Remembering the life and art of German provocateur Ulay

The performance artist’s recent death, on March 2, invites a re-examination of his practice, from his early years as a photographer to his later collaborations with Marina Abramović.

by Utkarsh Published on : Mar 12, 2020

“It is with great sadness I learned about my friend and former partner Ulay’s death today. He was an exceptional artist and human being, who will be deeply missed. On this day, it’s comforting to know that his art and legacy will live on forever.”

These are the words that accompany two photographs that were posted by the performance artist and filmmaker, Marina Abramović, on her Instagram account. The photographs span decades, but this distance is bridged by a simple swipe. The first image is of a young Abramović and Ulay, from their performance titled Relation in Time (1977). They sit facing away from each other, their hair knotted into a dark mass. The second image is from a more recent time. An older Ulay stands holding a mic in one hand as the other embraces a smiling Abramović, her eyes glistening.

In her extended performance titled The Artist is Present (2010) at MoMA, Abramović sits silently, across from an empty chair, when Ulay surprises her with a visit. They sit in silence, as a gaze lingers. Abramović extends her arm over the table to hold hands and a loud applause ensues. The little piece of video documenting this interaction becomes viral.

03 mins watch Ulay sits across Marina Abramović, during her performance titled The Artist is Present, at MoMA, New York, USA, 2010 | Tribute to Ulay | STIRworld
Ulay sits across Marina Abramović, during her performance titled The Artist is Present, at MoMA, New York, USA, 2010 Video Credit: Courtesy of Youtube

Many years ago, between 1981 and 1987, Abramović and Ulay conducted a series of performances titled Night-Sea Crossing, inspired by their time spent with the Aborigines of the Australian desert. The duo would seat itself still across a table, usually made out of mahogany, and stare at each other from that distance, for a duration of eight hours. It was a feat of utmost patience that outlined the difficult difference between ‘presence’ and ‘being present’.

In a 2017 interview, Abramović recounts how the performance was the ‘beginning of the end’ for their relationship, not just as collaborators, but also as lovers. The growing distance served as a creative fodder for the series, which they performed over 22 times at different locations. That is how it was for them, the art indistinguishable from the lives they led; Ulay indistinguishable from Abramović.

For years, I saw Ulay as just a part of what was otherwise Abramović’s practice. His own identity as an artist, obscured by the collaboration. To quote Ulay himself, he is ‘the most famous unknown artist’.

25 mins watch Live action performance titled An Action in 14 Predetermined Sequences: There is a Criminal Touch to Art, Berlin, 1976 | Tribute to Ulay | STIRworld
Live action performance titled An Action in 14 Predetermined Sequences: There is a Criminal Touch to Art, Berlin, 1976 Video Credit: Courtesy of Youtube

In 1976, Abramović was behind a film camera as she followed Ulay into the Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie, only to be stopped by an attendant who would reproach her for filming, after which a sequence of photographs would detail the action of Ulay un-mounting a painting titled The Poor Poet by the German romanticist painter, Carl Spitzweg, and leaving the premises with it. The entire documented action - Ulay preferred the word action over performance - was titled An Action in 14 Predetermined Sequences: There is a Criminal Touch to Art. As to whose touch the title refers and what predisposes criminality, was for the audience to ruminate over. After the theft, Ulay took the painting to the Kreuzberg district of Berlin where he entered the home of a Turkish immigrant, and replaced an imitation of the same painting with the original. The painting also happened to have been a favourite of Adolf Hitler.

A portrait of Ulay in Amsterdam, 1972 | Tribute to Ulay | STIRworld
A portrait of Ulay in Amsterdam, 1972 Image Credit:Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But much before that, a young Ulay had left a politically volatile Germany for Amsterdam, taken by the anarchism of the Dutch Provo movement. When Ulay arrived in 1968, all that he brought with him was a camera, a typewriter and a borrowed car. Never being the one to call himself a photographer, Ulay discounted any aestheticism of the medium, and began an obsessive practice, which still constitutes a large part of the legacy that he has left behind. He only shot using a Polaroid instant camera – taken by its immediacy and efficacy - calling his photographic results Autopolaroids, for their self-referential capacity.

The notion of identity and the almost malleable nature of gender became the foreground for works such as the photo-series titled S’he (1972-75), where Ulay retains attributes that are both masculine and feminine; at times, down to a symmetry that blanches half of his face in make-up and the other half left unshaven. S’he, is a composite of collages and single images that do not fixate over any one definition of the self, rather, obscuring itself in the many.

While there is a sense of political fatigue and anguish, in works such as Diamond Plane (1973), where a torso - Ulay’s - adorns a metal aeroplane pin, releasing a single drop of blood. Series such as Retouching Bruises (1975) stands as a gentle reminder of vulnerability, as impressions of fingers on the skin of the subject are reproduced onto the surface of the photograph, lending a sensitivity towards the materiality of the medium itself.

01 mins watch Performance titled Breathing In/Breathing Out recorded in Belgrade, Serbia, 1977 | Tribute to Ulay | STIRworld
Performance titled Breathing In/Breathing Out recorded in Belgrade, Serbia, 1977 Video Credit: Courtesy of Youtube

By 1976, with his work titled Fototot (photo death), Ulay had already begun to integrate the audience within his actions. Soon enough photography itself wouldn’t suffice his approach, as he would begin his seminal collaboration with Abramović, for 12 long years, creating works such as Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), AAA-AAA (1978) and Rest Energy (1980), exploring the collaborative nature of their work, the body in relation to time and the socio-politics of a gender binary.

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About Author

Utkarsh

Utkarsh

A writer and photographer based in New Delhi, he graduated from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and attended the Professional Photography Program at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka. Utkarsh is interested in the history of photography in South-East Asia and documentary practices in lens-based media.

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