Ulay (1943–2020)

Ulay with Thomas McEvilley, Eric Orr, and James Lee Byars, ca. mid-1990s © Ulay, Courtesy the ULAY Foundation.

IT IS PROBABLY THE FIRST PHOTOGRAPH OF HIS I ever encountered. I saw it during my initial visit with Ulay, in 2009 in Amsterdam, where we were beginning to prepare the exhibition “Become,” at Škuc Gallery, in Ljubljana. At that time I recognized only James Lee Byars (that telltale cylinder hat) but eventually learned that Thomas McEvilley and Eric Orr, all close friends of Ulay’s, are also in the photo. And hiding behind the slab of wood is Ulay himself.

I would see this image on several other occasions, all in Ulay’s company. The last time was less than a year ago, when he was reminiscing about a wild trip taken with McEvilley around Greece in 2001, a journey dedicated to the “hidden traces of James and Sappho.” Although I was again and again seduced by Ulay’s storytelling—always an appealing mix of facts, references, humor, and poetics—this photograph, too, increasingly became an object of intrigue. Not only because of Ulay’s intimate connection to it, his remembrance of close friends who had passed away and their shared memories, but also because, in this photograph, Ulay is both present and absent at the same time. And this is how he was; that absence is at the core of everything he left behind. As he endlessly challenged himself, in the same breath he challenged us, such as with an image that exists only for a moment before disappearing, as in the photosensitive portraits he created for Fototot (Photo Death), 1975–76.

Various Polaroids taken by Ulay in Amsterdam, ca. 1970. © Ulay, Courtesy the ULAY Foundation.

From the first photograph of a decaying Amsterdam that he made in the late ’60s to his recent action Performing Light, 2019, people could sense that his nomadic soul urged him toward absence. He never cared about the power structures of what he called the “contemporary art spectacle,” an attitude which cost him a few museum shows and biennial participations over the course of his career, and most likely some figures in his bank account and shelf space in libraries. But what he despised most in the world was inequality, and with his uncompromising ethical stance, he was always fighting it, as an artist, yes, but chiefly as a person. What he cared about was sincere exchanges between people, nature, and often small, strange objects or gestures—a piece of fruit, a mark on a T-Shirt—things he found leftover from something else and which he transformed into gifts. This is why he loved Polaroids: Each one is an instant gift to the person he photographed. He cared for each and every moment, for each and every person.

Renaissance. Renais Sense.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Our time is the wound.

He wrote many such aphorisms in the early ’70s, which, probably among Ulay’s least known expressions, often flowed from his daily rituals, such as drinking coffee or whiskey, walking, having a smoke, or simply observing the world pass. Witty word combinations, usually on torn or folded sheets of paper, sometimes on a photograph or found material, reflect his relationships to others—his wife, children, lovers, friends, strangers, protesters, or passersby. This is also why he believed that the body is the medium par excellence. He didn’t differentiate art from life, nor life from art.

Ulay, S’he, 1972, Polaroid, 3 3/8 x 4 1/4”. From the series “Renais Sense,”  1970–75. © Ulay, Courtesy the ULAY Foundation.

When I go outside, outside the door, I worry that someone may walk
against me
through me
and I would continue walking, split in two halves, top to bottom

There was sometimes pain, but never despair. Ulay knew how pain was often at the edge of human understanding. He was one of the greatest fighters I know. After he was knocked out, he took his time and came back stronger, equally or even more playful, hopeful, and generous. This sometimes made people furious, which left Ulay feeling alone.




That is how he walked through life—on a thin thread between extremes. That is why understanding Ulay, and his work, requires looking at much more than the hundreds of performative Polaroid series he made beginning in the ’70s; his stealing of Carl Spitzweg’s painting The Poor Poet, 1839, from the Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie; the mythical status of “Relation Work” he did with Marina Abramović; the bitter taste of Berlin Afterimages, 1994–95; the near-forgotten photograms he did with Aborigines; or his later ephemeral agency with water.

Ulay, Irritation - There is a Criminal Touch to Art, 1976/2016, gelatin silver print, 17 3/4 x 41 2/4”. © Ulay, Courtesy the ULAY Foundation.

He is also present in the details of how he did everyday things: walking the dog, Vili, with his wife, Lena, in Tivoli Park; smoking endlessly pleasurable cigarettes on the balcony, waiting for his children, Luna, Jurriaan, and Marc, to visit; drinking beer during our first meeting, carefully, to avoid pouring sediment into the glass; watering the plants with gentle gestures, almost like dancing; walking on the streets of Amsterdam and making droll comments about its transformation into a mélange of upscale boutiques, delicatessens, and shops; his secret love of race cars; playing with a lighter in the dark; attentively and passionately listening to a rare audio recording of Samuel Beckett reading his play Endgame at one-fourth pace.

It was a beautiful sunny morning in 2012, right after his daily meditation. Ulay stepped out onto the balcony, staring at the clear blue sky overseeing Ljubljana. He stood there, as he often did, to gather his thoughts. But this time, he was in front of a camera—not for one of his intimate performances, but for the last sequence that Damjan Kozole shot for the documentary film Project Cancer (2013). After a few minutes of silence, Ulay unexpectedly turned toward the camera and said: “It is beautiful. You are beautiful.” And that is Ulay.

Tevž Logar is an independent curator and editor based in Rijeka, Croatia.

Aphorisms inserted in the text are translated by Rebecca DeWald.