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The gender identity pioneer who stole Hitler’s favourite painting

11 January 2019

Now 75, artist Ulay is known for his Polaroid work investigating and modifying identity, as well as his pioneering performance art with Marina Abramovic. A new exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery focuses on his "performative photography" – and an art heist in Berlin.

S'he, 1973/2018 | © Ulay

In the early 1970s the German-born Ulay (derived from his real name, Frank Uwe Laysiepen) worked as a consultant for Polaroid.

The term performative photography was created later, it didn’t exist forty years ago.

Armed with unlimited film, he was committed to expanding the medium of instant photography through self-portraits, which he would manipulate in myriad ways. His radical take on the medium – involving performance and exploring notions of gender – would establish his reputation as an artist.

“It started with photography and it became performance, then it went back to photography,” explains Ulay. “The term performative photography was created later, it didn’t exist forty years ago. The union of performance and photography was really a unique event in the history of photography and in the history of performance”. His “auto-portraits” were designed to be a conversation – with the self.

While he was fearless with himself, he was also prepared to undertake radical action. In 1976, he undertook a work titled Irritation – There is a Criminal Touch to Art, where he stole a painting from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The painting was The Poor Poet (1839) by Carl Spitzweg, an artist and painting admired by Hitler.

Ulay walked in through the gallery’s main entrance, removed the painting from the wall and carried it to his car. He then drove to Kreuzberg, a segregated community of Turkish immigrants, and hung the artwork in the living room of a Turkish family. The action was designed to open a discussion on both the treatment of the Turkish community in Germany, as well as the institutionalisation of art.

That same year he met the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and embarked on a 12 year romantic and artistic relationship which would become the most celebrated – and notorious – collaboration in contemporary art.

Ulay is at Richard Saltoun Gallery until 23 February. Images courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

There is a Criminal Touch to Art, 1976/2018 | © Ulay
Elf, 1974-5 | © Ulay
White mask, 1973 | © Ulay 2018 / DACS, London
Death of a Transvestite, 1973/2018 | © Ulay
Death of a Transvestite, 1973 | © Ulay
Death of a Transvestite, 1973/2018 | © Ulay
White bride, 1973/2017 | © Ulay 2018 / DACS, London

Performance Art Couple

For over a decade Ulay collaborated with performance artist Marina Abramovic in a series of works, titled Relation Works, that tested the limits of the body.

Ulay and Marina Abramovic perform AAA-AAA | Image: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

In Relation in Space (1976) the pair repeatedly ran into each other until Abramovic collapsed, in Relation in Time (1977) they sat back to back for 16 hours tied together by their ponytails and in AAA-AAA (1978) they slowly approached each other shouting until they were yelling into each others mouths.

In 1988, Ulay and Abramovic, who were lovers as well as artistic partners, ended their professional and personal relationship with a final performance on a grand scale.

The pair walked the Great Wall of China, starting at opposite ends - Ulay in the Gobi desert and Abramovic at the Red Sea. They travelled for 90 days, covering 2500km and when they met in the middle they embraced and broke up, intending to never see each other again.

The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk (still), 1988/2008 | Image:
Elf, 1974-5 | © Ulay
Elf, 1974-5 | © Ulay
Elf, 1974-5 | © Ulay

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