The films of Ursula Mayer (born Ried im Innkreis, Austria, 1970, lives in London) reflect upon and dismantle elements of cinematic narrative. Referencing architecture, the Modernist avant-garde and the beginnings of Hollywood's Golden Age, Mayer's loosely constructed fictions engage in a dialogue with the conventions of the moving image. Mayer's trilogy of films, 33 Portland Place, Keeling House and Villa Mairea (2005-6), centre on the image of a female performer moving slowly around an architecturally significant interior (a Victorian house, a modern cluster building and an Alvar Aalto house respectively). Without scripted dialogue, the trilogy unravels in a dreamlike exploration of the relationship between the living and the built. This connection is central to much of the artist's work. The film Interiors (2006), for example, portrays two women wandering through the London home of architect Ernö Goldfinger and his wife Ursula, a house which was a meeting point for the 1930s intelligentsia.
Mayer extends these issues of identity and architecture in The Crystal Gaze (2007), the work she is screening as part of Nought to Sixty. In this eight-minute film, three female actors languorously move through the grand interior of Eltham Palace in South London. Their luxurious 1920s dresses - a shimmering sequined bodysuit, a satin cocktail gown and an ethereal negligee - compete with the splendour of the stunning Art Deco surroundings. The alluring textures and figures, the slow movements of the camera and the soft piano music - an extract from Peggy Lee's tragi-comic song Is That All There Is - create a cinematic image that is at once seductive and strangely familiar.
However, The Crystal Gaze uses this opulence as a background for a dislocated and complex script. As the first character walks down the stairs - with an ease reminiscent of Rita Hayworth - a voiceover announces, "the first time I saw you I began to fantasise about you and I coexisting." This statement sounds like the start of a standard flashback, but Mayer (using a written script for the first time in her film career) defies such a conventional narrative. Instead, the voluptuous characters recite quotations on desire, fame, possession and abandon. They could be talking to each other, but the answers don't match. Phrases are superimposed and looped, their utterances teeter and occasionally collapse into a murmur of sensuous repetition.
Like much of Mayer's work, The Crystal Gaze challenges the temporal linearity of the filmic medium. The actors' lines alternate between past and present tense, and the film, shot primarily in colour, is regularly interrupted by short sequences in black and white. These disturbances jumble the contemporary and the historic, the 'now' of colour with the 'long ago' of black and white. The frequent shifts in the dialogue from "I" to "us" accentuate these gaps and hint at a shared history that binds Mayer's elusive characters together. The stranger-companions of The Crystal Gaze seem to exist both for, and in total opposition to, each other. They are brought together and pulled apart in stagy, subtly homoerotic choreography, highlighting their conflicting desires for independence and for a validating gaze. Prisoners of a titillating scenario reminiscent of Sartre's Huis Clos, the protagonists of this filmic ballad are, in the end, their own captors.