21. December 2016

Ulay was an advisor for Polaroid, who in turn gave him unlimited access to valuable film material and devices. This setting laid the foundations for a groundbreaking artistic pre-occupation.

By Teresa Köster

The photograph freezes a part of the performance, acts as its proxy. Highlights it. It might be just a section, but this brief moment is now captured for perpetuity – in the 1970s, many artists discovered the merits of creating performances and photographs as interlocked media. They shifted between the genres as they did between identities, going beyond them and testing out their limits.

Ulay, born Frank Uwe Laysiepen in Solingen in 1943, is one of these artists: Along the paths he has taken as a solo artist, performative photography has been a constant companion for almost five decades. Today, Ulay is often associated with the 14 iconic “Relations Works” performances carried out as part of the artistic and private relationship between Ulay and Marina Abramovic between 1976 and 1988 – this phase of his career is bracketed by photography. And Ulay’s work with and for Polaroid not only significantly shaped his oeuvre as a whole, but also made an important contribution to introducing Polaroid photography to the art context. 

Where do I fit in? 

Ulay’s work with Polaroid began in 1970; before that time, he had been pursuing industry and architectural photography. Contacts at Polaroid not only quickly turned him into a consultant photographer, but also gave Ulay almost unlimited access to film and cameras, leading to his independent photographic recordings being primarily carried out as Polaroids over the next five years. His photographs from the early 1970s are intimate – they feature transvestites, transsexuals and the artist himself. And the latter in particular was to form the cornerstone to what is Ulay’s life-long conception of art: The self-portrait – the “auto-portrait” – is a medium for dialog, yet not with others but with one’s own double. Ulay carried out performances in front of the camera most often in the form of series; he recorded these and asked himself the same questions over and over again: “What do I want? Who am I? Where do I fit in, and what should I do next?”

His series “Soliloquy” (1972-5) for example bears witness to this: It shows the face in close-up, his body, the pain of separation, self-mutilations. Ulay was as unsparing in the way he treated his own body as he was in laying bare his private life. His works at the time were staged, but they were also real, as the wounds he inflicted on himself in their creation were real wounds. He simultaneously sounded out identity constructs with a view to established gender roles in those years, for example in the auto portraits of his “Renai sense” series. Corresponding with the collaged individual photographs, which Ulay further furnished with aphorisms transcribed on a typewriter, the artist here also created visual deconstructions and montages: Ulay is man, woman, neither one nor the other in the images with the meaningful title “S’he”. 

The camera doesn’t answer 

One answer to his questions still remained open, as “Polaroid was actually like a mirror. And of course a mirror doesn’t provide answers. The Polaroid camera also does not provide any answers to the fundamental question ‘Who am I?’, because the camera is reduced to only perceiving the external, the superficial. You may be able to dress up and identify with the image you project, but in the end that’s not an answer. I think the question ‘Who am I’ is the simplest question there is and the most difficult of all to answer.” What Ulay achieves in his series is to tell stories that would have been impossible to convey in individual photographs.

Even though Ulay was especially productive in the first half of the 1970s, he himself says that this was not in order to create art works. This was to change in 1975, with his first exhibition at Galerie Seriaal/De Appel, which shocked the contemporary art audience with around 220 photos of transplants, tattoos and gender crossing. He had thereby finished his “analytical phase”, during which, when looking back at the phase between 1970 and 1975, he says he was acting as an “individual mythologist”. He had then also completed (for the time being) his phase of photographic self-exploration. Instead, Ulay dedicated himself completely to performing in front of audiences. He used these, amongst other things, to explore the negative space of photography: for the series “Exchange of Identity”, Ulay asked people in the audience to leave traces of their bodies on canvasses covered in photographic emulsion. 

Reinventing photography 

He embarked on his first collaborative artistic projects at the same time with Jürgen Klauke amongst others. In 1976, Ulay and the performance artist Marina Abramović became a couple and started working together as an artist duo. This was the beginning of a relationship and work partnership dedicated to collaborative performance that was to last 12 years. It was only when the two split up, in 1988, that Ulay began taking photographs once more – with no lesser goal than to reinvent analog photography.

The Polaroid camera had since become large enough for him to step inside. And Ulay proceeded then to do precisely that, for example in his “Polagram” series, created between 1990 and 1993 in a special Polaroid studio in Boston. The “Polagrams”, some of which are taller than the artist himself, now merely show the traces of the artist as he literally walked into the camera (see “Self-Portrait”, 1990, 2.75 x 1.12 meters). The “Polagrams” conserved his movements as blurred, ghost-like traces as the artist performed inside the camera with light. These “Polagrams” emphasize the tactile dimension of photography even more strongly than do the Polaroids, as they place the becoming of the body into relation with the emergence of the image. But while the performance was ephemeral, as is the body that created it, the singular event remains as a vestige on the “Polagram” as a substitute for external reality. The result: the boundaries between presence and absence, objectivity and abstraction, reality and imagination become blurred. 

As much as Ulay’s photographic mode of expression has changed since the early 1970s, the question of identity remains central to his work. In all of his attempts to find answers to this, the artist has remained true not only to the transgression of limits – personal ones, physical, social and technical ones – as an artistic device, but also to the Polaroid.