He describes himself self-deprecatingly, as the “most famous unknown artist:” Frank Uwe Laysiepen aka Ulay (born 1943). Ulay radically merges his own life with art. With his artistic concept of transformation, he constantly creates new identities. His preferred medium is photography. Initially, in the form of the Polaroid, photography became an integral part of his earliest artistic practice from 1970 onwards. The instant camera picture, which has now been replaced by the digital image, represents for Ulay the material in his long search for the representation of life. To this day, his body serves as the object of his research, where various influences leave traces and can be read, just like on a canvas. Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presents the first-ever major overview of the works of this exceptional artist. Besides numerous individual performative photography and body art actions, Ulay has also carried out many projects with other artists or was influenced by them: his friendship with Jürgen Klauke prompted his discovery of the problem of identity and its artistic examination and led to the establishment of performative photography; he produced photographic series with his former muse Paula Françoise-Piso, in which he raised the inquiry of the self to the point of its dissolution; and finally, with his former partner Marina Abramović, Ulay succeeded in expanding performance art, which to this day is one of the greatest influences on this genre. The exhibition at the Schirn brings together Ulay’s remarkable oeuvre in a comprehensive way. On show are both new works and performances, devised by the artist specifically for this exhibition, as well as numerous works of art, which he held back for years and which are now on view publicly for the first time.
The exhibition is curated by Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt curator, Matthias Ulrich.
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.