01. October 2015

Tracking down one of the least known renowned artists in the world: Matthias Ulrich visits Ulay in Slovenia and discovers enough material in Ulay’s archive(s) for several exhibitions.

By Matthias Ulrich

What I can’t help wondering is: What kind of people fly from to Frankfurt to Ljubljana in early August? And if they travel, then for what reason? We art people recognize each other by superficial codes, by our clothes, daily newspapers pared down to the arts section, fabric bags in all colors and sizes, perhaps idiosyncratic books by Susan Sonntag, J.G. Ballard or Philipp K. Dick and so on. Most of the business people who travel to Slovenia’s capital are male, dressed in suits with jackets that fall too far below the hips and are tight across the chest. Whereas the different classes of tax payer are united in their choice of a white shirt, and that trick of wearing a white t-shirt beneath it to absorb the sweat and prevent those stains around the armpit so difficult to remove. But maybe it is not a trick at all.

If you want drinks and cellophane-packed sandwiches on this Lufthansa flight operated by Adria Airways they cost extra. Some passengers who have already brought their folding table into a horizontal position now move it casually and in slow motion back to the upright. Some of them even do so twice so as to dispel all possible speculation, whistling softly as they do so and transforming the folding table into a naive accordion or a suspension bridge, at least until the rolling kiosk has arrived and a closed table indicates: I don’t want anything, the flight is much too short to bother. Wow, mountains, the eastern Alps, we’ll be there any minute now.

How embarrassing: I wait half an hour in the queue for the onward flight, and realize my mistake when the friendly customs official asks me where I am travelling to and I say Ljubljana, even though we are already there. And then that situation when the queue behind you has grown enormously, because there is only one customs official everyone has to pass by, and you then have to walk back past this queue, which seems to quiver, because every segment of the line suddenly panics about my rejection. Whatever, on the queue-free exit the Jonathan Monk joke awaits me that I had to make when Ulay told me his driver would be there to pick me up. And now here he is: a man in casual beige with shiny blue (sun)glasses shoved into his hair and holding a board bearing the name: Santa Claus.

The special trip with Ulay’s man sets me back 35 Euros, making the man, Martin, my driver, too. On our arrival at the hotel Martin immediately asks me about my return flight and hands me his business card, which describes his service as "Luxury Taxi". In the next few days I live and work more or less from morning to evening in Lena and Ulay’s apartment. On the way to and from my hotel I freshen up on Prešeren square with a free shower – a temporary work of art that is evidently much appreciated by the many young tourists.

In Ulay’s second domicile I inspect the stacked archive boxes and containers that fill the room completely, choc-a-bloc with works from the last 40 years by the least known renowned artist, who in the current reception of joint works with Marina Abramovic is sometimes even ignored. At any rate the ignorance or repression is so great that the contemporary history of art still fails to connect the exhibition title "The Artist is Present" with Ulay’s exhibition in the year 1974 in Seriaal Gallery in Amsterdam; let me correct that omission now!

Ulay’s archive, or rather archives – because there is one in Amsterdam and another in Ljubljana – contain material for not only one exhibition but enough for several. His works on China, where he lived for months at a time, themselves offer deep insights into the country and the artist’s relationship to photography, but more still to the people themselves, who for Ulay were always more important than any artistic conception. Ulay’s stories and anecdotes on the topic are far removed from the usual artistic viewpoints and ideas. All of his projects are the result of a thirst for knowledge and truth, for personal involvement, which sometimes makes it difficult or even impossible for him to talk about it without ignoring the attendant intensity so intrinsic to his works. In the end his self-irony breaks the damn that stands between him and his work. It is as simple as this: if you want to drive down a hill you must first drive up it.

My driver takes me back to the airport.