Frank Uwe Laysiepen: Ulay
Posted on April 11 2020
Now it's up to us to rediscover his work: multifaceted, outside the box, free from any mercantile and uncompromisingly radical logic. Ulay was a pioneer of Polaroid photography and the concept of performative photography, a prominent exponent of European Performance Art and Body Art of the 70s, a precursor of ecological militancy through art and the role of the artist as a stripper of the concept of identity (national, sexual, political). Yet, even among "experts" he is known almost exclusively as the companion of art and life of Marina Abramović during the twelve years of collaboration, 1976-1988, which marked both of their careers.
Second meeting, a few months later in New York: he immediately reaches the point, he is looking for an accomplice, he wants to write an autobiography in the form of interviews, and he thinks he has identified the right person in me. "You know how to listen, you ask unusual questions and you have no prejudices". We make a weekly appointment via Skype, but it doesn't work: we both need real contact. So on the push of the critic and curator Maria Rus Bojan we decide to meet at regular intervals in person. From 2010 to 2013 we set interview times: every few months, a week-long tour de force with 6 hours a day of interview in Amsterdam, Lake Orta, Ljubljana, and New York. I set myself the goal of exploring the connective tissue between his life, his work and his anarchist Weltanschauung. We proceed by themes, places, and ideas, without chronology. Hours and hours of recording that will become, together with an essay by Rus Bojan, a book / interview, Whispers Ulay On Ulay (536 pages, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2014).
In the last year of preparation of the book, Ulay has an acute form of mantle lymphoma, undergoes repeated cycles of chemotherapy and hospitalizations, facing the disease with rare serenity and courage. He never wanted to stop working, we continued the interviews before and after each hospitalization: showing powerful physical and psychological strength.
The moment of exposure and contact with the public were always attempts to dialogue, to build an ideal community, sometimes even violent confrontation and mutual misunderstandings. An irrepressible curiosity, a strong moral tension and the need for freedom led him. To evoke the man and the artist, I choose four emblematic moments / works.
Ulay - The temporary identity builder
In 1969, after leaving the art academy without finishing it, he took his car, two books, a typewriter and a Polaroid and left Germany to move to Amsterdam. He leaves behind a commercial photo lab, a wife and a three year old son. He wanted to "de-Germanize" and build a new identity. It will be a definitive caesura.
“I left Germany because of a strong conflict that I felt. I disagreed with what was happening in my country socially, politically and economically. In Germany I was unable to discover myself ”. In the hippies and Provos' Amsterdam he saw the antidote to the "cocktail of material interests and industrial power that dominated in Germany".
As soon as he arrives he takes on a new name, and synthesizing name (Uwe) and surname (Laysiepen), he simply becomes Ulay. (Years later, discovering that ulay in Hebrew means perhaps, he will be happy with the coincidence) The first Polaroid series, self-portraits and collages, in which he often disguises himself as half man and half woman, are an attempt to answer questions that he will keep on asking himself during all his life: who are they? Who can I be? Who do I want to be?
Changing names (he has done it several times in his career) is always the sign of the beginning of a new artistic phase. 40 years later, when the ecological emergency becomes a primary component of his work, he focuses on access to drinking water in various parts of the world. "Lately, when I introduce myself to someone, I reach out and say 'pleasure, Water'. Not Waterman, simply Water, water. Our brains are 90% made of water, and our body is 68% water. The interlocutor is curious and asks, please? I answer, Water, and this immediately starts the kind of conversation I want to instigate. "
Ulay - the provocateur.
Berlin Action - There is a criminal Touch to Art.
In 1976, Ulay met Marina Abramović. Love at first sight that soon turns into a symbiotic union. They decide to collaborate, but before starting each one completes an individual job. In December Marina is invited to Berlin for a series of performances, entitled Freeing the Body. Ulay follows her to Berlin to photograph her. Once there, he planned his own action. The idea was born by visiting the Neue Nationalgalerie where he came across Carl Spitzweg's famous painting, Der arme Poet (The poor poet). Romantic figurative artist of the Biedermeier era, Spitzweg was Hitler's favorite painter. Not only that, but anyone who attended the school in Germany, Der arme poet, was presented as "the German painting of the 19th century", in a way that is no different from how I Promessi Sposi presents itself in the Italian school. In that picture Ulay identifies what he was looking for as a political / artistic action.
Along the Berlin wall, in those years Kreuzberg was growing, a semi-clandestine neighborhood populated by Turkish immigrants, subject to discrimination and violence. Ulay had spent hours taking photos it . Then he goes back, fraternizes with a Turkish family to which he explains he is a contemporary artist who wishes to bring the issue of Turkish immigration to national attention. He asks to visit their home. In their living room-kitchen he notices a painting on a wall. He asks for permission to return a few days later, and to replace it with another painting and photograph it with the family around. An half an hour deal that the family agrees to. Ulay returns to the Neue Nationalgalerie to focus on his plan, like a robber visiting a bank before the hit. The Spitzweg painting is located in a semi-basement, in a room with two large wooden doors that guarantee air conditioning. To reach the exit there is a flight of stairs, then a large hall with the ticket office and revolving access doors. Imagining that the revolving doors lock in the event of an alarm, attention goes to a small side emergency exit. That door, probably also connected to the alarm, has a seal that hopefully jumps if pushed hard. He writes down the whole path, and the next day he goes into action.
Amidst the screams of the guards and the public Ulay is out, chased by three guards who do not hesitate to shoot him in the legs just missing him for a bit. In the race, he stumbles on the gravel made slippery by the snow and falls, gets up, runs again, arrives at the van and runs away. (The escape is documented by Jorg Schmidt-Reiwein, an operator, stationed in another van). Immediate, the chase of the police and the special anti-terrorism bodies starts (they assumed it was an attack by the Baader-Meinhof gang). Driving the van, Ulay hears the hum of the helicopters following him.
