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|Born||Frank Uwe Laysiepen
November 30, 1943
|Known for||Performance art|
Ulay (real name Frank Uwe Laysiepen German: [fʁaŋk ˈuːvə laɪˈziːpn̩]; born November 30, 1943 in Solingen, Germany) is an artist based in Amsterdam and Ljubljana. Since 1971, he is known in all the artistic circles as Ulay, a pseudonym that combines the initial of his name with the first syllable of his surname. Ulay received international recognition through his radical actions and Polaroid works from the early seventies, followed by the collaborative performances with Marina Abramović (Relation Works 1976-1988) and his photographic experiments from the 1990s until today. His artistic trajectory amounts to a radical and historically unique oeuvre, situated at the intersection of photography and the conceptually oriented approaches towards performance and body art.
His lifelong struggle with his sense of “German-ness” turned him into a modern nomad, a cosmopolitan free thinker whose identity has never been defined by nationality. In the early 1970’s, as a young man, he moved to Amsterdam, attracted by the constructive anarchy of the provo movement. Here he began a lifelong adventure in photography. Analogue photography, Polaroid in particular, became the chosen medium for a body of work spanning from radical self-examinations (Auto-Polaroids, Photo-Aphorisms, the anagrammatic collages from the series Renais sense) to life-size Polaroids and Polagrams, exploring what Andrè Bazin referred to as “the ontological in the photographic image”.
Since the beginning of his career, when Ulay started the archive of Auto-Polaroids, he uses the body as a starting point for interrogating the meaning of the human condition, investigating how this affects his experience of space and how a bodily experience can be translated into an artistic one. His act of comprehending the world is the very practice of reality and this cannot be dissociated in terms of its relationship to the self or to the body, nor can it be extricated from the context in or against which it has chosen to take a stance. This way of accessing knowledge through the intelligence of the body offers a fundamental rationale for his predilection for photography and performance. So, whereas photography entails translating experience into image while at the same time conveying an impression of involvement, performance is par excellence a medium of the body, relying on a different type of participatory experience, one that involves a confrontation with his audience. Ulay’s radical practice of the body stands out in how it avoids aestheticization, and also in its preference for self-analysis, as this can best ‘document’ the true intensity of the emotion experienced in front of the camera or the audience.
Ulay’s 1974 autobiographical collages from the Renais sense series take the concept of the split self to a different level, prefiguring a postmodern expression, years before the paradigm shift from modernity to post-modernity had largely been acknowledged. The modes of display as filmic successions and series of actions were not very common at the time, as well as the artist’s strategy of dealing with his identity vacuum through gender issues. Although the Dutch social and artistic climate at the time was quite permissive in terms of gender, the overt visual representation of a constructed gender was perceived as scandalous and controversial.
In other works from the same Renais sense series, the hybrid identity and transgender visual rhetoric is replaced by the representation of the androgynous. These works translate different feelings and needs: the desire to obtain an androgynous unity and to retrieve the lost Self through the fusion with his beloved. Extreme erotic experiences led Ulay to a sort of illumination, coming to understand that in the moment of erotic fusion, the subject is completely liberated of his bond with the self, making room for a sense of plenitude and equilibrium. Among these experiences, his relationship with Paula Françoise-Piso is of special importance, because she played more than the role of a muse. The series of works, suggestively entitled S’He and signed with the composite name PA-ULA-Y, anticipates the communion of the pair that becomes a unity, a unity to be later perfected and materialized in the relationship with Abramović.
