I first met Ulay on a warm autumn afternoon in the centre of Ljubljana, at Magda – a renovated local dive located next to the market, a place infused with charm and with the scent of a thousand different stories. There is something timeless about Magda, but it also carries a modern, subtle vibe of a hipsterish, metropolitan, somewhat remote bar you'd hope to find wandering around Paris. Whenever I'm there I imagine seeing all the grandiose, glamorous and trashy artists of the Jazz Age drinking their whiskeys and discussing the importance of sexual freedom, living life to the fullest, and not only creating art, but living it. I am sure I'd find Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller fused somewhere in the corner, or F. Scott Fitzgerald dancing with his wife Zelda till 10 o'clock in the morning. It has that fatal kind of atmosphere and I couldn't have imagined a better place to meet a very important, yet humble person by the name Frank Uwe Laysipen for the first time.
Our encounter was very spontaneous. We sat close to each other due to lack of space, and as he already knew my good friend Valeska, our introduction went quite smoothly. Actually, ‘smoothly’ isn't quite adequate, as it is a very modest description for what it was like for me. I felt as if we’d instantly clicked and a few moments later I caught myself explaining things I would think twice about before telling my friends. He was just so easy to converse with, extremely down to earth, charming, full of wisdom and knowledge and a powerful je ne sais quoi.
After our first encounter, we would run into each other very often and, without wanting to sound pathetic, it felt as if the universe wanted us to. Sometimes it was at the farmer’s market, other times at a café or on the streets of Ljubljana; Ulay and his beautiful, kind and charismatic wife Lena would invite me to sit with them for a chat and drink coffee every time we would meet by chance. I also went to see his retrospective show I Other at Mestna Galerija Ljubljana, where he put on an astonishing, meaningful, and to some quite shocking, and definitely memorable, performance. It was the event of the season. I can hardly remember the last time I saw so many people squeezed into one place, like sardines in a can, just to see an artist perform and curate his own work. So many people, and in particular so many young people, including me, were interested in his life, his work and everything that comes with that. Even he noticed it. After the exhibition he said to me, slightly surprised: ‘'There were so many young people’… But to me this fact was not surprising at all; in fact, it seemed obvious. He is such an important figure in the world of the arts, a world-class artist, someone who has explored so much on so many different levels.
So, when it came down to the question of what or whom I should write about, I instantly thought of Ulay. It was a no-brainer. I had come to know him and his wife rather well, as we'd exchanged pretty intimate memories and thoughts, but to feel kinship or being acquainted with someone is of course different from interviewing them for an article. Nevertheless, I wrote a message to Lena asking if Ulay would be up for some kind of interview or a talk. We exchanged some words, I told her what I would like to talk about and to my excitement and joy she replied with a yes, letting me know that Ulay was up for it. At first, I was simultaneously overwhelmed with happiness and with a grave sense of responsibility, but once that rush of different feelings had passed, everything happened very quickly. We agreed to meet three days later, on a Saturday morning at a brunch place situated right next to Lena and Ulay’s home.
That sunny Saturday morning I was walking alongside the Ljubljanica River with some fine hard white paper, a few pencils, two 5-euro disposable cameras (each with a 27-shot capacity), my phone serving as a Dictaphone and a little purse with all the basics. My body was tense. From a distance, I saw Ulay and Lena already seated at the table, enjoying their morning drinks in the company of their lovely dog, Vili. I came to their table, said my hellos, sat my bottom down, and Lena asked me right away: ‘Nika are you nervous? If you are, don’t be’. This helped me relax a bit, but I was still quite stiff. We started our conversation by talking about Ulay’s recent trip to Sofia, Bulgaria, where he was invited to exhibit his I Other retrospective. When I asked him about what it was like, he said: ‘They have beautiful parks, full of people laying on the grass and talking... It's like the old days, you know, and I think it's a beautiful moment in history for pioneering. Young people who speak English well go abroad to work, to study, to extend their horizons before returning, and that's a good thing – a very important thing. That doesn't happen here (in Slovenia); you have a brain drain, and I do understand that, but it is very important for people to come back, to add the knowledge they gained abroad to the emerging, pioneering state of things’. I couldn't agree more. Slovenia is, by its own fault, and specifically by the government's fault, robbed of the most talented, knowledgeable, blooming, inventive, intelligent and creative force of young people and it is a shame. There are some who stay, luckily. To have inspiring people like Ulay live and work here definitely helps.
