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Stedelijk Museum presents ‘Ulay Was Here’, the largest-ever retrospective of the artist

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is showcasing over 200 works by German artist Ulay, in the first international posthumous exhibition of the artist, titled Ulay Was Here.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : May 26, 2021

In a landmark exhibition, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam presents the oeuvre of artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, also known as Ulay, in the first retrospective since the artist’s passing in March 2020. Containing works from over the length of his career, Ulay was involved with the curatorial process of the show before his death. Titled Ulay Was Here, the exhibition brings together a number of previously unseen works by the German artist. Ulay cultivated a creative which was rooted in photography, and later branched out into fields of performance and body-based art. Ulay Was Here is a curation of approximately 200 works of art. Much of Ulay’s most pioneering work was done in partnership with performance artist Marina Abramović, during their 12-year-long personal and professional partnership. However, Ulay’s remarkable contribution to the space of performance and photography endures well beyond collaboration.

S'he (1973-74), a series of three original Auto-Polaroids | Ulay Was Here | Ulay | STIRworld
S'he (1973-74), a series of three original Auto-Polaroids Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation

Ulay Was Here examines the entire oeuvre by pivoting around four key themes that amplify the contemporary relevance of his work: his focus on performance and the performative aspects of photography; his research into (gender) identity and his body as a medium; his engagement with social and political issues; and his relationship with Amsterdam, the city where he lived and worked for four decades.

Renais Sense Aphorism (1972) by Ulay | Ulay Was Here | Ulay | STIRworld
Renais Sense Aphorism (1972) by Ulay Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation and Marina Abramović Archives

This exhibition stands as the first posthumous international show featuring Ulay, as well as the largest ever retrospective of the German artist’s portfolio till date. He is perhaps best known for his work with Polaroid photography. Concerned with ideas of gender and the politics which shroud it, Ulay would explore and examine identity through various body modification processes, which he would document through photography. These processes made space for performance to be presented as a dynamic work of art, rather than limiting himself to the static documentation of it.

Retouching Bruises by Ulay | ULAY WAS HERE | Ulay | STIRworld
Retouching Bruises by Ulay Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation

Ulay was born in Germany in the year 1943. This introduced him to the world of war and politics at a very young and impressionable age, as the world was undergoing the tumult of World War II at the time. At age 14, his father gifted him a camera. This was a significant moment in his journey as an artist, although his more deliberate work with the camera began later at age 20. His inquiry into the space of performance was accelerated by his relationship with Marina Abramovic, perhaps the most widely known performance artist of today. During the course of this relationship, which lasted from 1976 to 1988, the pair conceptualised and performed a number of iconic works which have paved the path for contemporary performance art as we know it today. This includes pieces like Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), Imponderabilia (1977) and Rest Energy (1980). Great Wall Walk (1988), which marked the end of their relationship, was a performance which comprised the two artists starting at either end of the Great Wall of China, and walking towards each other, meeting at the middle and then parting ways. The duo had a fairly publicised relationship, owing to the personal and intimate nature of their performative work. Due to this reason among others, a later solo performance by Abramovic titled The Artist Is Present (2010) at MoMA became viral when Ulay volunteered himself as a participant in the interactive piece. This took place many years after their separation. Abramovic and Ulay pushed themselves and each other to survey the peripheral extremes of emotional and physical distress through their art. For both, the body continued to be the keystone of their creative research. While Abramovic continued to swim in the realm of performance, Ulay returned to furthering his investigation with polaroid and photography.

Imponderabilia (1977) by Abramovic and Ulay | Ulay Was Here | Ulay | STIRworld
Imponderabilia (1977) by Abramovic and Ulay Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation

The exhibition at Stedelijk Museum brings together the many facets of Ulay’s repertoire, piecing together his life through his work. This includes the move from his home country to Amsterdam in 1968, which he saw as a space for freewheeling counterculture, openness, and ‘constructive’ brand of anarchism. Ulay even helped to establish the De Appel, a renowned institution in the art world today. A part of the exhibition is a series of online videos with guided tours through the exhibition spaces and special stories about Ulay Was Here. The videos feature gallery director Rein Wolfs, curator Hripsimé Visser, as well as Hana Ostan Ožbolt, director of the ULAY Foundation, Ulay's son Jurriaan Löwensteyn and Marina Abramović.

Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977) by Abramovic and Ulay | Ulay Was Here | Ulay | STIRworld
(Left): Breathing In / Breathing Out (1977) and (Right): AAA AAA (1978) by Abramovic and Ulay Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation

The exhibition will continue to be on display until May 30, 2021. These dates are subject to change, owing to the global outbreak of coronavirus.

White mask from the series Renais Sense by Ulay | Ulay Was Here | Ulay | STIRworld
White mask from the series Renais Sense by Ulay Image: Courtesy of ULAY Foundation

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