Even though not many artists can boast a knowledge of photography as broad as his, Ulay never presents himself as a photographer; instead he considers himself a conceptual artist fascinated by the phenomenology of the photographic medium. Precisely this knowledge of the technical potential of photography opened up new perspectives for him on how to use the medium, how to escape it, stretch it or subvert it. The two consecutive actions entitled FOTOTOT (Photo Death), realized in 1976 at De Appel in Amsterdam, are the first in a line of experiments that aim to dismantle this myth of photographic objectivity. In these happenings, he shows that photography consists of a set of practices that are meant to technically stage the apparition of an image, but that the image only seems to correspond to reality, and is ultimately nothing but an illusion. Intervening in this ritual of ‘staging’ the image by eliminating the fixing phase of the photographic emulsion from the process, the artist abruptly interrupts the chain of signification through image. The act of contemplating the vanishing images until they became nothing more than black rectangles could be perceived as a sort of a warning, and a meditation on what happens inside the Black Box of photography. But it is also a critique of a new type of ‘idolatry’ and of a form of mastering the medium: if the artist cannot defeat the camera’s built-in program, he can at least overpower the process of producing and distributing the illusion. This approach once again explains his lifetime predilection for photographic experiments and primitive forms of photography such as Polaroids or Photograms. In many ways, these FOTOTOT actions are emblematic: they assert Ulay’s strong commitment to objectivity, a commitment to which he would remain loyal throughout his life. And it also prefigures the articulation of a radical critique that questions the validity of the photographic approach in the absence of the artist’s own artistic program.
In 1976, after meeting Marina Abramović, his identity quest moved from the gender issues and anagrammatic visual expressions to even more radical approaches, and the last work that he signed as an individual artist was the transgressive action in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin: There is a Criminal Touch to Art – Corresponding to a Situation. This action represents a key work within Ulay’s oeuvre, as it emphasizes not only his fight with his own German origin and the historical legacy of Nazism, but also points out the problematic situation of minorities within post-war German society. As a reaction to these failed post-war ‘denazification’ processes, Ulay symbolically dislocated the ‘identity icon’ of Germanness (the painting Der arme Poet by the Romantic painter Carl Spitzweg—who was Adolf Hitler’s favorite painter) from the Neue Nationalgalerie and relocated it in the home of a Turkish immigrant family in one of the poor neighborhoods of Berlin. He photographed the work in its new context, and shortly thereafter called the museum director to come and see the new display of the artwork. By performing such a radical act, he wanted to shed light on the immigrants’ condition, stressing that Berlin’s old glory as a symbol of Prussian power had been replaced by the Cold War rhetoric and the humiliating division of the German nation into two entities within the same city. Ulay had arranged to have this action recorded: Jörg Schmitt-Reitwein (the former cameraman of Werner Herzog) filmed the action from a vehicle that was following the van the artist was driving and eventually followed him during the last part of the act into the Turkish family’s home.
Relation Works - the collaborative period with Marina Abramović
In 1976, when Ulay and Marina Abramović decided to live and work together, they made a commitment to each other, as expressed in their Relation Work’s Art Vital manifesto: ‘Art Vital: No fixed living place, permanent movement, direct contact, local relation, self-selection, passing limitations, taking risks, mobile energy.’ Their highly charged conceptual performances were not only radically new in terms of performative expressions, but also in terms of the how the couple’s relationship was involved in the production of meaning. Their experience of life and creation is inextricably linked to the experience of totality, both as artists and as a couple. Their destiny was a singular one in recent art history, as they have not only embodied the idea of magnetic attraction between the opposites, but also the desire to experience and express artistically the metaphysical necessity of completeness, which manifests itself in the deepest of loves.
Although they began their career together at a time when most of the artists who practiced performance had already concluded these forms of practice, Ulay and Abramović have shown that performance art is not conditioned historically, but is instead a medium with infinite expressive possibilities. Their performances cannot be categorized in any way, for they are not only self- expressions, but are also magnified life-expressions that manifest themselves beyond provocative and existential dramatization.
In the years of Relation Work (1976-1988) that refer to the collaboration with Marina Abramović, Ulay controlled the outcome of the documentation of their joint performances in terms of photography and video.
Works after the 1990s
After the separation from Marina Abramović in 1988, Ulay produced in the early nineties a very consistent body of work of his own: Polaroid photos of studio performances, travel photography, and several photographical experiments that are unique within the history of photography, such as monumental Photograms and Polagrams.
