Intro: Known for his provocative collaboration with fellow performance artist Marina Abramović, Ulay shot to international fame as one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century. Ulay’s artistic career is summarized by a radical and profound photographic and performative exploration of the human experience, the human body, and the human psyche. Ulay and Marina as an artistic pair managed to investigate the limits of the human body and relationships, and are since remembered as one of the most iconic couples of the art world.
The Young Ulay: Photography And Self-exploration
Frank Uwe Laysiepen was born in a wartime bunker on November the 30th, 1943 in the German city of Solingen. Having lost both his parents by the time he reached his 15th birthday, Frank had to cultivate a strong sense of self-reliance and independence.
In 1968, interest in the Dutch anarchist counterculture Provo-movement and a desire to shed a self-described feeling of ‘Germanness,’ urged Laysiepen, now going by the artistic name Ulay, to relocate to Amsterdam. There he began work as a consultant for Polaroid between 1968 and 1971 which helped him form a more extensive understanding of the mechanics of cameras and ultimately led to his experimentation with analog photography. His early work showcased in series such as Photo-Aphorisms, Auto-Polaroids, Renais sense, and Polagrams, highlight analog polaroid photography as Ulay’s preferred medium of self-expression and signature style.
The first period of Ulay’s artistic activity (1968-1976) was characterized by a number of self-portraits, performances, and aphorisms. These presented a raw, non-aestheticized, immersive exploration of issues revolving around identity, gender, and the body as both a personal and communal object. One such work is his 1973 series entitled S’He, in which the artist investigated issues of gender and bodily and mental completeness by introducing a transgender identity. This self-exploration of the human psyche and body, shined through also in his 1974 series Renais sense, in which Ulay illuminated the idea of an androgynous self and the search for spiritual completion.
The beginning of 1976 and onwards marks the shift from polaroid photographs to ground-breaking performances. The Fototot series, for example, was a collection of intimate portrayals of performative photography that centered around the illusion of photographic objectivity. His embrace of performative tendencies culminated in his series There Is a Criminal Touch to Art, exhibited in 1976 where the change of artistic style becomes clearly evident.
Ulay And Marina: For Art And For Love
From 1976 onwards and until 1988, Ulay devoted himself mainly to Performance art following his fateful meeting with Serbian powerhouse artist Marina Abramović in 1976. His collaboration with the well-known performance artist Marina Abramović is regarded as Ulay’s most influential time in the Performance art and Body art sphere. The two partners, both in life and work, focused on exploring the juxtaposition of the feminine and the masculine, the endurance of the human body, and the existence of non-verbal communication.
Their seminal work, Relation Works of 1976 presented Ulay and Marina performing tasks of strenuous physical exertion. In another work from the same period Breathing in/ Breathing out, Abramović and Laysiepen exchanged breaths until they lost consciousness, while in their famous AAA AAA performance from 1978, they proceeded to scream at each other until they lost their voices. Ulay and Marina were known to challenge their physical safety in order to explore the limits of the human body, as seen in their now well-known performance piece Rest Energy, performed in 1980, in which Ulay pointed at Marina with a bow and arrow held by Marina’s own weight.
Performances such as these enshrined both Frank Uwe Laysiepen and Marina Abramović as widely renowned performance artists and solidified Body art as a radical form of artistic expression and exploration. Ulay’s collaborative pieces with Abramović have been displayed in a number of major museum and gallery collections; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to name just a few. Their works are considered some of the most influential and ground-breaking pieces of Performance art to date.
By 1988, after several years of artistic collaboration and tense relationship, the pair decided to mark the end of their relationship by performing a groundbreaking performative piece named The Great Wall Walk. In a deeply spiritual and daring feat, Ulay and Marina began walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China until they eventually met in the middle for a final goodbye. The two artists had cited that such a powerful performance piece was necessary in order to provide closure to their long, tumultuous relationship. It had also taken the pair eight years to acquire the Chinese government’s permission to enact their final piece, by which time their personal relationship had completely dissolved.
Following their Chinese piece, Ulay and Marina did not collaborate, nor communicate with each other until Abramović’s 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present, in which Marina sat in silence with audience members who sat opposite her at a table. Although Abramović and Laysiepen had met the morning of the exhibition, Ulay and Marina shared a deeply emotional moment when Ulay surprised Marina by deciding to sit opposite her in silence and participate in her performance piece.
Life After Marina: Ulay’s Solo Work
After his break with Marina, Ulay returned his focus to photography, producing a very consistent body of work. His artistic activity in the early 90s consists of several Polaroid performance photographs and travel photography. During this time Laysiepen attempted to explore the position of marginalized bodies in a modern context, as seen in his 1994-95 work, Berlin Afterimages, and in the Photograms and Polagrams series. At this moment Ulay also began experimenting with audience participation, evident in his Can’t Beat the Feeling: Long Playing Record from 1991–92 and Bread and Butter from 1993.
With the entry of the 21st century, Ulay’s artistic focus drifted from investigations of gender and identity and he began concentrating more on issues regarding the technological advancements of the time and the effort to produce an extremely objective rendering of reality in his photography. These themes are present in his 2000 pieces entitled Cursive and Radicals, and in his Johnny- The Ontological in the Photographic Image, from 2004, while in his 2002 piece, The Delusion. An Event about Art and Psychiatry, held in the Netherlands there is evidence again of the artist’s approach to audience participation. In the years following, from 2013 till 2016, Ulay created a number of works concerning an array of environmental issues.
During this time, Ulay planned to create a film dedicated to his artistic journey, but plans had to be delayed due to the artist’s 2009 diagnosis with cancer. Although production of the movie was delayed, footage of medical appointments and chemotherapy treatments were released in 2011 in a video-art piece now entitled Project Cancer. Directed by Slovenian filmmaker Damjan Kozole and released in 2013, the film Project Cancer followed Ulay as he traveled to Berlin, New York, and Amsterdam, visiting friends and viewing exhibitions after his medical treatments proved successful. Ulay had noted that his battle with his illness was one of the most challenging projects of his life, giving its name ultimately to his biographical film.
Ulay spent four decades living and working between Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Ljubljana, Slovenia. He had also produced several long-term projects in Australia, India, China, and Europe while also working as a professor of Performance and New Media Art at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe in Germany. He had been awarded multiple awards throughout his artistic career, including The San Sebastian Video Award (1984), The Lucano Video Award (1985), The Polaroid Video Award (1986), and the Video Award – Kulturkreis im Verband der Deutschen Industrie (1986).
Marina Abramović has stated: It takes a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, to understand Ulay. True as that may be, Ulay has managed to influence countless artists entering the Performance art sphere. He has received international exposure thanks to his daring approach to polaroid photography and Body art and is being hailed today as a pioneering figure and a founding father of an artistic medium that is considered today as one of the most crucial radical forms of artistic expression.
After his re-diagnosis with lymphatic cancer, Ulay passed away in his residence in Ljubljana in Slovenia on March 2nd, 2020.