Few people know Ulay, Frank Uwe Laysiepen registry office, for his art and not only for his relationship, both personal and artistic, with the well-known Marina Abramović.
In fact, from the first meeting in 1976 until the unforgettable farewell after a long walk on the Chinese Wall in 1988, the two of them gave birth to artistic performances that have disturbed and touched the whole world.
The Relations Works are perhaps the most famous, a series of artistic performances during which the couple investigated the limits of body and mind but also the theme of man-woman relationships.
But before and after the meeting with what he will often define as his muse, Ulay has carried on his artistic life focused on photography and live performances.
With the former, especially analogical or with the artistic use of Polaroid, he undertook research based on the concepts of identity and body, documenting the culture of transvestites and transsexuals and receiving his first major recognition in 1974.
In that year, in fact, he created for two Amsterdam gallery owners Renais Sense and with them founded the De Appel Foundation.
All his works of that period are closely linked to the concept of feminine sensitivity which, after a process of experimentation, he discovers he has in the first person, and on the representation of androgyny.
In 1976, the year she met Abramović, it was the time of Fototot and There is a Criminal Touch to Art and his art became incredibly more radical.
The second work, which he still signs individually, is a performance made in a Berlin gallery from which he stole a painting by Carl Spitzweg, Adolf Hitler’s favorite painter, and moved it into a house of poor Turkish immigrants.
An important work in the artist’s life that also underlines his strongly conflicting relationship with his German origins.
The following 10 years are punctuated by the performances of the Relations Works made with the Serbian artist naturalized in the USA, some of which took place in Italy as Relation in Space at the Venice Biennale, Relation in Time at the Galleria Studio G7 in Bologna and Imponderabilia, proposed at the Modern Art Gallery in Bologna.
After their separation, which took place during the performance The Wall Walk in China in 1988, the two met several times in courtrooms for the copyright of their works, closing their artistic association forever.
It was from that date that Ulay began his solo career again, concentrating all his work on the photographic medium and on some innovative experiments such as Photograms and Polagrams.
During this period he created Polagram, created between 1990 and 1993, and a few years later the Earth Water Catalogue, a work that focused on the waste of water resources.
Despite the variety of themes he tackled, Ulay has never lost sight of the question of identity, a fundamental theme for all his artistic experimentation, and in 2015 he exhibited Anagrammatic Bodies, a project linked to the photographic collages of the 1970s, in which he reduced his own image into fragments and mixed it with that of models and actresses.
In 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer and, as a cure, he still chooses art, a medium that also allowed him to know his body and endure hard physical and mental suffering.
During this period of treatment, he decided to start a new project alongside director Damjan Kozole, the documentary Project Cancer.
For this reason, he will travel the world, retracing through places the key moments of his existence, performing yet another experiment on his own body:
“At the peak of my career, I treated my body very badly with masochistic, self-aggressive actions, hurting myself. Three years ago I discovered I had cancer. But it had nothing to do with my work: my past performances, in fact, taught me that the mind must be more powerful than the body”.
Ulay’s life is much longer than the 10 years he spent with his former partner Marina Abramović, but all too often it has been reduced to that, also reducing its importance in the world history of performance art.