In Memory of Ulay
The great performance artist, Ulay, was a friend of mine. He passed away 1 March 2020. I was asked to write a personal essay about him, in memoriam, for The Guardian, something that would differ from the obituary that they would run.
The final article can be read here.
Below is the "director's cut," as I wrote it before it was edited and altered, as always happens when freelance contributors write for The Guardian.
By Noah Charney
Last night, Uwe Laysiepen, the influential photographer, conceptual and performance artist, passed away. While the art world will mourn the loss of one of the greats of the post-modern era, I will miss him as a wonderful, kind man who happened to be an ingenious artist.
Ulay, like me, married a beautiful Slovenian woman and settled down on the sunny side of the Alps, in Ljubljana. We met through mutual friends, Slovenia’s most famous rock star, in fact, who threw a dinner party for us at his home. His wife prepared salt-baked fish and, as she cracked open the salt crust, I couldn’t help but feel the gush of a groupie as I looked across the table, through the window pane of steam, at a man whom I had studied in Art History 101.
Ulay was one of just a handful of living artists who are enshrined in most Introduction to Art History textbooks. You can find him in the last chapter, after you’ve combed over Lysippus and Giotto, Donatello and Michelangelo, Ingres and Picasso. There he is, usually in conjunction with his one-time, long-term romantic and artistic partner, Marina Abramović. Their work as a duo was seminal to the course of performance art in the late 1970s and 80s, but they were also great artists in their separate careers. Ulay began as one of the few official photographers for Polaroid in the 60s. While we think of his performance art (he always preferred the German word, aktion, or an action rather than a performance), most iconically his 1976 art theft as artwork, There is a Criminal Touch to Art, when he successfully stole Hitler’s favorite painting from a Berlin museum and brought it to hang on the wall of an impoverished Turkish immigrant family, before calling the authorities to come and retrieve it, he began as a photographer. His independent career also touched upon shifting genders, decades before this was a la mode. He invented a hybrid-gendered alter ego, Renais Sense, for which he made up one hemisphere of his face like a woman and the other like a man. He was a pioneer in body art, considering the body to be the artistic medium par excellence. Indeed, just last night, as it turns out he was dying, I was writing about him for a forthcoming book, featuring him in a chapter on shock as an artistic tactic. With Abramović, he explored the human body and its functions as artistic acts. In Imperonderabilia, one of the most famous performance artworks of all time, he and Abramović stood, naked, in a narrow doorway within a gallery, forcing visitors to shimmy past them, sidling sideways, confronting either his nakedness or hers, in order to access the gallery space. Early works as a duo included a performance in which they took turns slapping each other, interested in the sound this made. In another work, they repeatedly ran, naked, smashing into columns in a parking garage with their shoulders. The columns were unattached and had been rigged on sleds, so they would slide ever so slightly backwards with each strike. But they were heavy and caused bruising, nonetheless. Later works examined the physical capabilities of the human body other than pain. Nightsea Crossing (1981-1987) was a series of 22 performances over a total of 90 days in which the two artists would sit opposite each other, completely still, for many hours at a time. Both practiced ayurvedic meditation and trained extensively for these performances, which required incredible concentration and mental strength. In extensive interviews I undertook with Ulay, he explained how they trained themselves to “scratch itches with our minds.” The errant fly, not to mention audience members who made a game of trying to distract them (the way tourists might try to make a Buckingham Palace guard move from their rock-still stance) were among the obstacles.
Ulay and Abramović will always be intertwined, even though they eventually had a falling out (which I reported in The Guardian). After the lawsuit, the two met by chance, or fate, at an ayurvedic retreat in rural India. Ulay was there with his talented wife, designer Lena Pislak, who has been his constant companion, support and driving force for years now. But what could have been very awkward was not. The two artists decided to put the issue aside, and became friendly again, against all odds. Years later, they even discussed writing a joint memoir together.
After his split with Abramović, he continued to work and cultivate relationships with a younger generation of artists, curators, gallerists and people like me, an art historian. Artist JAŠA performed with Ulay in New York in 2016. Cutting Through the Clouds of Myth was Ulay’s first performance after a more than 25-year hiatus, and it was much-anticipated, but no more so than by his collaborator, an artist almost half his age. “His focus, his presence was a unique experience.”
There was a fatherly guru vibe about him. When he would email or text me, he would call me “Dear.” He took up activist causes, calling himself an “artivist” for clean water. He spoke poetically, eloquently, with the sort of phrases that you want to jot down, or carve in stone, falling like water from his lips, even in casual conversation. He once said, “"One can learn many things in life, but not art. The madness you need - the must which is shaking you all the time. You are an artist even when you are asleep. Because of the must." He was an artist to the bone.
His legacy will be kept illuminated by the Ulay Foundation, which opened last year in Ljubljana. It includes a gallery space and will host residencies for artist couples. “My entire artistic practice,” Ulay said, “is rooted in the belief that art has the capacity to contribute to life.” The goal of his foundation is to continue his legacy and support others who use art to contribute to life.
Ulay was, above all, a man of enormous warmth and kindness. I spent countless hours at his kitchen table in his sunny Ljubljana apartment, sharing his Marlboros and drinking a special healthful brew, which he liked to call his magic potion, that Lena prepared for him. We had planned to write a book together, but never found the time to finish it. He had beaten cancer twice already (once documented in the film, Project Cancer). Each time, he had gone on an ayurvedic retreat and that, combined with the help of the respected oncology clinic in Ljubljana, had sent his cancer into remission. Against all odd, with the loving support of those closest to him, he remained remarkably active, even in sickness. He said “death is the ultimate answer. But life is absolute.”
At one time he had considered his illness and the documentation of it as a type of performance.
It would be his ultimate aktion.