Ulay /   Frank Uwe Laysiepen

Germany 1943 - 2020

Performance Art, Photography


Frank Uwe Laysiepen
March 2, 2020
Alias of Jasmina Sevic, a researcher and author for Widewalls. She graduated from the Faculty of Political Science (Department for Journalism) in Belgrade in 2013.

It takes a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, to understand Ulay, said Marina Abramović about her long-term life and art partner. Ulay, a German-born performance artist and photographer, was best known for his collaboration with Abramović as well as his Polaroid works from the early 70s and various photographic experiments from the 90s. Ulay’s artistic trajectory has yielded an unusual oeuvre of primitive Polaroid photography and conceptually oriented approaches which include both performance and body art. The artist has received a lot of international exposure due to the radical and innovative nature of his performance which addresses a wide array of human feelings and needs.

Ulay and Abramovic, 1993 – image via ensemblesmhkabe.com

Cosmopolitan Free Thinker Attracted by the Provo Movement

Frank Uwe Laysiepen, best known under his artistic pseudonym Ulay, was born in 1943 in Solingen, Germany. Ulay was a formally trained photographer, with extensive experience in Polaroid photography, which was his departure point in the world of life. In the early 1970s, as a young man interested in counter-culture movements, Ulay decided to move from Germany to Amsterdam because he was curious about the anarchistic principles of the Provo movement. This movement was a Dutch counterculture current active in the mid-1960s and it was focused on provoking violent responses from authorities by using non-violent bait. It wasn’t until the moving to Amsterdam that Ulay has truly and deeply dedicated himself to photography. Analogue polaroid photography became his favorite medium and the topic of immersive self-examinations his signature style. His early series such as Auto-Polaroids, Photo-Aphorisms, Renais and Polagrams, explore the human condition and also the way our bodily experience can be turned into an artistic one. Ulay’s art avoided any aestheticization and it revolved around the raw intensity of emotions experienced in front of the camera.

Analogue polaroid photographs became Ulay’s favorite tools of self-expression

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Ulay – Polaroid Aphorisms series, 1972-1975 – Courtesy of MOT international

From Polaroid Photographs to Great Performance

In the early era of his career, from 1968-1976, Ulay was investigating the notions of identity and the body not only on personal but also on a more universal, communal level. Around the same time, he became interested in intimate creations and performative photography, which is the main topic of his Fototot series from 1976. In the later stages of his photographic career, performative tendencies became much stronger and Ulay has embraced the medium of performance and actions, while photography became a discipline of secondary importance. This radical change in style became evident in his series There Is a Criminal Touch to Art, from 1976. When it comes to Ulay’s autobiographical collages from 1974, called the Renais sense series, they are innovative in the sense that they infused a certain postmodern expression into the concept of the split-self and androgyny. No matter the fact that the Dutch social system in the 70s was was very liberal and permissive in terms of gender, the explicit visual representation of androgyny and generally speaking constructed gender was deemed controversial or even repulsive. In many works from the same Renais sense series, the transgender identity is merged with the idea of androgyny and all these pieces address the similar human feelings and needs – the desire to reach some kind of unity or completeness, to retrieve the lost self. Various erotic experiences helped Ulay understand that the moment of erotic fusion liberates the subject of the regular bonds with the self and his series S’He is built around this concept of the pair that becomes a unity. Ulay’s another series from 1976 called Fototot (Photo Death) has a different objective – it aims at unveiling the illusion of photographic objectivity. In many ways, Fototot series emphasizes Ulay’s strong commitment to objectivity, which he remained loyal to throughout his artistic career.

