As a fresh-from-the-oven art historian, I was so excited when the mailman finally surprised me with a book on Ulay, a contemporary artist who has been called a “peace warrior.” The thickness of the book startled me at first, but when I opened it, I realized there is actually little writing in it. Being composed mostly of photographs, it is a welcome addition, as time is precious nowadays. But needless to say, I was disappointed a bit when I finished it so quickly, because then I wanted more.
So who is Ulay? In short, this constructive anarchist was always more interested in ethics than producing a very aesthetic work of art. He said: “I am not a career artist in the sense of finding a concept or style…I searched for a different path.”
The book, let us call it a monograph, is in fact composed of three parts. At the beginning, there is a philosophical and critical contextualization of Ulay’s art practice, written by Maria Rus Bojan, a Romanian art critic and curator. She researches and analyzes Ulay’s work through philosophy, and refers to different authors (Amelia Jones, Mircea Eliade). It is actually a professional dissertation, which means that the reader needs to know at least a bit about art history, so one can grasp her arguments. Maria does not introduce all of the aspects of Ulay’s career, but describes the most important milestones that best illustrate the concept she is portraying. Besides deeply explaining some of his performance art pieces and interpreting them, she familiarizes us with Ulay’s lesser-known works of art in photography. Despite my profession, I did not know most of it, which is especially striking, because Ulay’s path unfolded from photography to performance art in the 70s and 80s, and now has shifted back to photography. Ulay sees deep connections between these two practices. He said: “Photography is one place where we can actually construct our identity as we wish.” In other words, he was a pioneer of Instagram, long before it actually existed. There are many interesting details in the book; we also see that Ulay, at one point, used a camera for taking pictures that was actually designed for dentists. In addition, there was a wild misperception of his early Polaroids, where he was looking for identity through gender issues and photographed himself in drag, or sometimes with his body split vertically, half appearing female, half male. That was also a theme in some of his performances, to “choose the most radical experiments as strategies of self-knowledge.” This way of “accessing knowledge through the intelligence of the body” was one the main reasons Ulay pursued performance art. We mostly know him for his collaborations with Marina Abramović but, in this book, we see that she was not the only one he had a partnership with. At one time (or was it three times) one of his associates actually wanted to kill him. But with Marina, he truly had a symbiotic relationship, a ying and yang of art affairs. Ulay describes committing symbolic suicide of his ego, because he had such a great desire to live and work with someone else.
The second part of the book consists of the casual interviews between Ulay and the journalist Alessandro Cassin. The chapters deal with special occasions from artist’s life, and one can read them as separate stories. They mostly speak of Ulay’s view on his art, shining light on the artist’s life-like-art. Much was new to me, even though I am a fan: his being an orphan, even though his mother was alive; why he couldn’t make it in New York; why he was living in panic for much of his life; who was guilty of getting him thrown out of an art academy, all these biographical details that made an unmistakable impact on his artistic practice. His experience living with Tibetan monks and Australian Aborigines deeply affected his whole life, and he resorted to their traditional practices when he was diagnosed with cancer—which he was able to beat.
Short inserts from different authors familiar with the artist (including Marina Abramović, Tevž Logar and Thomas McEvilley) form the third part of the book. I must say these interludes do not add much in terms of comprehension, but do add charm.
It is indeed interesting how Ulay remembers all the particulars of his fulfilling life, as I barely know what I ate for breakfast yesterday. As the artist said, the book really “puts together the many bits and pieces, placing my hocus pocus in focus.” We can all be thankful that there is a big archive of his photographs and performance art pieces in the book (though some of the images are mysteriously replaced with pink squares, a fact elucidated in small print at the back of the book, and which made headlines in a 2015 Guardian article, which is a must-google for anyone interested), so we can have a glimpse of his life and walk in his shoes, even if just in our imagination. But that is not all. Everyone who has at least a bit of interest in art history or history and sociology in general, will profit a lot from reading the interviews, as they not only show how Ulay lived, but also what life was like back in the 70s and 80s, all over the world. And also, if you want to know what he really thinks about his former lover and partner Marina Abramović, this is a must-read.