“Getting out of myself”: Ulay takes his body apart in order to rediscover it in a new version.

The body as a reference, as a starting point, as a medium par excellence: In his performance-related photography, Ulay studies physical transformations and moments of transition.

Here identity is inextricably linked to the body, the surface, the skin, and is nevertheless always formulated as a question. When and why is a body perceived as male or female? What lies between these two distinctions? Where does the “I” stop? Where does the other begin? Instead of placing himself as an object in the image, using his polaroid camera Ulay captures transformations step by step.

There doesn’t have to be a goal

Processes of movement are documented as a “Soliloquy”, as in the series of that name. Sometimes Ulay’s naked body is wrapped in white sheets, sometimes a hand lies on the crinkled material, and sometimes only the angular legs can be seen or the bed remains entirely empty. The discovery of the “I” remains a search – in full knowledge that there doesn’t have to be a goal.

In the early 1970s, Ulay teamed up with the anarchic protest movement “Provo” in Amsterdam and took documentary photos of street battles. He photographed the homeless and the transsexuals. What interested him were people on the fringes of society: People who are excluded from bourgeois society and who challenge the stability of a supposedly closed system by embodying the marginal “other”, which is both appealing and threatening at the same time.


Ulay also experimented with cross-dressing and for a short time took on a female persona. In an interview with Amelia Jones the artist said: “I made myself into a beautiful woman. It was fascinating, stimulating.” It was during this time that the series “Renais sense” developed. Je renais – I am reborn.

Thick, dark hair covers his neck and ear. Three-day stubble, a cigarette nestled in the corner of his mouth, Hawaiian shirt. The profile of a young man with a striking nose, sitting at the kitchen table. Yet from behind the short, dark hairs protrude strands of red hair, like a shadow, that reach down to the shoulder. The other side of the profile: A red-haired woman, red lipstick and powdered cheeks, a fox-fur over her shoulder, one hairy arm in the Hawaiian shirt. Then in the third picture we see the frontal view. Shirt and stole, mascara and five o’clock shadow.

Identity and masquerade

The photographs “S’he” from the “Renais sense” series show: He is she, she is he. The male identity is simultaneously inherent in the female identity and vice versa. At the same time, the transition from male to female is so stark, the clothing of each so clichéd that the gender identity itself becomes a masquerade here. The transformation takes place in a playful way and the crossover is never entirely perfect. “Male” or “female” are thus not fixed categories, but rather can, it appears, be performed.

An anagram denotes a paraphrase: The arrangement of existing elements generates new sense. In the “Anagrammatic Aphorisms” series that Ulay began in the 1970s and continued in the last few years with the “Anagrammatic Body” works, there is a paraphrasing of the body. It becomes fragmented, with body parts replaced by those of others, and comes back together as a collage.

The sailboat and the tanker

The Polaroid photos with their white borders are positioned next to one another with a great deal of thought, yet when perspectives shift and the ear hovers alongside the head or the artist himself suddenly has the legs of a girl, the overall image appears jarring, fragile, vexing. Thus Ulay reveals the ruptures in his own existence, because ultimately his works show the urgent search for his own identity. In the process it becomes clear that even that must be understood as flexible, as a place that permits experimentation, transformation and change. Or perhaps he himself put it best when he said “Identity is like a very small sailboat on the ocean, with an anchor the size of a tanker.”