In the confines of his hotel room, the artist opens up about his youth, his thoughts on Brexit, and why art is still so important
In 1976, a young man, all limbs and a shot of dark long hair, walked into the Neue Nationalgalerie and took the painting of “The Poor Poet” by Carl Spitzweg off the wall. Carrying the work under his arm before tucking it into his shirt jacket, he walked out of the gallery using a predetermined route that had taken meticulous planning to work out. Emerging in the morning air of Berlin, he drove from the Nationalgallerie to the home of a Turkish family of immigrants living in the then-segregated community of Kreuzberg where he hung the painting on the delicate walls of their living room. Documented photographs see the family smiling at the image, seemingly unaware of the frenzied police search going on around the streets of Potsdamer Platz: panic disseminating in the air as museum staff and lawmakers were alerted of the theft of Germany's darkest artistic inheritance. Fast forward to 2019 and Ulay lies in his hotel bed, grinning slightly at the memory: “Everyone should have art in their homes,” he says.
The piece, entitled “Irritation – There is a Criminal Touch to Art” is one that has cemented Ulay into an art historical narrative existing outside of his seminal collaboration with former partner and co-artist Marina Abramović. Speaking to a nation still grappling with the aftermath of World War II, “Irritation” touched on the raw nerves of a country living under the shadow of Hitler’s atrocities: “Spitzberg’s Poor Poet” being the favourite painting of the Third Reich. Blink twice and you would find the dark motifs hard to make out from the seeming nonchalant swagger of the act itself. I promise you though, it’s there.
My conversation with Ulay begins by his bedside in the Mayfair hotel room I find myself in, sat next to a man who has, in his own way, subtly chipped into the dialogue surrounding contemporary performance art. Ushered into the room by his partner Lena, he pulls the recorder closer to him so that I may better hear his voice. In previous interviews, he has always spoken softly, but now it pays to hang close to his every word.
Aged 75, and with a career retrospective just closed at a London gallery Richard Saltoun, he has some things he wants to get off his chest. Firstly, an apology for his absence at the opening: in part because “art openings are not about art, they're about gossiping and social conventions”. Aside from anti-establishment jest, the absenteeism is unsurprising given the shadow of ill health looming close. Severe dehydration is the prognosis, “despite drinking four litres of water a day!”
Sitting up to have his porridge – he sniffs the air and remarks that someone is smoking nearby – it seems like his illness is an inconvenience if nothing more. “I’m a body artist you see, so I don’t like getting sick. I had a brain drain; they called it hypovolemia – severe dehydration. It’s really ironic because I was drinking four litres of water every day but from a water filter system. It took out the vitamins and minerals and so it sucked out everything.” In spite of this, Ulay’s solo show continued, opening with a new private performance named Performing Light (2019). The result is a striking life-size photogram that depicts the shadow of Ulay’s body lying almost foetal and surrounded by outreached hands. Hung in the gallery and juxtaposed against polaroids of his younger, vigorous self, you can almost feel the tug of time as the artist merges the past with the present.
Indeed, despite their contemporary resonance, Ulay’s body of work is firmly entrenched in a past not often discussed, and a history many have preferred to ignore. Raised in Post War Germany, Ulay – née Frank Uwe Laysiepen – grew up during a time in national history where survivor’s trauma and the guilt of World War II sought to engulf an entire nation in silence and festered secrecy. It’s a secrecy that Ulay knows all too well, his family history, like many others, is a story of death and loss during the early 20th century. “I never learnt anything about the war, it was totally taboo for me. My father had to fight in the first World War – he came back alive. He had to fight in the second World War – he came back alive… so there was no war talk. I could try to make a joke, but the legacy of the second World War was so everlasting on me.”
It was within this climate that Ulay was introduced to photography aged 14, firstly through his father who gave him a small Camera Harmonica. “My father liked to garden and would make me, being the only boy in the house, plant the seeds. And so I would take photographs of what I had planted… flowers and sometimes trees, and they were the first photographs that I took,” Ulay explains. “Then when I was 20, 21, that was when I first pointed the camera to myself.” This moment is pivotal in the career of Ulay, an artist who has used the camera as a means to document, challenge, and self-express in ways that were radical for its time.
It’s at this point in our conversation where a vulnerability outside of physical incapacity begins to make itself clear. A pause turns into a minute. Thoughts are gathered and the pain of past experience reveals itself. “You know I was orphaned very young,” he whispers. “My father died when I was a teenager, my mother disappeared with no more connection to society and then, because of the war, I had no relatives when my parents left me.” It’s a loss that shaped a young artist’s world view and entrenched within Ulay an identity crisis that only the camera could solve, taking hundreds if not thousands of self-portraits over a four year period. However, something was missing. “The burden of photography is that it always stays on the surface, it never goes under the skin.”
The quest for self identify turned inwards, using tattoos and piercing, and in extreme cases cutting, as a way to get closer to the body and find selfhood in flesh. It’s this kind of searching for self which might explain the compatibility of Ulay and Marina Ambramović, who met for the first time in 1975 and formed a relationship and artistic partnership based on mentally and physically taxing body performances.
Yet, themes of personal identity in Ulay’s work crystallise in his other work of the 70s, such as the photographic works such as “S’he” (1973), “WT” (1974), and “Sex-Stretcher” (1974), which see the artist present himself as a fluid, gendered being – half man, half woman – questioning his own gender identity as well as the hybrid nature of sexuality. For a man whose work spans across decades, there remains a politically subversive appeal to the images he conjures and the performances he creates.
Indeed, it’s refreshing to hear an artist speak so candidly on the political controversies of the moment. With an artworld saturated by the PR trained, Ulay is unafraid of speaking his mind. First, Brexit: an abominable shitshow to a man who has become something of a European nomad. Laughing, he tells me of his new name for England; “Bye-land”, and cackles as he mimes a wave from across the channel. “All these party politics, it becomes so uninteresting, meaningless. Even a second referendum would be an outrage to democracy.”
Approaching the topic of a second referendum, the mood becomes darker. Having spent time in Northern Ireland, it’s clear that the Troubles have left an imprint upon him. “Northern Ireland is the biggest concern in this whole issue and... I do not want to see Ireland like it used to be. I was there in the 80s and it was so disgusting. Fucking Catholics, fucking Protestants, we should live in peace together.” He stops to gather his thoughts, once again emotionally overwhelmed. The silence is only broken by Ulay’s assistant Peter capturing the moment via the hiss of a Polaroid camera.
As quickly as they came, the clouds of politics soon disperse. I am shown a photo of Ulay’s beloved dog – two years old and still a puppy – and told various anecdotes of animal training gone wrong. The road to a health recovery of some sort looks bright especially after having battled – and beaten – cancer in 2014. And what of the future? Certainly no artist-curated shows from him (in his own words, better left to the professionals), but there is a soon-to-be-published book with Marina Abramović, charting their work and relationship in the aftermath of that infamous split in 1985, as well as various court battles since. The tensions have since calmed and the pair are working friends and collaborators once again.
In speaking with Ulay, I found a man deeply entrenched within his own past that still manages to create work that feels raw and resonant. Within the climate of today, Ulay’s quest for an identity through art feels universal. “It’s through art that people exchange interpretation and meaning and love,” Ulay argues, settling into a kind of contentment and repeating a mantra he has carried with him through years of work and interviews: “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.”