Born in 1943 in ()
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Biographie

Ulay's central concern in his existential search is his own "identity", urging him again and again to start afresh and to re-orientate himself. Photography and later on Performance as his medium of expression arose from a continual search for his social context in close connection with his political interest and various experiments with his identity, as a reaction to this rather than motivated primarily by the thought of working as an artist.

Uwe Laysiepen, born on 10th November in Solingen, grew up in the shadow of the post-War years in a generation filled by a sense of guilt about its recent past and by the need to prevent a repetition of National Socialism. By the time Laysiepen resolved to make a fresh start with a conscious decision in favour of art, he had already completed four years of preliminary studies in mechanical engineering (1957-61) and finished his business studies as assistant departmental manager (1962-67), had set up the first commercial specialist laboratory for colour photographs, and had married. In 1968, he went to Amsterdam, where he came into contact with the Provo-movement of 1968, photographed their actions, and enrolled for Photography at the Academy of Art in Cologne in the following year. There, he met Jürgen Klauke with whom he produced "Ich & Ich" (I & I), "the snapshot portrait of a chaotic psycho-sexual moment" (Ulay).

Self-taught, Uwe Laysiepen had already done a lot of photographic work; at the Academy, he experimented with new techniques, produced travel photographs of European cities for Polaroid International and was coming to grips with the Polaroid technique. During this period, he installed large-scale (10 x 12 metres) black and white pictures of petrochemical refineries in the cityscape of Amsterdam that filled apparently empty sites in order to draw attention to ecological problems. From 1972, there followed his autopolaroids which Laysiepen combined with aphorisms ("Renais Sense"), and he began to examine the scene of the transvestites, inviting them home, photographing them and moving amongst them as a "guest transvestite". During his intense relationship with Paula, a married woman, he moved away from the scene of the transvestites and experimented with self-laceration.

Uwe Laysiepen presented his first Performances with Klauke at the Gallery De Appel which from its foundation had been a forum for Happening art (Performances, lectures and installations, etc.), and which also mounted his first exhibition of the Polaroids. It was at this time that he changed his name to Ulay. One reason for his "Fototot" (Photodead) works criticising the audience was the attitude of the art-consuming public during his exhibition who seemed to hardly explore the works as such. "Fototot" eluded the recipient who at his next exhibition at de Appel's was led into a gallery room bathed in green light containing non-fixed photographic works; as the exhibition lights were switched on, all he he could view were quickly darkening images.

After his first encounter with Marina Abramovic at Stichting de Appel's, he performed a politically motivated live action in 1976 in Berlin with her assistance at the camera, entitled "There is a criminal touch to Art" (also called "The First Act") re-enacting the theft of the most popular German painting, "The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg, a painter revered by Hitler. Ulay went to the National Gallery of Berlin, observed by the camera, took possession of the picture and repaired to the living-room of a Turkish family in Kreuzberg where he swapped it for a print. Then he informed the Museum where they would find the painting – the action was intended to draw attention to the situation of Turkish immigrants and to German nationalism.

Ulay and Marina Abramovic met at one of her self-laceration Performances, and their strong attraction became the basis for twelve years of collaboration and partnership. Abramovic went to Amsterdam, and they began a nomadic, simple life with no fixed abode, living in a French Citroën, and embarked on their Relation works. In an interview with Doris von Drathen, Marina describes her first joint Performances: "We wanted to create a third self, independent of our own two selves: a self that we called 'TheSelf'. For both of us, it was an almost hermaphrodite situation."

Their Performances are dealing with the male-female principle and demonstrate extreme experiences in space and time, with the two usually nude performers acting against one other or with each other in a state of mutual dependence, or indifferently next to one another. The Performances generally ended at the point of physical exhaustion either due to the duration of 17 hours in "Relation in Time" where Ulay/Abramovic stayed back to back, tied together by their hair, or due to the intensity as in "Breathing in – Breathing out" or "AAA – AAA" where they either ran out of air or lost their voice.

