Visual artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen-Ulay:
I will work until my last breath
Too much money is spent on politics instead of science when the latter is our only hope
13 May, 2017
The founding father of performance, legendary visual artist and photographer Ulay is a tall, slim, dignified and somewhat imposing figure. He may have oat flakes, turmeric and cinnamon for breakfast but he gives off this serious vibe. The 73-year-old avant-garde artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen opened on 27 April his exhibition Ulay: I, the Other in Sofia with a performance that showed that Marina Abramovic’s former wild partner has not been tamed over the years. He used a knife to cut the letter “U” on his chest and made a bloody imprint on one of his works.
Ulay appears ascetic but he smokes. During his interview with Trud Daily he sips from a glass of whiskey to clear his throat.
“It is in human nature to destroy. The problem is there is too many of us now. We pollute this planet at an alarming rate, basic resources such as food, water and air are starting to dwindle,” he says. Ulay is convinced that the solution to this horrible problem will not come from politicians: “Politics cannot fix anything. On the contrary, too much money is spent on politics instead of science when the latter is our only hope. Scientists can find a way out, politicians cannot.” To him, religion is an intimate experience. “I am against churches - I am a proud atheist. This does not mean I do not have faith. Even an atheist has these profoundly personal moments of pure happiness. This is what I call religion. I reject anything that is the product of churches or institutions.”
Ulay is among the pioneers of the performance art form. Together with Marina Abramovic, he formed the most influential artistic duo of the 1976-1988 period. In one of their projects, they perform mouth-to-mouth breathing, exchanging the same air, which leads to them losing consciousness on the 14th minute due to oxygen deprivation. In another, they both lean back holding a bow and arrow in tension, the arrow’s tip pointed at Abramovic’s heart.
The two even broke up with a performance. They started on both ends of the Great Wall of China, she from Yellow Sea, he - from the Gobi Desert, and travelled 2,500km to meet in the middle only to walk past each other. It would be a goodbye and the last time they would see each other in person until 2010. That year Abramovic has a performance at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York - viewers are given the chance to sit across from her and stare into her eyes in complete silence for two minutes. Between sessions she closes her eyes until the next participant is seated. At one point, she is startled to see her long-time lover before her, tears spill down her face in a scene that would later be viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube.
However, this tender reunion did not stop Ulay from suing Marina in 2015, alleging that she has withheld money from him for years, and failed to give him proper credit for their joint legacy. He won the case and the two did not speak for two years until they came across each other in an Indian ashram not long ago, Ulay accompanied by his current spouse, and reconciled. The lives of Marina and Ulay are marked by such coincidences, including the fact that they were both born on 30 November.
Even though in his collaborations with Marina Abramovic he lays his soul bare and shares with the world a deeply intimate feeling like love in all its transformations, Ulay is a rather guarded person.
What is his assessment of his joint oeuvre with Abramovic? “There were moments when it was extremely hard, physically painful, even torturous. But the whole idea was that as performance artists we appear on stage to reveal the debilitating fears that come with such intimacy. Love is at the bottom of it all but it has many faces. Being in love is a funny thing - all this excitement, butterflies in your stomach. It is a glorious experience but then you start a relationship and problems rear their head. Pandora’s Box is opened and all the secrets and disagreements come to light. It took a long time for me and Marina to get our energies and ideas in sync but once we figured out what, how and why we were doing, we achieved something great. By exposing the intimacy and conflicts of a couple to the world, we broke stereotypes. One must stay true to one’s values. Emotional closeness should be cherished and protected like a fragile flower.”
“Art could hardly change people. Creating art is amazing but once the work is out in the world it could be invested with millions of messages. Everyone has their own interpretations. I am happy to do what I do but I have three children and I stopped all of them from becoming artists because this life is difficult,” shares Ulay.
“When I first started in the late 1960s, I was completely shunned by art circles and yet I had no choice but to continue. This urgent feeling that you simply must keep going is the driving force of an artist.”
A die-hard socialist, Ulay has never been tempted by commercial success. “It is true, unlike Marina, who is a household name. But it is the result of a conscious choice I made, not bad luck. After the Great Wall of China, she left for New York, where she has been very successful. Marina makes elitist art, I create for the general public. We were great together. I have tremendous respect for what she is doing but I also have tremendous respect for my own work.” Frank Uwe Laysiepen is among the last Mohicans of film photography [as opposed to digital]. He has his reasons. “You do not use digital media, it uses you. PCs are not personal at all. Each computer has its own IP address that can be traced and who knows who might take advantage of the information stored on it,” Ulay says. Despite these slightly paranoid considerations, Ulay sees the digital revolution as “an absolute revolution”. He views it as one of the most important developments in human history after the industrial revolution. “It is a giant step forward but also a dictatorship. We are forced to buy digital gadgets and use them as means of communication. The so-called social media is not social at all. It is disconnected, impersonal and has no positive impact on modern society’s structure, the sense of belonging. What is there to belong to - it is all selfies, Instagram and Facebook. It has nothing to do with live contact.” What are his plans for the future? “I am 73 and I plan to work until my last breath. I intend to remain faithful to film and myself, my principles and my life philosophy.”
The article was originally published in Trud Daily.