Once in Kreuzberg, he reaches the apartment of the Turkish family, replaces the picture on the wall and takes photos of Der arme poet with the smiling Turkish family around. Then, he goes down the street and from a telephone booth calls the museum, asks for the director and says: My name is Ulay, I'm an artist, I want you to come and take back the picture and gives the address in Kreuzberg. In a few minutes the block is surrounded by special forces in riot gear. The museum director together with policemen, incredulously inspect the picture (fortunately unharmed) in the living room of the Turkish family and arrest Ulay. The next day for the first and only time, Ulay and his action make the front page of the major German newspapers. Arrested and sentenced, after all extenuating circumstances, to 56 days of imprisonment, Ulay is released from prison on bail and runs away to the Netherlands (he will no be able to set foot in Germany for years). What is most striking about There is a Criminal Touch to Art, this is the title he will give to the action, and which will remain a constant in Ulay's work, is having conceived and dealt with the action, relying and leveraging exclusively on his own body. - agility, speed, strong nerves. The body alone, naked and vulnerable, becomes an instrument and artistic language as well as a political struggle. "I never thought that we can change the world with art. But to bring attention to uncomfortable issues, yes. "
Ulay describes it thus: “A man and a woman, seated on opposite sides of a table, motionless, in silence. That's all". The performance is the result of a series of trips around the world, new interests, philosophies, and approaches to life. After years of extreme exploration of movement, sound, and physical strength, with Nightsea Crossing, they ask themselves if the mere physical presence, their "being with the public" is enough for one to speak of performances. It is an attempt to reduce everything (their performer job, but also human experience) to the minimum terms. And to compare West and East. At the origin of this work is their trip to Australia 1980. "We found ourselves alone in the Central Australian Desert with temperatures reaching 48 degrees. At those temperatures, immobility is almost mandatory. Watching a reptile that breathes is a sight and perhaps the best you can do. In that heat you can only vegetate, like a plant. Before you move, you ask yourself ten times if it's worth it. Living in those circumstances made us think in a completely new way about what movement is, action and I would say life. It forces you to save energy and eliminate anything superfluous. On the other hand, it makes you discover the beauty and mystery of being. What it simply means to be ”.
A work of enormous duration, ambition and purpose, Nightsea Crossing required 5 years of preparation. “We wanted to put ourselves in the ideal physical, mental and spiritual condition to be able to undertake the new performance so we went to India. We have been vegetarian for 5 years. It was a way to increase mental clarity in view of the long fasts that Nightsea Crossing would entail. " To prepare for immobility they approached meditation. “We soon realized that meditation would be a necessity, moreover, the lifeblood of work, so we went to Bodhgaya to study Vipassana. That ancient form of meditation was essential for us in order to learn how to manage internal and external sensations during the performance, as well as physical pain and hunger. But the biggest gift I had from meditation was learning not to think, not to hold back thoughts. Vipassana meditation is a luxury and a very useful tool in daily life as well as in the most extreme situations ".
Ulay - scale 1:1 ontological photography.
Ulay had an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects - optical, chemical, mathematical, industrial - of analog photography. Edwin Lang, the inventor of Polaroid instant photography, in the early 70s, selected 10 artists including Ulay, to whom he always gave free access to subsequent Polaroid machines and an unlimited amount of film, to explore their creative potential. From then until a few months ago, Ulay has continued to explore this invention at 360 degrees, which condenses exposure, development and printing in a single moment. When Ulay spoke of Polaroid, understood as a camera, it was as if he was talking about a lover who never ceased to amaze him. In his home in Amsterdam he kept a vast archive of his photographs taken with Polaroid: cataloged and preserved as a treasure. He was proud to say that in his entire life he had not sold more than five of his Polaroid photographs!
Around 1980 Lang built a few studio specimens of the 40X80 model housed in a wooden structure of about two square meters that produces superior definition images of the best digital cameras today. He had conceived it to take the best possible photographs of the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. From the start Ulay sensed that this camera could fulfill his dream: to photograph the human body, in a 1: 1 scale. Together with Chuck Close, Lucas Samaras and Julian Schnabel, Ulay is the artist who mostly used the Polaroid 40X80, sometimes physically entering the camera and manipulating the film with plastic gloves during the instant development.
The challenge of creating photographic images that do not make the subject smaller has accompanied Ulay in different moments, with or without the help of the great Polaroid. During his stay among the Pitjantiatjara Aborigines in the desert in southern Australia, Ulay developed the idea he will call afterimages. At night, in the soft light of a fire, he fixes wooden frames of 1.80cm X 70cm in the ground, like doors, and covers them with photographic paper. He asks the Aborigines to dance one at a time in front of these "doors". During the dance he activates a flash that gives enough light to catch a trace of the dancing body on the photographic paper, then treated with a fixative. The result is phantasmagorical “presences”, precisely afterimages.
Ulay's work, as a whole, has not yet been the subject of critical analysis, except for the contributions of Thomas McEvilley and Maria Rus Bojan. I want to conclude with an invitation to rediscover Ulay, starting from his 1: 1 scale Polaroids, where the correspondence between image and subject raises profound artistic and ontological questions. “Photography for me retains an alchemical element, a magic. There is no art without magic. "
Ulay Life-Sized, curated by Matthias Ulrich, Schirin Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Spector Books, 2016
Whispers. Ulay on Ulay. Maria Rus Bojan and Alessandro Cassin. Valiz, Amsterdam 2014
Art, Love, Frienship Marina Abramovic and Ulay Togther & A Part, Thomas McEvilley, Documentext. McPherson and Co, New York, 2010.
Ulay The First Act, Uwe Laysiepen and Thomas McEvilley, Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 1994.