The integration of the viewer as a performer is particularly prominent in "Imponderabilia" (1977) where Ulay/Abramovic stood naked at the entrance to the Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna in Bologna forming a guard of honour so that visitors to the museum were unable to get past without touching them and had to decide whose side to turn towards as they were passing. Thus it was the passage between the two performers which constituted the actual Performance space, with the viewer becoming a participant. In "Incision" (1978), a member of the audience who was part of the plan of the performers attacked Marina who was standing indifferently next to a toiling Ulay, providing a catalyst for the emotions of the audience.

According to Ulay/Abramovic, the Performance situation they had produced put them in a special state that had its own rules and allowed them to create a "choreographed existence" through their intimate communication of consciousness.

The early eighties saw the start of intensive journeys into the Australian desert where they found new energies, particularly for their spiritual path, in a secluded existence and in sharing the life of the aborigines. Up to 1983, there followed further trips to the Sahara, the Thar desert and the Gobi desert.

In "That Self", a video work consisting of several episodes, they dealt with the effect of hypnosis and tried to test it in several confrontations, for instance in the sequences 'Point of Contact' and 'Rest Energy' which are concerned with eye contact, highest concentration, tension and risk.

In "Nightsea Crossing", a meditative Performance cycle over ninety days in irregular succession, they set up their only props, a table and two chairs, and sitting opposite each other and looking at one another, went on to examine their presence and the factor time thus perceived as a relative entity in various places in the world.

There is a tendency towards staged scenes and "tableaux vivants", either on a stage with several performers, Tibetan lamas and aborigines on the occasion of the Holland Festival ("Positive Zero", 1983) or as a duo in a chosen exterior as in "Anima Mundi" on the steps at the front of a building in Bangkok or in a narrow Italian street. Other facets of their meditative Performances that work with allegorical elements and are subsumed under the title "Modus Vivendi" (1981-87) are illustrated by maintaining a tango pose in the midst of a rectangular table for the audience ("A Similar Illusion", 1981, Melbourne, AUS) or being placed in a room until the day is over ("Witnessing", 1981, Christchurch, NZ).

1988 – the year of their big China project "The Lovers – The Great Wall Walk", the hike along the Chinese Wall and their last joint work. After six years of calling at the Chinese authorities they were finally able to carry out their ninety-day walk from opposite ends at the east and west of the Wall whose mythological analogy is the dragon, until they would meet in the middle. The Performance, including reflections on the country and intended to mirror an intense encounter of two lovers, turned into a farewell walk – a second cleansing for Marina, walking as a "State of Being", a search for identity for Ulay as he was thrown back on himself – and marked the end of twelve intense years of working and living together as well as the way into a new beginning.

To Abramovic, the walk along the Wall was an emptying boat/an entering stream, a departure ("Boat Emptying/Stream Entering", "Departure", titles of her subsequent exhibitions), a putting to see, her exhibition about the China project, while in his photographs, Ulay was dealing with the filled or empty vase as an object of meditation and as an equivalent to the human body.

Ulay now returned primarily to photography, to the Polaroid. In "Water for the Dead" (1990), he exposed shadows of vases with reflections of light refracted in water, creating a series of large-scale Polaroids. As with other photographs, self-portraits that show him looking at smashed shards of pottery, he is interested in the immediacy of the technique of leaving a life-sized, almost corporeal imprint of the Polaroid emulsion, virtually operating as a camera and thereby conveying a physically realistic presence. For this he worked inside the camera, writing his texts and drawing the shapes of his vases onto photographic paper with light.

In 1996, he presented his "Photogene" at the Berlin Marstall, copies of the flags of the sixteen European countries in their original size and sewn in complementary colours, which produce the colours of the flags familiar to the viewer through his technique of negative prints from colour images. The symbols of the individual countries flapping in the wind in front of the Neue Wache recall the movement as well as something of the act of admission yet the reversed colours prompt a revision of this imagery fraught with symbolism.

In his Performance "The Motion Picture" of 1997 on the occasion of his exhibition in the Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art, Ulay combined his topical subject of "operating as a camera" with his early self-lacerating actions: Before the eyes of the audience, he developed a print of his body in a lift on photographic paper and carved the Japanese term for "photo" on his stomach – thus Ulay himself finds his identity in the role of the creator as well as the material/subject of his work. He lives and works in Amsterdam.


Lilian Haberer