Artist of the Week - Ulay
Having a relationship with a fellow artist is in much like walking on a slippery ground, especially if the fellow artist is continuously present (in the media). Since Marina and Ulay were working together and sharing a mutual interest and passion, they were inseparable for quite a while, from 1976-1988. Once the neo-avant-garde duo stopped being a couple, the blame had to fall on one of them eventually. One thing kind of led to another, and Marina Abramovic became a world famous celebrity, which left little space for Ulay to progress. Now, due to all the stories told by Marina, people usually know one side of Ulay, which she never explicitly condemned or rejected, but she did talk about the issues related to her own emotional pain after the break-up. Marina became an icon which people can relate to, slightly associated with feminism, and so brutally honest that she evokes empathy in everyone. Consequently, Ulay is left with stories which bring him down, and which usually address Marina. But what about the artist himself? Can we try to talk about Ulay for once, without mentioning the name of Marina Abramovic? Since she was already mentioned in this foreword, let’s use the next couple sentences to talk about Uwe Frank Laysiepen – better known as Ulay, a German, Ljubljana-based artist, one of the protagonists of Performance Art.
Auto-Polaroids and FOTOTOT
Most of us know Ulay because of his works related to Performance and Body Art, but that is not what he was originally trained for. He started out as a photographer, working for Polaroid, as their consultant. It is also what brought Ulay closer to art, and made him start his decades-long research on identity, body and gender issues. His first works were Polaroid photographs, and some intimate performances, followed by aphorisms. The photos from this period remain famous to this day, especially the sHe series from 1974, in which the artist treated his face as a canvas, divided into two parts. One side of his face is treated as a face of a man, and the other is covered in make up, shaved and inexplicably feminine. These photographs are also precious because they were prototypes of today’s selfies, true auto-portraits, made in a homey atmosphere. They belonged somewhere between photography and performance, and they paved the way for Ulay to start doing more engaging projects, which involved the audience and were executed in public. Ulay never thought of himself as a photographer, he preferred to be dubbed a conceptual artist, fascinated by the phenomenology of the photographic medium. Due to his education and practice, he was one of the few people who had enormous knowledge of photography, but who deliberately chose to use the medium for other achievements. His other famous series from this period was FOTOTOT (Photo Death) from 1976, which was aimed at dismantling the supposed objectivity of photography, and showing it as a complete illusion.
Back to Performance Art
Since we said that we won’t be talking about you-know-who this time, we’re going to skip a few decades and fast-forward to the recent past, and the present. Being a free-thinker, particularly dismissive of nationality, Ulay had a few participatory performances during the 1990s, which were directly engaged in criticizing the European Union and its expansion project. Playing with human senses and opposing the visual and the tactile, this line of works brought Berlin’s historical sites to light, as a purely aesthetic experience, ignorant of national references. Later in the 2000s, he had a few notable participatory projects, which were primarily focused on social and technological developments. His most recent works were, however, related to one very simple occurrence – water. He delved into the subject quite deeply, referring to it from an intimate, from an objective, and an environmentally-aware point of view, making his latest performances and activities mainly socially engaged.
Two days ago in Geneve, Ulay performed in the same space that he used to perform 39 years ago (with Marina). With this piece, Ulay returned to a more intimate form of performance, with an indefensibly nostalgic approach. The soul-touching performance titled Invisible Opponent was accompanied by a documentary film Performing Life, in which he presented his struggle with cancer. The movie eventually helped the artist fight the invisible opponent successfully.
Featured images in main slider: Ulay, portrait via bpigs; Ulay – Renais Sense (1975). Other images: Ulay – Ulay – Auto-Portrait from the series Renais sense, 1974; Ulay – Polaroid Aphorisms series, 1972 – 1975; Ulay – Ulay Life-Sized 2000; Ulay – Sweet Water, Salt Water – Romancing a Paradox, 2012 / Ulay – I-con (glass of water), 2012; Ulay – Invisible Opponent, Geneve, 2016. All images used for illustrative purposes only.