Journey to the self: Ulay in Frankfurt

I am very happy to share a new article from our contributing author Janneke with you today.  This time Janneke visited the Schirn in Frankfurt for us.

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In 1976 the Dutch artist Ulay calmly sewed up his mouth with needle and thread after sitting in front of the audience with his mouth wide open for a while. This action was part of the performance Talking about Similarity with Marina Abramovic. Ulay left right afterwards while Abramovic answered questions from the audience in his place. To me Ulay’s haunting use of his body was one of the great moments in performance art. But unlike ‘performance star’ Marina Abramovic, her former partner has been widely neglected in art history and in the museum landscape; he has always been working, but rarely exhibiting.

Ulay / Marina Abramovic, Imponderabilia, 1977, Performance, 90 Minuten, Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, Foto: Mario Carbone, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives and LIMA
Ulay / Marina Abramovic, Imponderabilia, 1977, Performance, 90 Minutes, Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, Photo: Mario Carbone, Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives and LIMA

Luckily the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt hosts a great retrospective from October 2016 to January 2017. It is Ulay’s first retrospective ever: Ulay Life-Sized. An exhibition like this that is dedicated to the life and work of the artist has been overdue for long – just like the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle stated. And after this, Ulay might not be the ‘most popular unknown artist’ anymore, as he calls himself ironically.

ULAY LIFE-SIZED, Exhibition view © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2016, Photo: Norbert Miguletz
ULAY LIFE-SIZED, Exhibition view © Schirn Kunsthalle
Frankfurt, 2016, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

The exhibition in Frankfurt includes a large number of photographs: polaroids, self-portraits in different poses, clothes and ‘bodies‘. As a consultant for Polaroid International, Ulay had unlimited access to material and cameras, and began experimenting with photography in the early 1970ies.

In the exhibition you can see Ulay put into the limelight as glamorous woman as well as displayed as an old man. Today he is 73 years old. Especially the more recent self-portraits seem to be bluntly genuine. It becomes clear that Ulay deals with a key question of human existence: ‘Who am I?’

Ulay, Anagrammatic Body, 2015, 214 x 152 x 5 cm, Unikat; von Hand collagierte Fotografien auf Karton © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist
Ulay, Anagrammatic Body, 2015, 214 x 152 x 5 cm, Unikat; von Hand collagierte Fotografien auf Karton © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist

Within his photographs Ulay explores his own body and being. It might be a question of generation that he criticizes the current ‘dictatorship of digital media’, but you certainly feel a specific intensity of his analogue photographs in Frankfurt. All those pictures seem to be part of a greater puzzle, displaying a diverse identity that is always transforming. Therefore, Ulay’s work might make you feel melancholic, because it demonstrates that the question ‘Who am I?’ can never be completely answered; you can only keep on asking it over and over again.

Ulay, White Mask, 1973-1974, Auto-Polaroid Typ 108, 8,5 x 10,8 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist
Ulay, White Mask, 1973-1974, Auto-Polaroid Typ 108, 8,5 x 10,8 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist

Within his journey to the self, Ulay’s body functions as object of research, and there is one specific object in the exhibition that inevitable caught my eye: a small piece of Ulay’s skin. It had been surgically removed from his body in 1972. Ulay first had the lettering ‘Gen.E.T.ration Ultima Ratio’ tattooed on his forearm, and then had it removed immediately. This act refers to genetic manipulation in the 1970ies. I stood in front of the framed skin for quite a while, although it was repulsive. The piece of skin had shrunk. It looked porous and rippled. As it hung upon the wall of the museum, all framed and illuminated, it almost seemed to be some weird kind of religious relic. Ulay tried to sell this piece as a comment on the role and function of the artist, but no one ever bought it.

Ulay Auto-Portrait, 1970, Auto-Polaroid Typ 108, 10,8 x 8,5 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist
Ulay Auto-Portrait, 1970, Auto-Polaroid Typ 108, 10,8 x 8,5 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Courtesy the artist

Another great exhibit is the documentation of the performance Da ist eine kriminelle Berührung in der Kunst. In 1976 Ulay stole Carl Spitzweg’s painting The poor poet from the National Gallery in Berlin. He removed the painting, one of Hitler’s famous paintings as Ulay states, from the museums, brought it in the apartment of a Turkish family, and informed the museum director. In the video documentation you see Ulay slowly wandering through the snowy streets of Berlin with the painting wrapped in a blanket under his arm. Some years later the painting was actually stolen again, and it has not reappeared. With his action, Ulay criticizes the institutionalization of art. He once again demonstrates the subversive power of performance art. You can feel this power in the exhibition – if you take your time to study the photographs and video footage.

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