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Marina Ambramović and Ulay “The Great Wall”
A still from Marina Ambramović and Ulay “The Great Wall”via publicdelivery.org

What we learned from Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 1988 break-up performance

For 90 days, the then-lovers of 12 years walked from opposite sides of the Great Wall of China and met in the middle to break-up

This article is the first in a new series of features which explore the lessons we can learn from great works of art

Recently, in the throes of a break-up, I looked to Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 1988 performance, “The Lovers”, where, in 1988, the world’s most famous artistic couple stood 5,995 km apart on the ruins of the Great Wall of China and began walking towards each other.

The piece, inevitably, was about love. Particularly the end of it, and with it the demise of Abramović and Ulay’s 12 year-long-artistic collaboration. Stumbling through desert and hiking over crumbling rock, both Abramović and Ulay surveyed China’s turbulent and radically altering geographic landscape for 90 days. Meeting in the middle at a small Buddhist temple in Shenmu in Shaanxi province, Abramović and Ulay embraced and then broke up. Only a few years prior, the pair had planned to travel the same journey, only with the intention to wed the moment they met in the middle.

Perhaps because of how batshit the whole idea is, “The Lovers” has captivated audiences for three decades. Predating Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s infamous ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ in 2014, Marina and Ulay tapped into a very public fascination with the end of love, void of the car crash sensationalism that has long been tabloid fodder.

Here are four lessons on how to (or how not to) break-up, taken from Abramović and Ulay’s long walk to romantic freedom.

“(The performance gave) a new meaning to the oft-used phrase, ‘we need some space’”

DISTANCE IS YOUR BEST FRIEND

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer unless they’re your exes”, is a proverb often told and ignored. Anyone who says they have always followed this rule is a liar and a fraud. Artists, however, know better, and Abramović and Ulay’s 90 days of Christ-like wandering in the desert is as good an example of how distance has the capacity to heal and mend.

According to the memoirs of Abramović herself, “The Lovers” began in 1980 “under a full moon in the Australian outback”. Conceived initially as a performative marriage – with the duo originally intending to meet in the middle and marry – in the years attempting to obtain Chinese Governmental authorisation for the work to take place, the couple’s relationship had drastically altered. Lies, infidelity, and a botched threesome saw a productive relationship become a toxic and emotionally abusive ruin. Together, the decision was made that once permission had been granted, they would walk the Great Wall of China to separate as lovers, forever.

Giving a new meaning to the oft-used phrase, “we need some space”, Abramović began from the mountainous provinces of The Yellow Sea while Ulay walked from the Gobi desert. Staying at inns and surrounded by the company of a few bodyguards and translators, their break period was one of intense self-reflection and spiritual reawakening, with Abramović commenting that "we needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other”. Whilst the experience of endless hiking and romantic separation was difficult for Abramović, Ulay’s experience was somewhat more comfortable. Sending a letter to his ex-lover on the wall, Ulay described how easy the trek was, with Abramović finding out only after the performance had been completed that her long-time partner had impregnated the translator accompanying his journey.

“My heart was broken. But my tears weren’t just about the end of our relationship. We had accomplished a monumental work – separately. My own part in it felt epic, a long ordeal that was over at last.” Despite the melodrama, distance and separation allowed for both parties to see their relationship for the toxic bin fire it had become. Chronicling the moment they reunited at the centre of the wall, Abramović’s hopes of reconciliation quickly dissipated, with their emotional embrace turning into “the embrace of a comrade, not a lover”. Marx wept.

Although there are easier ways of creating a sense of distance between yourself and your soon-to-be ex, walking half the length of the Great Wall of China is a great way of clearing your head and recognising your-self worth. If prior commitments mean that a 90-day pilgrimage is out of the question, just don’t text them back. They’ll get the idea.

CHANNEL EVERYTHING INTO YOUR ART

Abramović and Ulay fell in love amidst the potently charged atmosphere of 70s Europe, meeting in Amsterdam in 1976 following the breakdown of Abramović’s first marriage to artist Neša Paripović. It is a tale as old as time, with fucking and making art as compatible to one another as petrol to a Zippo lighter. Enduring clichés aside, the difference between Abramović, Ulay, and the average Goldsmith’s couple is that the art made by them was actually good.