Ulay’s use of the camera is explorative, both in the direction of technique and of the imagery: sometimes the camera functions as a tool to register and document, sometimes it is an existential prosthesis for someone observing and participating in living reality. Both conceptually and technically, Ulay considers the Polaroid to be central to his work: this technique makes possible the “life” transference of bodies, light, dust, identity, desire onto a light sensitive emulsion. All photography experts consider his monumental Polaroid photographs – one of them being the largest ever made, namely a 288 x112 cm Polagram in the Rabobank Collection, Utrecht, The Netherlands- as unique examples of the use of this technique as a conceptual tool.
By the end of the 1990’s, Ulay started investigating the role of the audience and its performative potential by creating participatory platforms that prompted ethical reactions. Can’t Beat the Feeling: Long Playing Record (1991–1992) was the first project conceived in this spirit, both in terms of participative experience and as a social experiment, and it was followed by Bread and Butter (1993), one of the most radical actions of that time that openly criticized the European Union and its expansion project. In the Berlin Afterimages – EU Flags series, he continues his critique on the new European imperial tendencies by subversively playing with the reversed images of the flags of the countries belonging to the European Union through a process of re-enacting the negative retinal phenomenon of forming afterimages. This series is essential within his career because it plays with the idea of familiarity induced by visual conventions, magnifying at the same time the indexical aspect of the photographic representation. The combination between the haptical and optical visuality creates a picture of a different quality that is new and provocative in all senses. Beyond the obvious references to the symbolism of national identities, these works bring to light Berlin’s historical sites as an aesthetic experience. The entire series functions as a unified discourse in which the space layouts refer to each other, but at the same time designate moments, or temporary phases, of a long transformation process of a city that still preserves German imperialist remains, as well as painful traces of the identity fractures from the Cold War.
After these works, Ulay abandoned issues related to self-identity and headed towards projects that explore new social and technological developments. He senses that in these new paradigms, art can claim to be contemporary only to the extent to which it exposes the nothingness and its own exhaustion, as figuration or embodiment. Consequently, in his works realized at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, the community itself became the place of exposure. As a result, visual representation took on a new function: to serve as a place of encounters, or as ‘social interstice’. This move towards a more social and situational form of artistic practice emphasizing Ulay’s new area of interest: participative art and participatory art projects. The project entitled The Delusion. An Event about Art and Psychiatry, held in the summer of 2002 on the grounds of the Vincent van Gogh Psychiatric Institute in Venray in the Netherlands, is an example of a participatory approach, as the artist used participation as a catalyst for and component of art making. In the Albert Cuyp Market session of portraits, the Luxembourg Portraits, as well as the gigantic photographic tableau in public space entitled A Monument for the Future, participation is the project. The artist created the event’s framework and documented it as it unfolded, being a participant himself. What resulted is an anthropological approach through portraiture that is not mainly focused on underlining the individuality of the subjects, but rather on emphasizing the spirit of these specific communities.
Revisiting Ulay’s works from the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s today, one notices his ease in understanding the essence of the paradigm of sociability, and his consistency in affirming the social as a unique source of bestowing significance and meaning to everyday life. The fact that Ulay again used the Polaroid in almost all the above-mentioned projects indicates his wish to authenticate these events, resorting to a technology that does not permit any ulterior manipulations. As in most of his works involving performativity, his interest lies in the overlap between photography and the participative act, whereby the life of the artwork exists in two places at once: first via the original event, and second within the very process of the image’s becoming on the Polaroid emulsion.
The new series of works, such as Cursive and Radicals (2000) and Johnny – The Ontological in the Photographic Image (2004), continued both his previous commitment of rendering reality as accurately as possible, and conserved the specific ‘ethics of vision’ that he practiced in analogue photography. The guiding principle of these series of works, like many of his previous Polaroid works, is that reality has to be described in a ratio of one to one. Although the explicit intention is to emphasize the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical, the final result is a visual expression that does not exclude the metaphorical; the idea that the image can be ‘clear,’ ‘clean,’ ‘lucid,’ or ‘ethical’ is in fact a further use of metaphor employed to organize and frame this ontological meta-discourse.
