06. January 2017

In front of an audience, Ulay goes in search of his identity in his subconscious. An eyewitness report on Ulay’s performance.

By Lisa Beisswanger

A cold October evening in Frankfurt, the day after the formal opening of the Ulay exhibition. A long line had formed on the staircase to the SCHIRN’s events room. Despite the dearth of relevant information the tickets for the evening had sold out long before, word had it that the artist would be showing a new performance.

Many had come in the hope of getting their hands on a few unsold tickets, the vast majority of them were disappointed. Perhaps the expectations were so high because in his opening speech Ulay had announced that this was going to be nothing less than a revelation of his identity. As anybody who knows Ulay’s work is aware, this search for identity is his central artistic theme. Ulay signified that for the performance he was going to have himself hypnotized, after which he would not be aware of what was happening. He went on to explain that there would be neither rehearsals nor a planned schedule of events. So far, the people waiting in front of the SCHIRN had no further information. There was a delay to the doors opening. What on earth was going on in there? Was this wait part of the concept?

When the audience was finally admitted to the room in small groups everything was already in place. There was no stage but a low platform with chairs set out on all sides all of it. The lights in the room had been dimmed, creating a warm mood reminiscent of candlelight. A spotlight shone on the platform in the middle of the room where the artist was lying relaxed and supine on a decorous dark brown upholstered armchair.

The hypnotist (or hypnotherapist, as he called himself), Nikolai Hanf-Dressler, was sitting next to Ulay. A number of people in the audience reported that Dressler was a well-known face on the hypnotism circuit and occasionally appeared on TV. And indeed his curly locks and his white shirt, its top button undone, did have a rather Las Vegas flair to them. The audience took their seats on all four sides of the platform. Ulay’s partner Lena and Matthias Ulrich, the curator of the exhibition and the brains behind the evening were sitting in the front row.

There was a sense of mounting excitement in the room. Was a revelation about to be forthcoming? Perhaps even a hint of a scandal? The tension was heightened when two of Hanf-Dressler’s employees started explaining the evening’s potential risks and side-effects. They gave to understand that the length of the performance or the way that it might go could not be predicted and that it would not be possible to leave the room once the hypnosis process had begun. Therefore, they added, if anybody felt unhappy in this environment or even had scruples about the unpredictable outcome of the hypnosis they should leave the room immediately. Finally, they said that if anyone did not feel fully awake at the end they should have a word with them afterwards (laughter ensued). Nobody left the room and the performance was able to begin.

Then it was the hypnotist’s turn. Like Ulay, he had been outfitted with a microphone. Every word the two of them exchanged was broadcast to the auditorium, however softly it was uttered. The hypnotist explained once again exactly what he was planning – his intention was to get to the bottom of Ulay’s identity. In other words, the purpose of the concept was to induce a hypnotic state in the subject and then to ask him repeatedly who he was. The question of the evening was thus: “Who are you?”

What then followed is difficult to recount exactly. Overall, the performance lasted almost two hours.

Hanf-Dressler started by initiating the hypnotic state rather like a relaxation exercise. The subject’s limbs becoming heavy, his thoughts being let go of, allowing himself to relax completely and to surrender control of his body. Such exercises rely largely on suggestion and take place in several stages, illustrated by Hanf-Dressler as the steps on a staircase which Ulay should go up and down. The hypnotist repeatedly counted down in short bursts, saying that at the end of each stage the relaxation would become deeper. When Ulay had reached the requisite degree of relaxation his speech sounded rather like that of somebody who was asleep. Some of the words that Ulay uttered were so soft and slurred that the hypnotist had to ask him to repeat them.

First of all, Hanf-Dressler placed Ulay’s thoughts in a room in which the future lay ahead of him and the past behind him. He asked Ulay to look behind him, in other words, to the past. On several occasions, the artist’s childhood memories were awakened. The hypnotist’s questions in this respect always followed a similar pattern. A sequence of numbers was counted down and Ulay was asked to describe the places in the past to which his subconscious had taken him. In most of the scenes Ulay was a sad little boy called Uwe (the artist’s real name), his father was ill and Uwe had to run through the dark to fetch help; he was afraid. Whenever his memories were happy, the hypnotist broke off. The question was asked repeatedly – “Who are you?” Initially, the answer was repeatedly: “Uwe”.

Next, Ulay was asked to look forward. Hanf-Dressler conjured up various mirror scenarios in which he obviously hoped to get closer on a theoretical/visual level to the question of identity. The hypnotist tried out several scenarios and Ulay was told to see himself reflected in a person he loved; he mentioned his wife Lena. He was told to try to see himself through her eyes. Perhaps this was the key to his identity? But this attempt did not succeed either, even though it was a touching moment.

Then, Hanf-Dressler led Ulay away from the memories and images and tried to get him to explore a level “between the different thoughts”. To this end he was once again taken to a deeper level of hypnosis. At this level Ulay finally achieved a state of perception. But initially, his attempts to formulate the answer in words were unsuccessful, necessitating a repetition of the question several times: “Who are you?” Ulay said he was a feeling and was simply attempting to describe that feeling. Eventually he found the image of the moment between breathing out and breathing in to be the best way to describe his feeling and thus his identity. With this, the public part of the performance had come to an end.

Time, in other words, for the audience to leave and to sum up the event. Some visitors left the room visibly moved, obviously convinced that they had witnessed something very special. Others seemed more disturbed or perplexed. Some described the evening as yawn-inducing and others found it so stimulating that they could not stop talking about it. A few were visibly disappointed, having seen or understood very little or were even of the opinion that the hypnosis had all been faked and that nothing had been genuine.

The question of whether or not what we are talking about really was a performance came up repeatedly, with people saying that the artist did not really do anything, that at most he reacted. One question that interested a particularly large number of them was how it felt to be hypnotized and whether and/or to what extent the hypnotized person was acting autonomously. Others debated whether the question of identity really had been solved or whether it had all really been about pointing out that there are questions to which there cannot be answers. This being the case, there cannot immediately be a definitive assessment. However, it is probably a good sign when art elicits such differing opinions and throws up more questions than it answers.