Manipulating the unspoken dynamics of relationships and using them as fuel for performance, Abramović and Ulay turned passion into product, creating kinetic works that fused body with emotion. Art-speak aside, these collaborations were exhausting and often dangerous, the high-risk nature of their pieces taking the art world by storm. 1980’s “Rest Energy” saw the couple hold in perfect balance an arrow in a bow, all through the weight of their bodies; a mere shift in position resulting in their death. In “Breathing in and Out” (1977-78), their intimate bond is made literal as they consume each other’s faces like teens at a bus stop, locked in a to and fro of breath for almost twenty minutes.

Relying on each other for air or risk suffocation is a powerful metaphor for ill-judged partnerships. It’s also the calling card for a phase commonly known as the honeymoon period; that brief point in time during the early years of a relationship where committing heinous displays of public affection is almost forgiven. Incredibly, according to the Kübler-Ross model, looking back to the golden era of a relationship is a good way of reaching the final stage of grief (acceptance).

Accepting the good times and acknowledging the bad remains a huge part of “The Lovers”, their journey across regions of China mirroring the tumultuous journey of their relationship. “Love, hate, and passion” is all apart of life, Abramović once said. It is yet to be confirmed whether those same sentiments were felt when Ulay decided to sue his ex-lover in 2015 for €250,000 worth of unpaid commission.

BRING A CAMERA CREW

Recording the existence of emotional collateral is a key part of any break-up. From furious screenshots sent to a group chat, to Instagram stories of post-breakup “I’m over you” festivities, there is a sick compulsion to publicly chronicle the fallout of love.

The upshot of being a professional performance artist meant that Ulay and Marina took public breakups to the next extreme. Not happy with announcing their separation via more sensible channels, the duo decided to film their break-up, turning footage of their 3,725 mile-walk into a feature-length documentary film complete with a team of art historians following them on their journey.

The film, commissioned by the BBC and entitled, The Great Wall: Lovers at the Brink saw British broadcasting become the unofficial flag bearer for pre-Big Brother art house reality TV. Recorded by Scottish filmmaker, Murray Grigor, the film is a strange and at times incoherent mix of travel commentary and brooding melancholy. It’s a lesson in romantic self-importance that has somehow become interwoven in the very fabric of art history and documentary filmmaking.

While it’s easy to see the end of a relationship as a negative, their performative break-up was, for both parties, a career move that streamlined them towards fame and success. If anything, Lovers on the Brink has become a testament to the power of the recorded glow-up. Thirty years on, both Abramović and Ulay are internationally renowned artists in their own right*, the film emphasising how far the two have come since the death days of their companionship as well as their humble beginnings in 1976.

Of course, in the absence of being able to gather a BBC camera crew to record the dying stages of your relationship, live tweeting your breakup is a not so recommended alternative but is sure to give you the adrenaline rush – albeit brief – of public attention everyone deeply craves. Locked accounts at the ready.

“My heart was broken. But my tears weren’t just about the end of our relationship. We had accomplished a monumental work – separately” – Marina Abramović

NEVER DATE AN ARTIST

Maybe the ultimate lesson in all of this is that dating an artist is never worth it.

Yes, we have all been tempted. For many, the moment Kate Winslet got her bod out for Leonardo DiCaprio to draw was a sexual awakening that sowed the seeds for terrible relationships with men and women who use the word ‘muse’ non-ironically. The allure of the artist is ever present, their creative eye promising passion and insight that you might not find elsewhere. Perhaps I’m projecting, but who doesn’t want to fuck someone who knows their way around a workshop.

Yet if anything, the history of art will tell you that artists are bad news who will break your heart. Though there are examples of artist couples ‘making it’ to the deathbed, it’s not worth the risk. All you’ll get are texts left on read, a bedroom that stinks of their roll-ups, and a lifetime avoiding exhibition openings you know they’ll be present at. You can’t even guarantee that their art won’t be shit too.

“The Lovers” works best as a lesson in dysfunctionality, its enduring legacy captures a universal fascination with the messiness of relationships and the end of romance. We are a species simultaneously obsessed with love, and in fear of it. As modern relationships move further away from physical interaction (see: ghosting, breadcrumbing, and long-distance lover affairs through screens) “The Lovers” acts as a reminder for our capacity to feel, and the lengths some people will go to express love as honestly and ferociously as possible. Just remember to keep a pair of hiking boots handy.

*at the time of writing Ulay has not yet been commissioned a work at MoMA