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Ulay at a press conference in Germany in 2016. Photo: Andreas Arnold/dpa.
Ulay at a press conference in Germany in 2016. Photo: Andreas Arnold/dpa.

Ulay (1943–2020)

Frank Uwe Laysiepen—the German conceptual photographer, body artist, and filmmaker known as Ulay, who was Marina Abramović’s partner and collaborator for twelve years—has died at the age of seventy-six from complications from lymphatic cancer in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Ulay was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1943, in a wartime bunker. His father died when he was only fourteen. In 1969, after beginning to study photography and unsatisfied by his home country’s bourgeois culture, Ulay left Germany for Amsterdam, where, a year later, he gained employment as a consultant for Polaroid. The company provided Ulay with gratis equipment and materials, with which he began to make the series “Resnais Sense,” 1972–75, an exploration of identity through photocollage that examined gender difference and performance. In 1975, Ulay helped establish Amsterdam’s De Appel Foundation, where some of his first performances would occur, including what the artist called “a finish to the whole photographic issue”: “Fototot” (Photo Death), 1975–76, a series of actions in which he utilized photosensitive paper to create unfixed self-portraits that would disappear shortly after a gallery’s lights were switched on.

Later that year, Ulay met Abramović, with whom he shares a birthday, in Amsterdam. In the same year, the two wrote an artist statement titled “Art Vital” that laid out the conditions of their collaboration: “no fixed living-place, permanent movement, direct contact, local relation, self-selection, passing limitations, taking risks, mobile energy, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition.” From 1976 to 1988, the couple carried out their highly celebrated, intensely physical “Relation Works”—fourteen performance pieces described by Thomas McEvilley in a 1983 feature in this magazine as “mystical-philosophical approaches to the concept of the two-in-one, the mutual dependence of opposites.” 1977’s Relation in Time saw Ulay and Abramović sitting alone, motionless and tied together by their hair, for sixteen hours before an audience was brought in to observe a final, seventeenth hour of performance. For Rest-Energy, 1980, Abramović held a bow and Ulay a strung arrow, pointed at her heart, as they leaned back into suspended tension. Nightsea Crossing, 1981–87, consisted of twenty-two performances in nineteen countries, totaling ninety days of the pair sitting across from each other at a mahogany table without talking, eating, or averting their gazes.

The pair announced their final “Relation Work,” The Lovers, 1988, in Artforum two years before they secured permission from the Chinese government to together walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China. Abramović began the three-month journey, which was to be documented from space, on the wall’s east side by the Yellow Sea and Ulay on its west, in the Gobi Desert. Though they initially planned to marry when they met in the middle, by the time The Lovers was executed their relationship had fallen apart. Their silent meeting on the Great Wall became their final farewell, after which they did not see each other again until Ulay’s surprise appearance at Abramović’s 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York.

After his split from Abramović, Ulay returned to the Polaroid, making an artist project for Artforum for the 1990 Summer issue and examining “nationalism and its symbols” in “Berlin Afterimages,” 1994–95. The last decade of his life was spent exploring water and its centrality to human life in projects like Earth Water Catalogue, 2012, a platform and archive that collected water-based artworks from artists around the world. In 2011, after a cancer diagnosis, Ulay spent a year filming himself to create the documentary Project Cancer (2013). Last November, on the occasion of his seventy-sixth birthday, the artist opened a foundation and a project space in Ljubljana, where he had lived since 2009. A major retrospective of his work will open at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in November of this year. Ulay’s solo and collaborative work is held in the collections of the Stedejlik, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and many other institutions.