Exhibition – Ich bin Ich: Ulay on Ulay

Organised by GNYP in cooperation with Salon Dahlmann, Berlin, 7th September – 6th October 2013.

A pioneer of Polaroid photography and one of the pivotal figures of European performance art of the 1970s and 1980s, Uwe Laysiepen, better known in the art world as Ulay, is a singular presence among the artists of his generation. His radically innovative past work in partnership with Marina Abramovic has lately reached the highest degrees of critical acclaim worldwide. At the age of 70 however, Ulay finally reveals his best kept secrets: a startling oeuvre, coherently rooted in a personal life philosophy guided by strong ethical principles. This inner moral coherence in his approach to art making is only one of the coordinates that distinguishes him from most of his contemporaries. His works assert his commitment to critical thinking, his rejection of any form of authority and the courage to distance himself from market-based criteria of artistic legitimization.

After gaining international notoriety during the 1970s and 1980s, Ulay has pursued his artistic endeavors largely away from the limelight of the media. This exhibition searches for the directional threads that merge the seemingly disparate aspects of his work into an ensemble of passionate pursuits, stemming from a rigorous, inner necessity. What transpires is a life lived without compromises, luminous in its intensity, often intersecting major art and social movements without deviating from his own trajectory.

Ich Bin Ich: Ulay on Ulay is not a monographic examination of Ulay’s work, but rather an attempt to explore the connective tissue between his life and work, through a series of selected works spanning several important decades in his creation. Generously hosted by Salon Dahlmann, this exhibition is put together by Marta Gnyp, a Berlin based art historian and art advisor and Maria Rus Bojan, an art historian and curator from Amsterdam who, for the past years has been working on Ulay’s first major monograph, to be published in November 2013 by Valiz Amsterdam.

Biography: Born in 1943, in a bomb shelter in Solingen, Germany, Ulay is a war child. His lifelong struggle with his sense of “Germanity” turned him into a modern nomad, a cosmopolitan free thinker whose identity has never been defined by nationality. In the early 1970s, as a young man, he moved to Amsterdam, attracted by the constructive anarchy of the Provo’s Movement, where he began a lifelong adventure in photography. Analogue photography, Polaroid in particular, became the chosen media for an idiosyncratic body of work spanning from early radical self-examinations (Auto-Polaroid , Photo-Aphorisms, anagrammatic collages) to life-size Polaroids and Polagrams, exploring what Andrè Bazin referred to as “the ontological in the photographic image”. His twelve-year partnership with Marina Abramovic, from 1976 to 1988, produced a radically innovative body of work that explored couple dynamics, pushing the boundaries of physical and mental endurance.

Their performances, initially carried out in alternative spaces attracted the attention of museum curators and ushered Performance Art into critical and media attention. Ulay and Abramovic’s final act, the Great Wall Walk, during which they each walked 2000 Km on China’s Great Wall toward each other, epitomizes their wish to blur the separation between life and art. Since the 1980s his travels and encounters with different cultures from the Tibetan Buddhists to Australian Aborigines, have broadened the scope of his humanistic approach and his view of mankind as transcending national, geographic and cultural barriers. His latest interest, the concern with artists’ representations of water, further merges ethical principles with a redefinition of art’s contribution to society.

Ulay and the Art of Living

October 9th 2013 – by Wouter Bernhardt

Yesterday we uninstalled the exhibition Ich bin Ich: Ulay on Ulay marking the end of Ulay’s brief touchdown upon the Berlin art scene. What can I recollect from these last few weeks?

So this is how it all began. Play this video backwards and you end up with yesterday.

Well, first of all, I had the pleasure of giving a few tours through the exhibition, each ending up being a completely different attempt to address what Ulay is all about. There was, for example, the tour I tried to give in German, resulting in abbreviations and simplifications of my otherwise outstanding art historical vocabulary. I remember talking to this magnificent old lady about what a ‘great painter’ Ulay is and that he liked to ‘act sexually’ in his work. Both not entirely untrue when told with a little joie de vivre

Or the talk I did before a German-Finnish business delegation, where I learned that my repertoire of carefully rehearsed heritage jokes could count on stern Finnish facial expressions, a raised eyebrow and, sometimes, a grin of uneasy misunderstanding. Luckily they relaxed a little after their second glass of champagne, so my comments on their peculiar language no longer seemed to strand in a grim Finnish Lapland of sorts.

The most memorable event however was the one that came most unexpected. I was heading to the gallery to check out an alarm that went off due to a piece of foil hitting a motion sensor, while, outside the building, sixteen people were waiting to get a tour through the exhibition. Apparently there had been a miscommunication, but of course I was able take them up and show them around. Obviously I didn’t expect anyone to be present at the gallery, so I was wearing eight-year old jogging pants, tucked in yellow-and-red-striped socks, gloves, a helmet and these special cycling shoes, which make you walk around as if you need to go to the bathroom constantly. They were quite skeptical at first, but, after reassuring them I studied things in university, my comical appearance gave way to one of the most interesting discussions on the exhibition I had so far.

It is always great to experience how these talks affect the way you see and interpret the exhibition and the works in it. And also how one conceives a narrative about an artist that is presented by over 40 years of work. Ulay is a remarkable artist that, although never characterized by one signature style, does appear to have some ground rules.

