The art world mourns the disappearance of Frank Uwe Laysipien, one of the most important exponents of performance art. The artist, commonly known as Ulay – pseudonym which he used throughout his artist career, adopting it right after leaving Germany to live in the Netherlands as a stateless person – passed away in his residence in Ljubljana (Slovenia) on March 2nd 2020 following an illness diagnosed in 2009.
Born in Solingen in 1943, the artist began his career by dedicating himself to photography and experimenting with new ideas that included his body. For Ulay the body was the medium par excellence, the perfect sphere in which to investigate the identity, external aesthetics and the inner self. He considered the body as the «medium par excellence, that which allows us to live and create. The only art object that speaks, breaths, hears and thinks. To Joseph Beuys, who said “every man is an artist”, I reply, “I am an artist even when I sleep”».
Between 1968 and 1976 the artist embarked on a search of self, playing with his female double and triggering reflections on the genre: iconic are the photographs that portray him with make-up on only half his face, or that have word games fixed in the image, or focused on the form the body possesses and what it can become, until it transforms into a performance.
This continuous playfulness with the camera lens and his transformism led Ulay to become an important exponent of performance art, it was further consolidated by his meeting with Marina Abramović, with whom he embarked on both a private and artistic relationship from 1976 through to 1988. Together they created the series called Relation Works, a performance focused on the body as an expressive medium as well as a work of art in itself. Some of their works have become international milestones.
After the intense period lived with Abramović, Ulay dedicated himself mainly to photography, though never distancing himself entirely from performance art as he continued to involve the public in his shows, seminars and conferences. In 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer, moment in time in which he brought to life his last work entitled Project Cancer: a documentary in which he traces the highlights of his life and career through interviews, photographs and videos. For a whole year, starting at the end of 2011, Ulay was followed around by cameras while he traveled to visit friends around the world, a voyage in which he questioned the wonders of life and nature. The documentary, directed by Damjan Kozole, was released in 2013.
Ulay died in his Ljubljana residence at the age of 76; the news went viral in just a few hours, appearing on many newspapers. He was a radical artist, difficult to classify, but always faithful to his concepts and beliefs. His artistic production is marked by the contamination from both photography and performance art because the true art work, as he himself stated, was always his body.
When the newspapers reported his disappearance, headlines such as “memorable companion or former partner” of Marina Abramović were used, focusing on a period of his life and artistic career that in reality only lasted 12 years. Needless to say, he was much more both on an artistic level as well as a human one – even though the years with Abramović were years of intense understanding, exhausting actions and games capable of testing the psychic and bodily limits. Love, anger, fondness, hate are just some of the feelings they encapsulated in their performances. To retrace their relationship, between 1976 and 1988, listed below are some of their performances; among them those performed in Bologna, the moment of their official separation and their emotional and moving meeting at MOMA during the exhibit The Artist is Present.
Imponderabilia, 1977, Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna – Bologna
In the week from the 1st to the 6th of June 1977 Renato Barilli, together with Roberto Daolio and Francesca Alinovi, curated the International Perfromance Week – an event which happened at the same time as Arte Fiera. During that week, the artists took turns performing in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (which was adjacent to the art fair). Among those present were also Marina Abramović and Ulay, who for Imponderabilia performed at the entrance of the Gallery as motionless statues, facing one another, and forcing visitors to pass between their naked bodies.
Relation in Time, 1977, Studio G7 – Bologna
For this performance, which took place on October 10th 1977 at the Studio G7 gallery in Bologna, Marina and Ulay spent seventeen hours sitting back to back in silence, united only by their hair weaved together.
The Other: Rest Energy, 1980, FilmStudio – Amsterdam
The key element of this performance – one of the shortest made by the duo – is suspense. In a piece published by MOMA, Marina Abramović stated, «In Rest Energy we actually hold one arrow on the weight of our body and arrow is pointing my heart. We have two small microphones on our hearts where we can hear the sounds of our hearts beating. As our performance is progressing heart beats become more and more intense and it’s just four minutes and ten seconds, for me it was, I tell you it was forever. So, it was really a performance about complete and total trust».
The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, 1988
After a 12 year relationship, the two artists decided to separate and to do it they put together an extraordinary performance. Following numerous attempts and requests they finally managed to obtain permits from the Chinese government to put this performance into action: they each started from the two far ends of the Great Wall – Marina from the eastern end, Ulay from the western one – to eventually meet in the middle; they covered thousands of kilometers in order to say their goodbyes and end their symbiotic relationship.
The Artist Is Present, 2010, MOMA – New York
In 2010 Marina Abramović created and performed The Artist is Present, a lengthy performance in which the artist sat motionless at a table meeting the gaze of visitors who took turns sitting in the chair opposite hers. The performance lasted three months and the artist met more than 1,000 strangers, establishing infinite amounts of connections between glances and arousing (in herself as well as in others) deep and contrasting emotions. Though, undoubtedly, the moment of greatest emotion was when Ulay, whom she hadn’t seen for many years, surprised her by sitting in the chair opposite hers.
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Translated by Ludovica Sarti