Our conversation was interrupted by a very appetizing and abundant brunch, while our tongues and mouths focused on consuming food rather than on emitting words. Once we were done eating, we continued our conversation about the expeditious rush of tourists in Ljubljana in the past few years, how he really hates it and how it is obvious that now as the first lady of USA is Slovene the rush will intensify. We did of course talk a bit about Trump too, but he was not at all eager to answer questions about him, which seemed reasonable to me. There are surely more important topics to discuss and as these more important and intellectual topics started coming up in our conversation we decided we needed a change of scenery. We left the bistro, and while walking I asked Ulay what his favourite Slovene words were, to which he replied laughingly: ‘Lulat and kakat’, which translates to ‘to pee and to poo’, and the phrase ‘absolutno božansko’ (‘absolutely divine’). We talked about languages (Ulay speaks German, English and Dutch), sound pollution, and about his favourite places in Ljubljana, and just when we came up to the house where their apartment is located Ulay said: ‘My favourite place is my home, where my wife and my dog are’. Then, Lena left us to continue with the interview one-on-one. We climbed our way up the stairs with Vili by our side and entered one of the most amazing apartments I have ever seen.
Right at the entrance, delightful peace struck my body. The air smelled of tranquillity and put me in a meditative state. Everything in the apartment was very white, with lots of light, high walls, the sound of dripping water, birds chirping and a picturesque, green view of the farmer’s market and of the castle overlooking it. The place is big and interestingly arranged. There is a huge archive room containing his lifetime’s work, an enormous wall filled with books, a beautiful bedroom and living room with some sort of temple made by his wife, a spacey kitchen that leads to a terrace, and a hefty wooden table that I immediately fell in love with. Ulay saw my enthusiasm and said: ‘I love gathering people that are dear to me around the table. It is very important to me’. I sat down at the table and he offered to make me a tea, although he does not like to drink it himself. I gladly accepted and while he prepared it we talked about his morning rituals and routines, what kind of food he eats, and about the vitamins he takes. These simple facts might seem unimportant, but they were interesting to me and they helped me get a better sense of who he is. How he lives his life is also very significant, given the fact that he survived cancer a few years ago. I got the chance to see the heart-breaking documentary about his cancer treatment journey, made by a well-known Slovene film director, Damjan Kozole. It shook me hard, ripped me apart and then composed me back together again. The documentation of his battle is raw and real and something everyone should see. The conversation quickly brought us to the topic of alternative medicine and we started discussing homeopathy: ‘I have a very good homeopath named Jošt Klemenc. He is an amazing man. He knows me very well, very well! Maybe better than anyone. Maybe even better than my wife. He is very considerate, he used to be a regular doctor, but has given up on that due to the pharmaceutical lobbies, which is devastating of course. But anyway, it is so important that he knows me so well, as most doctors don’t. Most doctors will check what you’re complaining about but won’t do a complete check-up. Homeopathic doctors know your habits, the way you function, the way you think, what you feel, everything. I would actually like to add what he has in his computer about me to my biography one day’.
We continued with dreams and brain and neurology, which he talks a lot about with his neurosurgeon friend, Vinko Dolenc. Based on their conversations about the intricacy of our brain and of our brain’s impressions, Ulay came up with something very interesting: ‘I always say. You can live forty days without solid food, you can live four days without water, you can live four minutes without air, but you can only live four seconds without impressions’.
Again, an interruption. This time it was a firefighter’s siren that goes off every first Sunday of the month in the city centre. A horrifying sound that reminded Ulay of his childhood back in Solingen, Germany: He was born in a bomb shelter in 1943, when World War Two raged, leaving devastating marks on cities, nature and people’s psyches.
At this point, we started talking about his family and what that word or concept means to him. He lost his parents when he was only 15 and has been pretty much on his own ever since, with no other relatives to turn to. ‘You know this question is very difficult for me; from my youth on I didn’t have any social familial emotions. What I like to say is I am a non-social socialist. I had no family and I had to take care of myself and secure myself and survive’.