In the later stages of Ulay’s photographic career, his performative tendencies became much stronger

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Ulay – Soliloquy, 1974-1975 – Courtesy of MOT international

Collaboration with Marina Abramović

From 1976 to 1988, Ulay has collaborated with Abramović, another widely renown performance artist originally from Belgrade in ex-Yugoslavia. Two of them were partners in both life and career and their numerous collaborative works are considered some of the most groundbreaking performances ever done. Marina and Ulay were focused on the exploration of masculine and feminine traits and their roles, along with the pushing of physical limits of the body, which can be seen in their famous Relation Works from 1976, where they ran into each other continuously for an hour. Another important works from the same period are Breathing in/Breathing out, in which the two of them connected their mouths and took in each other’s breaths until lost their consciousness due to carbon dioxide, or Imponderabilia from 1977, where Marina and Ulay stood completely nude in a doorway of the gallery so that visitors must squeeze between them in order to enter. Their AAA AAA from 1978 and Rest Energy from 1980 also have received a lot of public exposure. In 1988, after several years of quite tense and explosive relationship, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spectacular spiritual journey that would make a suitable end of their mystical and powerful relationship. In a fearless and daring performative piece called The Great Wall Walk, they walked the Great Wall of China starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. After the break with Marina in 1988, Ulay decided to focus on photography again, but this time, he investigated the position of marginalized individuals in modern society. The best examples of this new direction of his career are Berlin Afterimages, from 1994-1995. Ulay’s solo work, as well as his collaborative pieces with Marina Abramović, have been featured in numberless collections of major museums and galleries all over the world and even until recently, in 2016, the artist regularly organized both solo and group exhibitions. His most important shows took place at the eminent institutions such as Stedejlik Museum in Amsterdam, Centre Pompidou in Paris and MOMA in New York. Ulay has lived for more than four decades in Amsterdam but he also participated in a few challenging, long-term artistic projects in India, Australia, and China. In addition to this, he also worked as a professor of performance and new media at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe in Germany.

Abramović and Ulay were focused on the exploration of masculine and feminine traits and their roles, along with the pushing of physical limits of the body through art

Ulay and Marina Abramovic – AAA AAA, 1987 – image via pomeranzcollection.com

Introducing New Topics : Popular Pieces from the 90s onwards

In the early 90s, Ulay has produced a very consistent body of work, since he was working on his own again. The pieces from this period include Polaroid photos of studio performances, travel photography as well as several photo experiments called Photograms and Polagrams. After the completion of these works, Ulay abandoned the self-identity issues and started concentrating on different projects, which explore the realm of new social and technological advances. His piece entitled The Delusion. An Event about Art and Psychiatry, held in the summer of 2002 in the Netherlands, is an example of the artist’s participatory approach, while his Cursive and Radicals from 2000 and Johnny – The Ontological in the Photographic Image from 2004 are a revival of Ulay’s previous efforts of rendering reality as an extremely objective way. The same principle is used in his WE Emerge from 2004, made in collaboration with AoRTa center in the Republic of Moldova. When it comes to his more recent projects from 2013, 2014 and 2015 they revolve around Ulay’s concerns about water consumption and various environmental issues. Also, it is important to mention that in 2016 Ulay made a new performance , entitled The Invisible Opponent, which was held at the Musee d’art et d’histoire of Geneva, 39 years after his first performance there, with Marina Abramović, in 1977.

In 2016, Ulay made a new performance project entitled The Invisible Opponent

Ulay – The Invisible Opponent Performance, 2016 – Photo Credits Mike Sommer

Video Works and Movies : Project Cancer

In 2009, Ulay moved from Amsterdam to Ljubljana in Slovenia. Around the same time, his plan to make a video or precisely speaking a movie on his career way already on its way, but since he was diagnosed with cancer, all the talks and plans related to this movie had to be changed. The earliest movie scenes were recorded in November 2011 at the Ljubljana Institute of Oncology, where the artist had to undergo various chemotherapy treatments. Luckily, these treatments were successful and Ulay’s health improved. Since he started feeling better, he decided to travel and visit his friends around the world in a so-called farewell trip. The camera has followed him to Berlin, where we attended the premiere of Marina Abramović’s film, then he headed to New York City and back to Europe, to his beloved Amsterdam. Ulay considered his illness, cancer, as one of the most challenging projects of his life and this was the reason he entitled the movie Project Cancer. The film was directed by Damjan Kozole and released in 2013. It has its own Facebook page and website, where the technical details are available.

