may not lie in the image alone, but also in the accompanying screenplay. Fusco has appropriated dialogue from Rand's script (the title of the exhibition derives from the exultation of Kay Gonda, a famous actress and the protagonist of Ideal, by one of her fans) and it maintains inflections of arrogance, self-confidence and independence that are characteristic of Objectivism. And yet, in the context of a transgendered person self-determining her sexuality, there is power imbued in these lines which would otherwise read as empty Randian hubris.

Still, one ought to question why Mayer even engages Rand's philosophy—a right-wing thesis steeped in misogyny and sexual dichotomy—in films that otherwise express an embrace of gender non-conformity? It is an odd dialectic, for certain. Liberating Rand's words from their origins begets a celebration of individuality, and a freedom to self-determination befitting of queer theory;but it simultaneously probes the patently misogynistic and homophobic roots of Objectivist thought. In the framework of Not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn, I would venture that Mayer is investigating—through the troubled marriage of individualism and queerness is the issue of desiring identities—a desire we might sum up in the word fashion.
Perhaps it would be too hasty to presuppose, as philosophers and scholars often do, that desire for fashion is necessarily a capitalist pursuit, by which one seeks to attract the gaze of another. In a more utopian mode, Iris Marion Young reminds us, "clothing images are not always the authoritative mirror that tells 'who's the fairest of them all,' but the entrance to a wonderland of characters and situations" (1988, 150-1). As mentioned previously with regard to "wearing the film," fashion is trying on a different identity. Young, discussing fashion as a means of embodying fantasies, cites Roland Barthes' description of the "vertigo effect" of fashion: "it multiplies the person without any risk of her losing herself, insofar as, for Fashion, clothing is not play but the sign of play" (1983, 256-7).  

This vertigo of fantasised identities resonates with Patricia MacCormack's concept of desire as "the vertiginous nothing that is fully present through us and we through it" (2008, 3). MacCormack, who authored Medea's screenplay, refers specifically to what she deems cinesexual desire, an "anomalous sexuality" whereby "viewing creates a distribution of intensities… sought after by the cinesexual who is enamoured of the image and relishes connecting with the plane of desire of or from cinema" (ibid., 1).
Thus, cinesexual desire is reminiscent of wearing the cinematic garment; both entwine the self with the image, presenting the spectator with hitherto unknown potentialities. Moreover, these desires are asexual; the sensations of the cinema-as-lover and cinema-as-dress dispense with the "stratification of the body through which pleasure and desire are organised" (ibid.). It is reflected in the un-gendering of sex in Medea, where Samson dons attire to obliquely signify her fluidity between male and female personas; and in doing so, problematizes the gendering of fashion itself. In Gonda, wherein recognition of the models' imposing beauty derives not from libidinal desire, but from an aesthetics of high fashion that breaks with normative notions of movie star sexiness, offering alternatives to Hollywood hegemony. Therefore, wearing Mayer's films opens the spectator to unlimited new becomings—an experience that is inherently embodied, in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological sense, while exposing the body to "infinite and inexhaustible possible intensities that we can never know in advance" (ibid., 2).

Not a curse, nor a bargain, but a hymn explores the paradoxical roles of fashion. Fashion serves at once to desexualise the body by hiding its physiology and genitalia, while simultaneously accentuating and fetishising the wearer's form. Mayer's work participates in this neuter territory of fashion's sexuality, which centralises the body and its affects, all the while extricating it from any concrete delineation of the body's possibilities. In Patricia MacCormack's idea of cinesexuality, as well as the seductiveness of fashion images, desire is located in the absence of sex. Thus, Gonda and Medea may be read as cinematic garments-aesthetic encounters that bring the audience to bear with multiple new identities, mediated with style.

Roland Barthes, The fashion system. (Transl. Richard Howard & Matthew Ward, 1983) New York: Hill, 1967.

Jane M. Gaines, "On wearing the film." In Stella Bruzzi & Pamela Church Gibson (eds.) Fashion cultures, pp. 159-177. London: Routledge, 2000.

Patricia MacCormack, Cinesexuality. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2008.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The visible and the invisible. (Transl. Alphonso Lingis) Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Iris Marion Young, "Women recovering our clothes, perhaps." In Hugh J. Silverman & Donn Welton, eds., Postmodern and continental philosophy, pp. 144-152. New York: SUNY Press. 1988.