He married at the age of 21, admitting he did it out of an urge to create a family and a sense of belonging, but the marriage didn’t last long, ending about three years later. He had a child with the woman and left them both, assuming the mother would take good care of the boy. In 1968, he moved to Amsterdam and had another child in 1971, also a boy, with another woman, both of whom he also left. ‘I left the mothers of my children twice because I had so much work to do on myself and I gave priority to my own development and existence. So, I left, I ran away twice’. Along with his two previously mentioned sons, Ulay also has a daughter named Luna. He met her Chinese mother in Beijing, during his trip to China during which he and Marina Abramović performed their walk of the Great Wall of China, which marked their parting. He brought Luna’s mother to Amsterdam just before she was due, and just before the great Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, during which several hundred – if not thousands – of protesters were killed. They lived together in Amsterdam and Ulay admitted something very surprising: ‘I delivered my own child. Kicked the gynaecologist out of the delivery room, saying we didn’t want her. It was morning at the clinic, there were neon lights and I didn’t want my daughter’s first glimpse of light to be that of a neon light with curtains closed. So, I opened the curtains and switched off the neon lights. There was a park behind the clinic and a big moon just above it. So, her name is Luna, of course. That was that, and her mother and I stayed together for seventeen years. We lived in Amsterdam, and I cared for my daughter from day one; we travelled together a lot, we went to Africa, the US, India, and we travelled around Europe all the time. And Luna is great. She is so confident and feels so good in her skin. I gave her what a father should give to his daughter, and after seventeen years I said to her “Daddy has to go now”, and that’s what I did’.
We went on to talk about his views on spirituality and religion: ‘I would call myself a pantheist, meaning nature is godlike, and nothing else. The divine is inside you; the rest is a man-made concept, a doctrine. I get symbols from nature; I love nature. That’s why I love Ljubljana, because there is a lot of greenery here. Tivoli Park is absolutely wonderful. And I’m simple. I like simplicity. I don’t get into these symbols and signals in the sense of Jungian psychoanalysis. I don’t do that’.
But I knew he was familiar with Jung. I remembered him mentioning in some interview the wish to explore his anima. And in Carl Jung’s school of analytical psychology animus and anima are the two main anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind that represent the feminine or masculine inner personality. Ulay explained: ‘Most people wouldn’t get into this, because “a man is a man”, especially in traditional places like Slovenia or former Yugoslavia. And, yes, at one stage in my life I had a great urge to act like a woman, to see the world with different eyes or to have different experiences in social contexts. I started dressing myself up like a woman, with all the makeup and clothes, everything. I took a lot of photos of myself, but that didn’t give me the answer. You can make yourself look like a clown, or a godlike figure, but that doesn’t give you the answer’. However, while he was in Amsterdam he managed to find the core scene of marginalized people, made up of homeless people and beggars, but mostly transvestites and transsexual people. Curiosity pulled him toward those people and he lived liked them for a year. ‘It was an interesting study for me and it satisfied and triggered the anima in me in such a way that I did experience myself appearing as a woman. It was a great experience. Of course, that eventually led me to work with Abramović, at which point I didn’t need to do the study myself anymore. I had her. Together, we were like a hermaphrodite. That was the ideology, to be the third person, which is the hermaphrodite, half man-half woman. We of course never reached that goal. When we first met, she asked me about my work and I showed her all of my Polaroid pictures from the transvestite era, which fascinated her. She had done performance before that; pretty tough self-mutilation stuff. With that, and in love, we slowly built everything up, trying to see if we could work together or not, which was not easy because she had a very strong ego, and I had a rather strong ego, although not as strong as hers. You see the difference is that I am a single child and became an orphan by the age of fifteen and that means that I am a self-taught, a self-made man and we are usually very stubborn people; that’s how I survived. There had to be this toughness, but not ego toughness: survival toughness. She on the other hand comes from a red, bourgeois family. She had a brother and a completely different childhood’.
I asked him if he thinks they understood each other and he answered: ‘Yes. We understood each other from the moment we met. Not entirely, because I didn’t know much about her family background, nor she about mine, but what we did understand is the work each of us had done over the previous three or four years, and that was good enough to spark a curiosity and encourage us to give collaborating a chance, which was not easy at first, but it did eventually work out’.
