Sewn Lips, Split Genders, Slit Skin

Ulay’s Polaroids

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

I could cry about it. Though I am a gypsy, I am still very devoted to certain things in life. Polaroid for me was as important as a canvas, paint and a brush to a painter. It stops here. I don’t have canvas, I don’t have a brush and I don’t have paint anymore.


The White Mask, Ulay, 1974.
The artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, Solingen 1943) gets emotional when asked about the end of Polaroid, in a TV interview about his new exhibition. Though most famous for his performance art, Ulay has built an incredible oeuvre as a photographer, working solely with the Polaroid instant cameras. It took over forty years, however, before an exhibition was organized, dedicated solely to these Polaroids. Till May 1 of this year, the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam will exhibit many of the most amazing Polaroids Ulay made during his career as a photographer, which began in the late 1960s.


Where It All Began

Ulay grew up in postwar Germany, a devastated and demoralized country. He considered studying medicine or engineering, and chose the latter. When he left school in 1961, his interest shifted from engineering to photography, though not with a conscious artistic motive. “I took photos in factories, wanted to show the workers entrapped in these massive buildings, and I started doing self-portraits, at that time, using a cable with an Agfa camera.” Soon afterwards, Ulay set up a commercial business for photography - the first lab in Germany which could make color prints in 24 hours. He also had a huge studio in which industrial photographs for fairs and conventions were produced.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
Little Red Riding Hood

In your bowels swallow my mutiny.

My sin abdicates to obey your cruelty

No one must see, hidden

through the modest redness of my hood

My desire of evil.

No one must understand

Your enchantment  upsetting my senses

Your wicked soul that will give me my womanhood

I yearn for punishment

I want to be a victim

I am your longing for evil.

I knew it all! About the woods… about the wolf…

And now I am meeting you:

You cannot disappoint me.

Be what you’re not

There is no hope for you

Seduce me slashing through my body with the frenzy of your claws

Scratch me by the sweetness of your lies

Swallow me…do not spew me!

Swallow me.

Swallow my misunderstood loneliness

Swallow my inept nonentity.

Hurt me, really hurt me badly

So badly as to be understood,

So badly as not to be hurt anymore.

So badly as to become someone

In the dark wood of hypocrisy

To be someone

At last.

While extremely successful with his business, Ulay abruptly had a sort of quarter-life crisis and decided that he had to leave this live. In 1968, he headed for Czechoslovakia, planning to enroll in the academy. The Russian invasion, however, came in between. He decided to move to Amsterdam, where the Provos, a countercultural anarchistic movement, had attracted his attention. During this period, Ulay also enrolled in the art academy in Cologne, where he studied painting and graphics for a year, moving back and forth between Amsterdam and Cologne.


Working with Polaroid

The booted knife, Ulay.
In 1970, Ulay started to make photos with a Polaroid Zip camera. He soon discovered that Polaroid’s headquarters was actually located in Amsterdam. He went there and met and befriended Manfred Heiting, Polaroid’s Art Director, who sent Ulay on the road to London, Paris, Rome and New York. Heiting would later co-found the Photography Forum in Frankfurt (1975) and the Photo Museum Amsterdam (FOAM), besides organizing and curating over more than 50 exhibitions. Ulay was provided with the best and unlimited materials, and besides travel photography, he carried out experiments with new Polaroid material as one of their first official photographers. It was the beginning of a unique and extremely productive partnership between a remarkable artist and a unique company.

Polaroid’s instant photography ideally suited Ulay’s desire to explore his identity and body. In the documentary that was made for the exhibition and shown there, Ulay extensively discusses the different Polaroid cameras and techniques he used during his career, and the way he could use these to produce an oeuvre of unique photographs.


Documenting Performances and a Search for Identity

The exhibition shows, in the most explicit way, how Ulay used Polaroid to document his search for identity and intimate performances. Often, a series of photos would illustrate a performance. He refers to these photos as “auto-Polaroids.” A well-known example is the series of photo’s that show Ulay as half man, half woman, illustrating a part of his oeuvre that dealt with travestites, sexuality and the tension between men and women.

Some Polaroids show aphorisms that were typed over the actual photo. They date back from a period in which Ulay was fascinated by writing aphorisms and freewheeled between writing, photography, performances and taking part in actions of the Provos.

The most explicit photos document a performance that was inspired by Ulay’s fascination for the comparison of photographic emulsion and the human skin. At some point, he decided he wanted to go deeper and actually get a transplantation of a piece of skin onto his arm. He first got a tattoo of one of his aphorisms. Then a plastic surgeon cut through three skin layers, and removed the skin with the tattoo on it. During the operation, Ulay made Polaroids over his shoulder, while two nurses assisted in swapping the rolls of film. The skin was preserved by Ulay and turned into a little work of art.

These photos are among many others that show self-mutilation: from cutting into the skin of his fingers, to sewing up his own lips.

In later years, Ulay started to produce life-sized Polaroids inside a camera, the so-called Polograms. “The idea of the life-size came from this incredible beautiful book by French film critic, Andre Bazin, titled Ontology of the Photographic Image. Then I realized that you could combine the performance with photographic image, when the object of the subject in the photographic image is the same dimension as the actual object.” Performative photography was born. The exhibition shows the masterpiece of this technique: the Non Plus Ultra. A life-size photo that was the result of Ulay working literally inside the camera, directly onto the negative, and showing a hand that mysteriously seems to come out of another world towards the viewer.

In recent years, Ulay has shifted his focus more towards the people and cultures around him. People from all social strata – the Aboriginals of Australia, the homeless of New York, the youth of Dordrecht, visitors to the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam, and the young models of Chisinau (Moldova). More recently, his work has highlighted the importance of water in sustaining life on earth.


The Exhibition

Exhibition of Ulay's polaroids, Rotterdam.
The exhibition Ulay | Polaroids can be seen till the first of May 2016 in the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. A publication about the exhibition and work of Ulay was produced by the curators, Frits Gierstberg and Katrin Pietsch: What is This Thing Called Polaroid (Valiz, Amsterdam). The museum is located in one of the most spectacular parts of Rotterdam, at the Wilhelminakade, next to “De Rotterdam,” the skyscraper annex “city within a city” designed by Rem Koolhaas.

From sewn lips to split genders to slit skin, Ulay’s remarkable, pioneering use of Polaroid photography forecast today’s instant-gratification, Instagramming by decades, and highlights how one of the most important performance artists in history is also one of the most important photographers.

Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.