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Ulay, S’he from the series “Renais Sense” (1973–4)
Ulay, S’he from the series “Renais Sense” (1973–4)via Richard Saltoun

Ulay, the groundbreaking performance artist and photographer, has died

He is remembered for his subversive photographic explorations of gender identity and his powerful performances with ex-partner and artist Marina Abramović

The artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) passed away this morning in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he has lived since 2009, after a battle with lymphatic cancer.

Richard Saltoun, founder of the eponymous London gallery that represented the artist, released a statement on Instagram this morning alongside “S’he” from Ulay’s series, Renais Sense (1973-4). “We are deeply saddened by the news that Ulay (born Frank Uwe Laysiepen) has passed away at the age of 76. Ulay was the freest of spirits – a pioneer and provocateur with a radically and historically unique oeuvre, operating at the intersection of photography and the conceptually-oriented approaches of Performance and Body art. His passing leaves a momentus gap in the world – one that will not be so easily be replaced. We hold his family, friends and colleagues close in our hearts during this time.”

During the 70s and 80s, Ulay and then-partner, artist Marina Abramović took the art world by storm by creating some of the most powerful examples of performance art together. However, in 1988, they famously ended of their 12-year relationship by walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle, and saying goodbye. While the pair famously and emotionally reunited at Abramović’s landmark MoMA performance The Artist is Present in 2010, their relationship was often plagued by problems, with Abramović suing him in 2015 before making up once again in 2017.

Posting today via the Marina Abramović Instagram account, Abramović said: “It is with great sadness I learned about my friend and former partner Ulay’s death today. He was an exceptional artist and human being, who will be deeply missed. On this day, it is comforting to know that his art and legacy will live on forever.”

After their break up, Ulay returned to photography and continued to carve out his own artistic career away from their collaborations. Previous to meeting Abramović, he had made some of the most subversive photographic works of the time – “S’he” (1973), “WT” (1974), and “Sex-Stretcher” (1974) – each which saw him experiment with gender identity.

Born in 1943 and raised in Post War Germany, Ulay was introduced to the camera at 14-years-old through his father. He told Dazed last year: “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. Then when I was 20, 21, that was when I first pointed the camera to myself.”

In 2013, Ulay made a documentary called Project Cancer based on his diagnosis of lymphatic cancer, which he initially recovered from in 2014. He told the Guardian: “My oncologist told me my life expectancy was four to six months, it was shocking. I worked myself out of it, I’m really lucky.”

In 2019, London gallery Richard Saltoun hosted a retrospective of his works which opened with a new performance titled Performing Light (2019). The life-sized photogram showed Ulay’s body lying in a foetal position and surrounded by hands reaching out to him. Writing at the time for Dazed, Elise Bell observed, “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.”

A retrospective of Ulay’s work will open at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum from November 2020 until April 2021.