Ursula Mayer

For her second solo show in Rome, Ursula Mayer chose a classical theme—the story of Medea—on which she proposed a series of thematic variations. The exhibition was divided into two parts, one consisting of a 16-mm film, Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, 2009 (which also lent its title to the show), and the other a group of separate works that nonetheless seemed to comment on the film’s themes.

The film is a double projection: On the left, we see details of an ancient bas-relief depicting Medea, the enchantress who killed her own children to take revenge on her husband, Jason, after he renounced her; on the right, five actors in costume as Medea, her children, Jason, and, presumably, his new wife, Glauce, speak and pose before the camera with reiterated gestures and move in a sort of dance, embracing or fighting, like the figures in the bas-relief, within an unadorned space. They address the viewer, announcing what will happen in the performance, which, however, is not explicated beyond these repeated statements. The term ritual recurs frequently, as if the stage action were an attempt to revitalize a forgotten ceremony. The sequence alternates between black-and-white and color, and the latter is deliberately old-fashioned, as are the costumes. In fact, everything in the film refers to a look that belongs to past decades—the color of the film and the costumes to the 1960s, the stage movements in the sequences without words to the American dance idioms of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

The other works, created in Rome, were all installed in the second room of the gallery. The installation Imperial Stones, 2010, consisted of three elements. A 16-mm film showed an uninterrupted series of marble squares, details of walls in the churches of Rome. The neutrality of the filming and of the sequence of squares, like a projection of slides, emphasizes the preciousness of the marble, its veining and color, bringing to mind in this simple way the formal richness of the antiquity that still lives on in the Italian capital. The second element of the installation consisted of a pink marble parallelepiped, perfectly carved but with its upper portion still rough, next to a pile of banknotes from a wide range of countries; none of the notes are in use any longer, thus evoking faded power and diminished splendor. One of the props used by the actress playing the role of Medea in Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, a large gilded shield riddled with holes, returned here as a split bas-relief, Falling Suns, 2009, consisting of two identical elements. Perhaps a weapon of protection, perhaps a ritual article, here it appeared as a precious object, gilded in bronze like an oversize jewel. But the last work on display really was a jewel—Gold Bees, 2009–10, a complex necklace embellished with gold and bronze pendants in the form of bees.

Perhaps the work that most fully embodies Mayer’s idea of classicism, still tangible in its forms but no longer in its original meanings, was the bas-relief Untitled (Rome), 2010, exhibited in the gallery office. Above a small but thick marble shelf were three white, oval forms: large ostrich eggs, which seemed to allude to an organic geometry, a cosmic symbology directly derived from and rooted in nature.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.