One of the key figures of European performance art and Polaroid photography, Uwe Frank Laysiepen – better known in the art world as Ulay – is a singular presence among the artists of his generation. After gaining international notoriety during the 1970s and 1980s, Ulay has pursued his artistic endeavors largely away from the limelight of the media. His body of works reveal a rigorous commitment to critical thinking, a rejection of any form of authority, as well as the courage to take distance from market-based criteria of artistic legitimization.
Recently the artist’s work gained new critical acclaim due to several thought-provoking performances realized in places such as the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Musée d’art et d’Histoire, Geneva, and Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich.
Before his landmark retrospective exhibition at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in October 2016, GNYP Gallery proposes Body of Pain, Body of Love, Body of Wisdom, a monographic presentation that spans Ulay’s entire career.
Going beyond the web of biographic fact, the exhibition curated by Maria Rus Bojan explores the connective tissue between his life and work, through his most intriguing series of Polaroid works realized from the early 1970’s through 2016. The selection of works analyzes the central role of the body within his entire oeuvre. For the artist, the body is the ultimate medium for interrogating the meaning of the human condition. His individual work cannot be properly read as a whole without the understanding of the multiple roles that body is playing, for each approach refers to specific themes and inner concerns – connected to essential phases of his life.
The exhibition is structured around three themes that characterize his approaches to the body through: Pain, Love and Wisdom. This selection of works sublimates the idea of self-transformation of the body in all its hypostasis of becoming. Revolving around pain and love and the transgression of limits, Ulay’s actions, performances, and photographic work articulate a radical semiotic that asserts and re-asserts the body’s infinite capacity to produce meanings. – via GNYP Gallery
Ulay’s early period of artistic activity (1968-1976) is marked by a thematic search for understanding identity and the body, as shown through his numerous series of Polaroid photographs, aphorisms, intimate performances, and body art pieces. At the beginning of the 1970s, Ulay has left Germany for Amsterdam to follow his interest in counter-culture movements such as the Dutch Provo movement, with its focus on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent means. It is in Amsterdam that Ulay became deeply dedicated to the medium of photography, analogue Polaroid photography particularly. In his early series Auto-Polaroids, Photo-Aphorisms, Renais or Polagrams, bodily experiences and the human condition are explored as a performative study of emotions; while his performative photographs (the Fototot / Photo Death series, 1976) have also been a way to address issues of photographic objectivity, they will be transformed completely into a medium of performance and actions (There Is a Criminal Touch to Art, 1976). Ulay’s interest in the notions of identity and the body, his intimate creations and performative approach to matters of appearance and significance, his unique expressions of the split-self and visual representation of androgyny, convey the artist’s desire to “decondition” himself from understanding absolute values as ultimate values, and to retrieve a purged and integral self.
Together with Marina Abramović (1976-1988), Ulay’s performances have focused on questioning perceived masculine and feminine traits and roles, while pushing the physical limits of the body (Relation Works, 1976). Performances such as Breathing in/Breathing out, in which the two of them connected their mouths and took each other’s breaths until losing their consciousness due to carbon dioxide, or Imponderabilia, where they stood completely nude in a doorway of the gallery, with visitors having to squeeze between them in order to enter, have received a lot of public and critical attention. After the break with Marina in 1988, concluded with their daring performative meeting titled The Great Wall Walk, Ulay’s return to photography marked his increased interest in the marginalized individuals of the modern society, as well as the symbolic representation of nationalism (Berlin Afterimages, 1994-1995). The series of Polaroid photographs of studio performances, travel photography, and photographic experiments such as Photograms or Polagrams at the beginning of the ’90s have seen the artist moving away from issues of self-identity, in the direction of projects that explore new social and technological advances, participatory practices, and the rendering of reality. His latest projects revolve around experimental issues, with Ulay focused on highlighting concerns about water consumption through projects and artistic initiatives that raise awareness and enhance our understanding, appreciation of, and respect for water (Earth Water Catalogue, 2012).
In 2009, Ulay moved from Amsterdam to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Diagnosed with cancer, and following a series of chemotherapy treatments that have improved his health over the years, he has transformed his own illness, cancer, into a challenging life project which makes the core of the film Project Cancer, directed by Damjan Kozole and released in 2013. Ulay’s work, as well as his collaborative work with Marina Abramović, is featured in the collections of many major art institutions around the world such as the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Centre Pompidou, Paris; or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After four decades of living and working in Amsterdam, and undertaking several long-term artistic projects in India, Australia, and China, as well as a professorship of Performance and New Media Art at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe in Germany, Ulay currently lives and works between Amsterdam and Ljubljana. – more information on Ulay’s life and work.