Farewell to “Life-sized” Ulay


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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."

Marina Abramović

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.

10. 《父亲和儿子》乌雷 摄影  1972-1973年  ©Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt  2016.png

Father And Son. The Story of A Million. Master And Servant  ©Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt  2016

8.1. 《白色面具》  乌雷  1973-1974年.jpeg

1973-1974 White mask

1. sHe, 1973, courtesy of the artist and MB Art Agency  HQ .jpg

1972-1975  S’he Series

11 《 Renais sense Aphorism》Ulay 1972-1975年.jpeg

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.

12 乌雷(Ulay),《挑衅,对艺术作品的非法接触》(Irritation. There is a Criminal Touch to Art),1976.png

1976  Irritation. There Is a Criminal Touch to Art 

1976-1988: Collaboration

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

9. 《时间中的关系》行为艺术 乌雷、阿布拉莫维奇  1977年.png

1977  Relation in Time

15 1977 Breathing In_Breathing Out《呼气_吸气》 .jpeg

1977   Breathing In/Breathing Out

14 1977年 《无量之物》.jpeg

1977  Imponderabilia

13 1978 《AAA-AAA》 .jpeg

1978  AAA-AAA

16 1980 Rest Energy 《潜能》 .jpeg

1980 Rest Energy

17 1988  The Great Wall Walk, Two-channel video, color《情人-长城》,双屏影像,彩色 .jpeg

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'.

20 Molotov Cocktail (From the series Can't Beat the Feeling—Long Playing Record), 1992.jpeg

1991-1992  Can’t Beat the Feeling: Long Playing Record

EU FLAG 3.jpeg

1994  Berlin Afterimages: 16 EU Flags

2010 Reunion

18 艺术家在场.jpeg

2010  Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present


Recent Days

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".

7. Ulay & director Damjan Kozole, 2012, copyright Simon Chang.jpg

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.

19 2016 乌雷肖像.jpeg

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.


Source References:

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

4. https://www.ulay.si/About-Ulay

5. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/j1V0EdeKHBa-3hNLUHVmIA

6. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/vHW4msjQgF1UaSzjkGGgvQ

7. http://www.mbagency.nl/page19/page74/page75/page75.html

8. https://www.artbook.com/9783959051118.html

9. http://thewhynot.de

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/