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Ulay, “White mask” (1973-74)
Ulay, “White mask”024_Soliloquy, 1974, Series of 7 original Auto-Polaroids, type 107, 8.5 x 10.8© the artist, courtesy ULAY Foundation

Celebrating Ulay’s radical, undefinable performance art and individual work

A major new retrospective, Ulay Was Here, takes a look at the life and art of this groundbreaking artist, with the largest ever survey and first posthumous exhibition of his work

A major new retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will survey the life and work of Ulay – the legendary performance artist who stole Hitler’s favourite painting from the wall of the Berlin National Gallery, created his own hybrid-gendered alter-ego, and broke up with Marina Abramović on the Great Wall of China. 

Predominantly remembered in connection with his famous former lover and collaborator, Marina Abramović, they formed one of the most celebrated and prolific artistic partnerships of the 20th century. Together, they explored new frontiers of performance art (though Ulay always preferred the German word “aktion”), and inspired one another into new realms of physical and emotional endurance. Ulay Was Here goes deep into this union, as well as the artist as an expansive, pioneering individual.

From the moment the pair met in 1976, they were inseparable. Forming a collective being they referred to as “The Other”, Ulay and Abramović devised a range of “aktions” which often demanded the participation of their audience, making them complicit in ever-increasingly discomforting scenarios. Imponderabilia (first performed in 1977) invited audience members to pass between them as they stood naked and facing each other in a doorway. Visitors were obliged to brush past the naked artists in the extra-narrow threshold, breaking the invisible trajectory of their eye-contact and penetrating this highly intimate space.

Ulay and Abramović’s turbulent relationship ended on a suitably dramatic note, when they famously walked towards one another along the Great Wall of China, parting forever after meeting in the middle. Decades later, they were momentarily reunited in what seemed like public reconciliation when Ulay presented himself as a participant of Abramović’s 2010 MoMA performance of The Artist is Present. The much-viewed footage shows their shared silent moment of mutual understanding. “To understand Ulay, you need more than a lifetime,” she says in a video created to accompany the new exhibition. 

Outside of the career-defining years he spent with Abramović, Ulay’s own practice was a lifelong artistic inquiry that led him toward many mediums and into several areas of experimentation – this exhibition aims to expand the public knowledge and engagement with his individual oeuvre. As the largest ever survey of his artwork so far, Ulay Was Here will focus on four areas of his life and work: performance and photography; explorations of gender; engagement with social and political issues; and his relationship with Amsterdam, which is the home of the Stedelijk Museum and the city where Ulay lived and worked for over four decades. 

The retrospective will also feature photographs, Polaroids, Polagrams, sculptures, projections, and documentary material, including the seminal self-portrait Polaroid “S’he” (1973), in which Ulay presented himself as the hybrid-gendered alter-ego he named Renais Sense. This now-iconic image depicts Ulay divided into two halves to represent the male and female components he felt he contained within.

The exhibition will also include a debut for the video of his performance piece “Irritation - There is a Criminal Touch to Art”, which documents Ulay’s 1976 theft of Adolf Hitler’s favourite painting from Berlin’s Nationalgalerie. Having stolen “The Poor Poet” (1839) by Carl Spitzweg, the young Ulay drove to the ghettoised area of the city where he hung it on the living room wall of an impoverished Turkish family. Relating this story to Dazed last year, he recalled: “Everyone should have art in their homes.” 

Above, take a look through the gallery for a selection of Ulay's work, curated by Hripsimé Visser, currently on display at Ulay Was Here.

Ulay Was Here is showing at the Stedelijk Museum until April 21, 2020