Bomb shelter survivor, avant-garde photographer, and seminal performance artist Ulay talks love, art, and his big painting theft by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch. Originally posted on berlin-artparasites.com
The tiny, tasteful theatre at VeneKlasen Werner was packed—coats intertwined, vine-like around every structure upon which one might sit or stand near as guests milled around the gallery space sipping beer from the gallery tap and ogling the art. As 5:15 rolled around, we surged into our well-guarded seats and edged to the front of them to witness the tall, lanky gentleman in tweedish suit hand off a single flower to the curator at his right and settle into a leather chair for the duration. Ulay had arrived. The artist was present.
Beginnings and Endings
I was introduced to Ulay’s work years back, in graduate school, by a professor who never took off her sunglasses and lauded the audacious performance art that brought Marina Abramović and her partner Ulay to prominence in the late 70s and early 80s. Since going their separate ways during a final performance piece in which both performers, lovers, and partners walked 2000 kilometers of the Great Wall of China until they met in the middle of the wall and said goodbye, Marina Abromovic’s star has been on the rise. With a retrospective at MOMA, an HBO documentary, a performance at LACMA, and an appearance with James Franco at The Metropolitan Costume Institute, Abromovic has not shied away from the spotlight—but what about Ulay, her longtime performance partner and lover? Many of the performances recreated at Abromovic’s rock-star retrospectives came from the repertory of Marina and Ulay, many of the works so legendary in the cannon of performance art were originated by this quiet soul sitting on the dais and surrounded by spectators eager to hear his story.
The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth
Quietly, humbly, eagerly, and with candor, Ulay began by speaking about his first few months of life in a bomb shelter in Solingen, Germany. With the caveat that being born in a bomb shelter is no guarantee of an artistic future, Ulay described how his mother held his mouth open as the bombs fell to prevent his lungs from imploding. In later years, he spent his days wandering the ruins of the shelled city, noting how nature had overtaken the warped steel and demolished walls. By age 6, he could distinguish between iron, aluminum, and copper, and made pocket money selling each for scrap.
While spinning a tale of a more or less happy childhood, when Ulay begins to describe the ravages of the post-war landscape and the women tasked with cleaning up the mess, he begins with “you have no idea...you cannot understand what these women have gone through.” Goosebumps emerge, and it becomes clear that much of the grief, reflection and search for identity that drive his work are rooted in these early experiences.
After discovering photography and reveling in the realistic quality of the medium, Ulay begins processing film to make money, and racing cars to spend said money. Following his early marriage and attempts at making a life in Germany, the need to create and the desire to leave drove Ulay first to the border of what was then Czechoslovakia, and then to Amsterdam, where he lives and works to this day. His atelier, he tells us, is the street. His material is the fabric of social life, the development of identity.
After his father died, when the artist was only 14, his mother withdrew into herself and Ulay was effectively orphaned. Engaging with the polaroid as a mirror, Ulay reflects on the thousands of self-portraits he took in his early days, dressing as a women, mutilating his feet, his skin, himself in the search for the “I” resting under so much meat and bone.
From Photography to Performance
After becoming fed up with photography’s ability to capture only the superficial, Ulay moved away from photography and embraced performance, and Marina. Explaining, “when I perform I make myself an art object - the only conscious art object that exists. No other art object has five senses and is conscious.” Ulay speaks animatedly about one of his ambitious ealry performances in which he enters the Neu National Galerie, with Marina filming on Super8, snatches Hitler’s favorite painting “The Poor Poet,” and makes his way to the home of a Turkish guest worker family where he replaces a painting of angels with the iconic “poet.”
As Ulay recalls the heist in great detail, he speaks with tremendous enthusiasm, unabated dedication to illuminating the link between ideology and institution. Later, he reflects that one of the reasons his relationship with Marina ended was due to their increasing renown. For someone who is always “flirting with anarchy,” becoming the institution he had long critiqued, and losing the individual identity he had searched for so long, was simply untenable.
If 80% of success is showing up, in his chat with Dr.Gillen, Ulay demonstrated the value of that final 20. The artist was not merely present, he was completely and utterly authentic, oozing integrity and rekindling in all of us an awareness of the awesome power of art.