“Ulay: Come On”—Looking Back on the Dramatic Career of the Legendary Performance Artist

Jun 15, 2016 11:39PM

Ulay, the German-born performance artist and photographer, is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Marina Abramović, the self-described “grandmother of performance art.” Their decade-long artistic and romantic relationship produced a groundbreaking body of work.

That relationship ended decades ago, albeit with a poignant reprise in 2010: During The Artist is Present, Abramović’s performance piece at her MoMA retrospective, the estranged lovers found themselves face to face for a brief, tearful reunion.

But, not long after, controversy erupted surrounding ownership of the pair’s joint works, culminating in Ulay’s headline-grabbing decision to sue Abramović over credits and profits. Although recent public interest tends to frame Ulay as half of a one-time art-world power couple, a new exhibit at MOT International revisits his long, eclectic career as a pioneering performance artist in his own right.

The exhibit, “Come On”—Ulay’s first solo show in Brussels—features recent additions to his 1970s “Anagramatic Bodies” series. Crisp and fashion-forward, the collages are strikingly modern. The same could be said of his Polaroid self-portraits, which show the artist trying on stiletto heels, applying makeup, and posing in corsets.

The dramatically lit sequences represent the artist’s entry into Amsterdam’s drag and transvestite subcultures and, more broadly, his foray into the genre of gender performance. It was also during this time that Frank Uwe Laysiepen changed his name to “Ulay,” a combination of his middle and last names. In other words, it was during this time that he chose a new identity, both as an artist and as an individual.

Other works in “Come On” are less glamorous. With a distinctly vintage look, the understated photograph Jurgen Klauke and Ulay (duel) calls to mind something you’d find in an old album, while the “Along the Great Wall” series offers casual travel snapshots.

They’re relics from Ulay’s photographic archive, artifacts from his nomadic life, some of which he shared with Abramović. The two traveled extensively in China and the Central Australian Desert, living out of a black Citroën van for several years. It was built into their credo: “no fixed living-place, permanent movement, direct contact, local relation, self-selection, passing limitations, taking risks, mobile energy, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition.”

And even now, no works blur the line between personal and professional quite like Ulay’s projects with his famous former collaborator and lover. Abramović and Ulay may be better known for cutting-edge performance art, but these rare photographs suggest something simpler, more quotidian. Photographs of their trip to China, for instance, reveal a tender side to the artist’s practice and the thoroughly relatable human story behind the buzzed-about headlines.

—Bridget Gleeson

Ulay: Come On” is on view at MOT International, Brussels, May 13–Jul. 16, 2016.

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