A continuation of these concerns can also be found in the project WE Emerge (2004), realized in collaboration with AoRTa art centre in Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. This particular approach articulated a rather voyeuristic investigation that enabled the photographic image to function as a picture about making pictures. By photographing a local photographer in his private studio, while the photographer himself is taking photographs of young women who are posing, Ulay challenges the viewer to observe the shift from one reality to another. Consequently, the resulting pictures are imbued with the effort of making visible the several layers that make the difference between the ‘photograph,’ defined as a basic reproduction of what he sees, and the second-order expression of reality, which is the (constructed) ‘image.’ These series of works bring to the fore questions about constructed identities and their further dissemination, raising several ethical issues related to the economic exploitation of the image of women in countries that suffered radical transformations, such as the Republic of Moldova.
In his recent projects about water and environmental issues, Ulay proposes a different type of reading of our contemporary world, through a reflective process that focuses on the very meaning of water for life. In other words, his interest does not lie in magnifying historical, ideological and political aspects, or in underlining the central role that water has played in various beliefs throughout the world, but specifically in acknowledging how objectified water has become in modern society, and what are the consequences of its privatisation for the living world. The water projects mark the apotheosis of his belief that in order to portray a major issue, visual representation is not always necessary. A stylized representation of the water issues seemed totally inappropriate to Ulay, as it diminishes the essential features of the subject and the subject itself loses its strength. Therefore, he employs art as a form of witnessing that might contribute to a kind of awareness, able to generate a change of perspective.
In a 2011 interview, he stated:
Recently I decided that whenever I meet someone, I should introduce myself as “Water.” Think of it: our brains are about 90 percent water, our bodies about 68 percent. Not even Waterman, simply Water: it makes people curious, they say, “pardon?” and I say again “Water."
This immediately starts a conversation and creates an awareness about it. This new name conveys my deep concern about water.—Ulay, Brooklyn Rail Interview, May 2011
Prizes and awards
- 1984: The San Sebastian Video Award
- 1985: The Lucano Video Award
- 1986: The Polaroid Video Award
- 1986: Video Award – Kulturkreis im Verband der Deutschen Industrie
- Modus Vivendi. Ulay & Marina Abramović 1980 -1985, ed. Jan Debbaut; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1985
- Ulay, Portraits 1970 - 1993, ed. Frido Troost; Basalt Publishers, Amsterdam, 1996; ISBN 978-90-75574-05-0
- Ulay. Luxemburger Portrats, authors: Marita Ruiter, Lucien Kayser; Editions Clairefointaine, 1997; ISBN 2-919881-02-7
- Ulay/Abramović. Performances 1976 -1988, authors: Ulay, Marina Abramović, Chrissie Iles, Paul Kokke; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1997; ISBN 90-70149-60-5
- Ulay - Berlin/Photogene, ed. Ikuo Saito; The Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art, Kameyama, 1997
- Ulay / What is That Thing Called Photography, artist's book; Artists' Books Johan Deumens, Landgraaf, 2000; ISBN 90-73974-05-4
- Ulay. WE EMERGE, authors: Thomas McEvilley, Irina Grabovan; Art Centre AoRTa, 2004; ISBN 9975-9804-1-4
- ULAY. Nastati / Become, authors: Thomas McEvilley, Tevz Logar, Marina Abramović; Galerija Skuc, Ljubljana, 2010; ISBN 978-961-6751-27-8
- Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramović and Ulay, Together & Apart; author: Thomas McEvilley; McPherson & Company, 2010; ISBN 978-0-929701-93-6
- Marina Abramović. The Artist is Present, authors: Klaus Biesenbach, Jovana Stokić, Arthur C. Danto, Nancy Spector, Chrissie Iles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010; ISBN 978-0-87070-747-6
- Glam! The Performance of Style, Tate Publishing, London, 2013; ISBN 978-1-849760-92-8
- Whispers: Ulay on Ulay, authors: Maria Rus Bojan, Alessandro Cassin; Valiz, Amsterdam, 2014; ISBN 978-90-78088-72-1