Ulay (1943-2020, born Frank Uwe Laysiepen) was a conceptual photographer, body artist and film maker, his performances and photographs frequently questioned gender sexuality, earning him a reputation as an innovator and resulting in a series of subversive and acclaimed works. He was once known as being Marina Abramović’s partner and collaborator for twelve years—has died at seventy-six on 2 March, 2020 from complications from lymphatic cancer in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Marina Abramović, the celebrated Serbian artist, expressed her sad feeling in the statement released by Marina Abramović Institute on Instagram, “It is with great sadness I learned about my friend and former partner Ulay’s death today. He was an exceptional artist and human being, who will be deeply missed. On this day, it is comforting to know that his art and legacy will live on forever.”
“Ulay was the freest of spirited — a pioneer and provocateur with a radically and historically unique oeuvre, operating at the intersection of photography and the conceptually-oriented approaches of Performance and Body art,” Richard Saltoun, whose gallery represented Ulay, wrote on Instagram.
The statement released by the Ulay Foundation refers to his innovative work with Polaroid photography and performance art, saying that “ULAY was incomparable. As a human being and as an artist. The gentlest soul, a giver. A pioneer, a provocateur, an activist, a mentor, a colleague, a friend, a father, a husband, family. A seeker of light. A lover of life. A traveler. A fighter. A brilliant thinker, who has been pushing limits and enduring pain. Selfless and fearless, ethical, elegant, witty. He, who has influenced so many.”
British magazine Dazed conducted an intimate bedside interview with Ulay in 2019, he talked about his approach to art, “It’s through art that people exchange interpretation and meaning and love…You can be without solid food for 40 days, you can be without water for four days, you can be without air for four minutes, but you can be only four seconds without impressions … that’s why art is so important.”
Retrospecting Ulay's Artistic Career
"It takes a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, to understand Ulay."
1968-1976: Early Period
During this period, Ulay undertook a thematic search for understandings of the notions of identity and the body on both the personal and communal levels, mainly through a series of Polaroid photographs, aphorisms, and intimate performances. At that time, Ulay's photographic approach was becoming increasingly performative and resulted in performative photography.
Father And Son. The Story of A Million. Master And Servant ©Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2016
1973-1974 White mask
1972-1975 S’he Series
1972-1975 Renais sense Aphorism
In the late stage of his early work, performative tendencies within the medium of photography were transformed completely into the medium of performance and actions.
1976 Irritation. There Is a Criminal Touch to Art
Since 1976, Ulay has collaborated with Marina Abramović on numerous performances. Their work focused on questioning perceived masculine and feminine traits and pushing the physical limits of the body.
1977 Light/ Dark
1977 Relation in Time
1977 Breathing In/Breathing Out
1980 Rest Energy
1988 The Great Wall Walk
After the break with Marina
After the break with Marina, Ulay focused on photography, addressing the position of the marginalized individual in contemporary society and re-examining the problem of nationalism and its symbols (Berlin Afterimages, 1994-1995). Nevertheless, although he was working primarily in photography, he remained connected to the question of the 'performative'.
1991-1992 Can’t Beat the Feeling: Long Playing Record
1994 Berlin Afterimages: 16 EU Flags
2010 Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present
In 2009, Ulay moved to live in Ljubljana (Slovenia). When talks and plans on the film were already under way, Ulay was diagnosed with cancer, and all plans for the film were changed. The first scenes were shot in November 2011 at the Ljubljana Institute of Oncology, where Ulay was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. When his health slightly improved, he decided to visit his friends around the world and the camera followed him on this so-called farewell journey: to Berlin for the premiere of Marina's film, then to New York and finally to »his« Amsterdam. Ulay treated his illness as the biggest and most important project of his life, hence the title of the film “Project Cancer".
Ulay & director Damjan Kozole, 2012, copyright Simon Chang
2012 Whose water it is
In recent years, Ulay is mostly engaged in projects and artistic initiatives that raise awareness, enhance understanding and appreciation of, and respect for, water.
2016 Ulay Portrait
At the end of 2020, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam will present a solo exhibition by the German-Dutch artist Ulay. Let's say farewell to “life-sized” Ulay.
Translated and edited by Sue and Emily Weimeng Zhou
Photos from Internet courtesy of the creators.
1. Marshall. A. The New York Times: Ulay, Boundary-Pushing Performance Artist, Dies at 76.
2. Picheta. R. CNN Style: Performance artist Ulay dies aged 76.
3. Bell. E. An Intimate bedside interview with the subversive artist Ulay. https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/43456/1/intimate-interview-ulay-bedside-art-performance-marina-abramovic
10. “Life-sized Ulay” referenced from the exhibition "Ulay: Life-sized", SchirnKunsthalle Frankfurt, 2016.
11. Cover Image Source：https://www.schirn.de/magazin/kontext/ulay/ulay_polaroid_fotografie/