The artist planned to make a video work on his career, but since he was diagnosed with cancer, he had to change the initial idea

Exploring the Limits of Human Body and Mind

Through his bold collaborations with Marina Abramović addressing the gender roles as well as his experimental Polaroid photography and other solo works geared towards the issue of self-analysis, Ulay has explored the very limits of the human body and mind starting back in the early 70s. By doing so, he has become one of the pioneers and founding fathers of performance and body art, which are nowadays considered some of the most important non-traditional artistic disciplines. Ulay’s innovative approach is appreciated for its mysteriously alluring, almost hypnotizing atmosphere able to stir emotions of the most diverse people.

Ulay died in Ljubljana on March 2nd, 2020, after a battle with lymphatic cancer.

Ulay lived and worked between Amsterdam, Netherlands and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Featured image: Ulay’s Portrait – Photo Credits Emre Yunusoğlu

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Ulay MOTInternational Brussels, BrusselsSolo
2016Ulay/Abramović 1975 - 1983 Galerie Michael Janssen - Berlin, BerlinSolo
2016Priere De Toucher – Der Tastsinn Der Kunst Museum Tinguely, BaselGroup
2016Ulay & Abramovic: Prière De Toucher – Der Tastsinn Der KunstMuseum Tinguely, BaselGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Silence out loud Museum Kranenburgh, Bergen NHGroup
2015Moving Time: Video Art at 50, 1965–2015Broad Art Museum, East LansingGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Favorites Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt/MainGroup
2015What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now Irish Museum of Modern Art - IMMA, DublinGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Harmonie und Umbruch MARTa Herford, HerfordGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Fire And ForgetKW Institute for Contemporary Art ,BerlinGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Gender in Art Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK), KrakowGroup
2015Off-Biennale Budapest 2015 OFF-Biennale Budapest, BudapestGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Back to the Future Annet Gelink Gallery, AmsterdamGroup
2015Ulay & Abramovic: Liebe Rudolf-Scharpf-Galerie, LudwigshafenGroup
2015Tout ce qui se fait sous le soleil le lieu unique, NantesGroup
2014Al desnudo. Colección Ordóñez Falcón de Fotografía TEA Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, Santa Cruz de TenerifeGroup
2014Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art The Gund Gallery at Kenyon College, Gambier, OHGroup
2013Ulay MOT International, LondonSolo
2013Ich bin Ich Salon Dahlmann, BerlinSolo
2013Marina Abramovic and Ulay: Rest Energy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ONSolo
2013Only To Melt, Trustingly, Without Reproach Galerija Skuc, LjubljanaGroup
2013Ulay & Abramovic: Inter[In]Vencao Forum Eugenio de Almeida, EvoraGroup
2012Faces Ernst Museum Budapest, BudapestGroup
2012Second Modernity Upstream Gallery, AmsterdamGroup
2011Im Schatten der GewaltNeue Galerie Dachau, DachauGroup
2011Aboriginal Afterimages Fotodok, UtrechtGroup
2010The Body as Sculpture - Marina Abramovic & Ulay Musée Auguste Rodin - Paris, ParisSolo
2010Great Walk Talk - Ulay C-Space, BeijingSolo
2010Word for word, without words Mestna Galerija / City Art Gallery Ljubljana, LjubljanaGroup
2010Ulay & Abramovic: Hunt & Chase Salomon Contemporary Warehouse, East Hampton, NYGroup
2009Become Galerija Skuc, LjubljanaSolo