Ulay is someone for whom there is no clear distinction between the artist and the family man. And this lack of distinction can be seen in almost all of his pictures, himself or his actions constantly on display. He is a man who has a profound love for the photograph, first for the analogue photograph, experimenting with his own emulsions and paper, then for the miraculous world of the polaroid. He understood his medium like no other, re-discovering what a photograph could be and how this representation related to the real world; most beautifully displayed in his giant Polaroids of the 1990’s. Ich bin Ich: Ulay on Ulay gave me the opportunity to get to know this lively, energetic and headstrong man, a man living art, or practicing the art of living.

Glam and the Living Artwork

August 14th 2013 – by Wouter Bernhardt

I recently stumbled upon the Glam-exhibition in Frankfurt, in which Ulay participated with his famous Pa-Ula-y Polaroid’s. It made me wonder how glamorous Ulay’s work actually is. Although Wikipedia, YouTube and Google aren’t considered to be the most prestigious academic resources, I found them pretty convenient for the thought/action-trail I am about to set forth. Please bear with me in my attempt to find out what it means to be glamorous.

On page three of Google’s search engine, I find a link to the Wiktionary telling me that glamour is derived from a Scottish word meaning ‘enchantment’. In the context of appearance this enchantment can lead one to perceive things, people and images in a more magnified or glorified way. Interesting.

As I scroll down on some of the derived items, I encounter glam rock. A quick search leads me to the beginning of the seventies, England, and above all, Alice Cooper. Time for a small fragment.

Glam rock was a musical extravaganza, in which appearance and theatricality were of just as much importance as the music being performed. One could fully explore the notions of identity and gender through the invention of fantastic and glamorous alter ego’s. One of the major examples being the androgynous David Bowie.

Something that clearly comes forward in these videos is the complete drag in which these artists are draped, which allows for a remarkable reinventing of the self. Through means of cross-dressing and travesty, i.e. wearing cloths traditionally intended for the opposite sex, these artists presented themselves as living artworks, meanwhile questioning the social conventions of their time.

Contemporary Kitsch/Camp, David Lachapelle

With a great inclination towards the visual, glam broadly touches upon other common denominators as camp and kitsch. Both imply a widely appealing and highly sensitive visual culture, camp only differing in so much that it ridicules it’s own superficiality. Glamour too appeals to the masses, thus making it a popular phenomenon in film, fine arts, pop culture, performance, literature and fashion.

British Comedian Noel Fielding recreating Ulay's Iconic image

Looking into these characteristics, some of Ulay’s work can most definitely be defined as glamorous. Throughout his early carrier we can already find Ulay dealing with concepts like identity and gender. Rooted in the dialectical struggle between biological difference of sex and the social conventions of gender, Ulay invented a new self in which the male and the female could be present at the same time, Pa-Ula-y. He then consciously framed these transformations in the flash of a Polaroid, staging himself as a living artwork.

Ulay and ‘Der arme Poet’

June 22nd 2013 – by Wouter Bernhardt

A small, condensed space, crammed with books, a furnace, a small matrass and, last but not least, a poor poet. Through a small garret window, which peculiarly lightens the tiny room, snow covered rooftops are visible. The hanging umbrella, ostensibly protecting the lying figure from any moisture coming from the ceiling, provides this late-romantic painting with an almost surrealistic atmosphere.

I encountered this painting – Der arme Poet by Carl Spitzweg, painted in 1839 in a series of three – during my research on Frank Uwe Laysiepen, better known as Ulay. In 1976 the thirty-three year old German artist from Solingen decided on a dramatic action to conclude his individual career as a performance artist; he stole the work of art from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Although I had never heard of the painting, nor of Spitzweg, this composition has long been Germans’ most famous and beloved artwork, and, infamously, was adored by Adolf Hitler. Whether this has to do with the particular lighting and specific composition, or with a certain romantic ideal of a poet burning his own manuscripts, I could not say. The subject of the painting strikes me as out-dated, the unworldly figure with the nightcap on simply as really funny.

Detail of Der arme Poet

Fact remains that the painting was highly popular at the time of Ulay’s action, and the theft was widely criticised in Germany. Although I find it extremely amusing to imagine Ulay making a run for it through the museum with the poor poet under his arm, meanwhile being chased by several security guards, the well-planned action also had a very serious intention; addressing the growing problem of Turkish Immigration workers in the German capital.

Ulay taking the picture from the museum

After escaping in his black van, Ulay drove to Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where he mounted a large reproduction of Der arme Poet on the façade. Then he ran to the other side of the street, went straight into the house of a Turkish immigrant family and hung the stolen painting in their living room. It was not long before the police arrived and took Ulay into custody. The action marked a temporary end to his individual career as an artist, before engaging himself into his symbiotic relationship with Marina Abramović.

Ironically, thirteen years later, in 1989, the version of the work by Spitzweg taken by Ulay was stolen again, this time from Schloss Charlottenburg. Until this day it has not been recovered.

Wouter Bernhardt studied Art History at the University of Amsterdam and recently moved to Berlin.

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