07. December 2016

These are the words with which one of the several slide shows Ulay has created begins. They illustrate the worldview of a talented storyteller – who sees his protagonists as more important than navel-gazing.

By Katharina Cichosch

Amsterdam, 1972: Ulay had been living in the city for four years when he encountered an odd couple on the street. An older gentleman with a long beard and a younger one with a moustache wandering about with an old-fashioned street organ caught his attention. Their magnificently decorated musical instrument emitted traditional Dutch folklore tunes, ‘read’ off punched paper bands and translated into melodies – one of the simplest yet at the same time most fascinating possibilities for mechanical music production. Ulay was gripped by the two men’s performance: They seemed like visitors from a different time. So he began, as he puts it, to “stalk” them.

He followed the pair through the streets of Amsterdam, where cars were parked just a millimeter before they would have fallen into the water. He trailed them all the way to their houseboat on Prinsengracht, not a typical residential boat, but a converted old industrial barge. Having introduced himself, Ulay visited them often and the three became friends over the many beers (beer seems to be important and Ulay also likes to mention it at various other points). The two men were father and son, living together in their frumpily furnished barge with miniature Dutch mills made from china and each wall covered almost entirely in pictures. Every day they roamed the streets with their organ for a handful of guilders.

Celebrating the good life

The only treat they occasionally allowed themselves was playing the lottery – and in 1973 they hit the German lotto jackpot, winning the equivalent of a million guilders. Today, that would be about 500,000 euros. Ulay pauses at this point, telling the story much like a fairytale: “Both were rich, father and son.” He documented the life of the two in black and white, shortly before and just after their lottery win, trying on fancy checked suits with a slightly bemused look on their faces and sampling various fine drinks in the city’s pubs – in short, enjoying the good life.

Yet still, the narrator asks, what were they to do with all that money? Seeing as they actually wanted to change their lives as little as possible? The happy end followed in the shape of a rather particular solution dreamed up by both father and son, namely, to play-act, and to do so in earnest, at leading the life of higher earners. Whether they were able to spend the money they had won in this fashion is of little consequence to the outcome of the story. For in all likelihood, they lived happily ever after on their old barge.

The things that fall by the wayside in the art industry

Ulay titled his slide show “Father And Son. The Story of A Million. Master And Servant.” Made up of photographs the artist had taken himself and with the story written up afterwards, it is one of several such works of his. In these, Ulay negotiated all those things that usually fall by the wayside when working within and for the art industry: little observations, maybe not absolutely revolutionary or controversial, or not lending themselves quite so readily to being monetized; documentation of one’s own works, which would otherwise have played a role only for the archive, or for being reworked at a later date (even if documentary and archival work has since turned into a highly en-vogue medium). And finally also that which we might be tempted to call normal life, which, depending on the artist in question, flows into their work to a greater or lesser degree, but for the most part is reflected fully in the artwork only as either a rose-tinted dream or a nightmarish thought.

Ulay also documents his own art actions from the perspective of the narrator; actions that were not already fully recorded and retold in different versions online. Such as the live-ins about “Fortress Europe” or one that he groups under the heading “Home Less Home”: In 1996 Ulay was invited to take part in the project “”should i stay – should i go,” a traveling exhibition in one of eleven campers (the vehicle was absolutely “shitty” and according to the narrator presumably from the junkyard) as a kind of traveling artist. He decided to invite a homeless man he had met in Amsterdam to occupy the dwelling: His houseboat had sunk, since which time he had been living on the street or in a bar, where he drank many, many beers and paid the bill with his drawings.

Audibly touched

Yet here too there is a happy ending, one that goes beyond the hope of a temporary dwelling, namely when the protagonist becomes a crowd-puller in the various Dutch cities in which the camper forts are set up, and is visited by a great many people “and dogs” – not only because of his stories, which soon spread via TV and the press, but also because of the paintings and artworks he produces there in place of the invited artist, as it were. All the while, Ulay considers himself the man’s guide and companion and as such he can extensively photograph and document the action. Ultimately the national attention gets the temporary camper resident a new houseboat, and he is able to move into it after the action has finished. In the end the invited artist, audibly touched, expresses his thanks for the time he was able to spend with his friend.

We can ask ourselves whether it might not be precisely these little narrations that act as the glue holding Ulay’s oeuvre together (he finds the notion of a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a total artwork, quite amusing) – while, retrospectively, embellishing facts rather than documenting them dispassionately. And in doing so not least also following the artist’s own biography, mirrored here in the way in which these tales are told, which connections were made and which conclusions were drawn. Of course Ulay’s slide shows are at the same time also about a strong narrator, who pauses for dramatic effect here and there, emphasizes sentences and repeats them, reveals something about himself. And yet, he places his protagonists above his own navel-gazing. Ulay, it can certainly be said, is not just a performer and photographer, but also a raconteur.