2009Pourquoi Attendre !Centre d´Art Contemporain Geneve, GenevaGroup
2009RECORD>AGAIN! Kunsthaus Dresden, DresdenGroup
2008Fotografija, Ki Je Ni Piran City Gallery, PiranGroup
2008The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now SFMOMA, San Francisco, CAGroup
2007Gehen bleibenKunstmuseum Bonn, BonnGroup
2007Video TrajectoriesMIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MAGroup
2006Ulay & AbramovicHaifa Museum of Art, HaifaSolo
2006hidden treasures - various works by gallery artists Art Affairs Gallery, Amsterdam Group
2006Embodied Time - Art VideoLewis Glucksman Gallery, CorkGroup
2005EDITIONS - photography, works on paper, jewelry by gallery artists Art Affairs Gallery,Amsterdam Group
2005Contenance - Fassung Bewahren Württembergischer Kunstverein, StuttgartGroup
2004new works from the johnny seriesArt Affairs Gallery, AmsterdamSolo
2004A Short History of Dutch Video Art Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, ShanghaiGroup
2004Ambulantes. Cultura portátilMuseum het Domein, SittardGroup
2003Corpus Christi _ Christus-Darstellungen in der photographieDeichtorhallen Hamburg, HamburgGroup
2003Pressing Flesh - Skin, Touch, Intimacy Auckland Art Gallery, AucklandGroup
2002photography - a choice by willem van zoetendaal Art Affairs Gallery, Amsterdam Group
2002Amsterdam Revisited - Adam & Eve: On sex, tolerance de Appel Boys' School, AmsterdamGroup
2001Taking over Bildmuseet, UmeaGroup
2001the body’s performance - photography Art Affairs Gallery, Amsterdam Group
2000Ulay - Performing Lightde Appel Boys' School, AmsterdamSolo
2000kursive und radikaleArt Affairs Gallery, Amsterdam Solo
2000What is that thing called photographyMuseum het Domein, SittardSolo
2000Taking over - an art project by Andreas GedinBildmuseet, UmeaGroup
2000 ULAY / ABRAMOVIC retrospectiv Art Affairs Gallery, Amsterdam Group
1999StimuliWitte de With Center for Contemporary Art, RotterdamGroup
1999Ulay & Abramović Musée d'Art Contemporain Lyon, LyonGroup
1998Ulay - Martine Stig Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam - SMBA, Amsterdam Group
1998Ulay - Abramovic. Performances 1976 – 1988Tramway, Glasgow, ScotlandGroup
1997Ulay & AbramovicStedelijk Van Abbemuseum, EindhovenSolo
1997Deutschlandbilder Martin-Gropius-Bau, BerlinGroup
1997Ulay & Abramovic: Animalities Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, BrusselsGroup
1996L'oeil du collectionneurMusee d´art contemporain de Montreal, Montreal, QCGroup
1996L'art Au Corps / Le Corps Exposé De Man Ray A Nos Jours MAC Musees d´Art Contemporain Marseille, MarseilleGroup
1995Ulay & Abramovic: 3e Biennale de Lyon biennale d'art contemporain de Lyon, LyonGroup
1995Ulay & Abramovic: Feminin-masculin: Le sexe de l'art Musee National d'Art Moderne, ParisGroup
1990Ulay & AbramovicCentre Pompidou - Musee National d´Art Moderne, ParisSolo
1987Ulay & AbramovicGalerie René Blouin, Montreal, QCSolo
1987Ulay & AbramovicCAC - Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center,Cincinnati, OHSolo
1986Ulay & AbramovicMusée d'Art Contemporain Lyon, LyonSolo
1986Nightsea Crossing: Three-day meditation piece by Abramovic and Ulay New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, NYSolo
1986Marina Abramovic and Ulay: Modus Vivendi MIT List Visual Arts Center,Cambridge, MASolo
1985Ulay und Marina Abramovic. Modus Vivendi Kölnischer Kunstverein,CologneSolo
1985Ulay & Marina Abramovic: modus vivendi 1980-1985Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, EindhovenSolo
1984Ulay & Abramovic: Nightsea Crossing SMAK Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, GhentSolo