All of Ulay’s artistic exploration sprung out of his insatiable search for identity, born of his no longer having any family left alive. Everyone is deeply defined by the community they are raised in, and it is that personal environment that Ulay lost. When I asked him if he feels as if he has found the thing he was searching for, if he knows what his identity is, he replied: ‘What I have learned – and it may be the best lesson about identity – is that it is a very easy thing to accept, because you are born with it. You have a national identity, a religious identity, a familial identity, a name identity, everything. But for me, as I said once in the eighties I believe, identity is change and in my life I have changed many times. I think that change is inherent to my identity. I am very much a nomadic person. I feel at home anywhere my heart is; it can be in the centre of the Australian desert, it can be in India, Ljubljana, anywhere, because I am not forced to be there. I choose to be there. And I choose these places because of my interests and my identity search. I loved living with Aboriginal people because it is a non-materialistic culture and I like that. I am not a very materialistic person. As a nomad, I also never collected many things, never had property. I had cars, always cars, but never property, except my archive. In my nomadic, gypsy life I was always keen to keep some kind of record documenting the changes of my life, and that I find important. So yes: identity through change. Everything is, by the nature of things, always in a state of change. And people being fixed in just once place…that adds to intolerance’.
Talking about identity and what defines us, I tentatively asked Ulay to draw three women that have influenced him the most, three artists he admires, three beverages that he likes to drink and three cars that are important to him on the paper I brought. He agreed to do it, although he was surprised and emphasized that he doesn’t know how to draw and that that is why he takes photographs.
The first woman he drew was Paula Françoise-Piso. ‘She was a very charming person. We were extreme lovers, we very much in love and were together from 1971 to 1975. I integrated Paula’s being into many of my photographs. We clicked very well. We had a beautiful life together, we travelled quite a lot…she was maybe my most intense lover’. Their most known work together is called Retouching Bruises an installation from 1975 consisting 100 pieces of Polaroid photographs. What’s important about this work is that it – among his other works such as Renais Sense (1972-1975), S’he (1974), Soliloquy (1975) and Fototot (1976) – affirms Ulay as a pioneer of synthesis between photography and performance, the synthesis which he later on explored and upgraded with Marina Abramović.
Abramović is the second woman that he drew: ‘I later met her, and she became a lover of mine, or I became a lover of hers, and the unique thing is that we both agreed that we wanted to perform together. We would perform a cycle of performances and what we wanted to express as a man and a woman is the traumatic fears that exist between a man and a woman in relationship. We struggled of course with the performances; there were, with exception of one time where we had an audience of 800 people, only thirty or so people watching them. And what is fascinating now is the fact that millions of people know about them without ever having been there, without ever having seen them. That means that what we did has travelled verbally from one generation to another and has reached people today. We managed with our work, as shamans sometimes do, to once again stimulate the oral tradition’. Their performances are today iconic and have inspired an immense number of artists. Having millions and millions of views on YouTube has also resulted in their performances being infiltrated into the cosmos of pop culture. One example is when the W magazine used Ulay and Marina’s performances Relation in Time (1977) and AAA AAA (1978) to promote a certain supermodel that I will not name.
‘What we had with Marina was a symbiosis; that’s why our separation was so hard. We were loving and living and working together with such intensity for such a relatively short time that we became like symbiotic twins. And you know about symbiosis, you have a twin sister. It is a very tricky thing, because it makes you biologically dependent. That means you create a dependency, a different dependency than, for example, one you would have with a job, income dependency. This one is a very delicate, maybe a parabiological kind of dependency’.
But what about now, I wondered. What kind of relationship, if any at all, do they have right now? I learned by reading certain articles that he sued her because she breached their agreement regarding their joint work. He won the lawsuit. And that was the latest thing I could find about them. Did he and Marina ever make up? The answer was: ‘Yes. We did’. I asked him when he had seen her for the last time and this led him to tell me a story: ‘Lena and I decided to go to this Ayurvedic clinic in India back in January (2017). It is the best clinic around, but it is also very tough. We go every year for three or four weeks to detox. So, we went to this clinic, where you get these white pyjamas and you get new and fresh ones every day and are not allowed to wear anything else. The place welcomes maximum 25 patients at one time, all dressed in white. It looks a little bit like a mad house. And after three days, Lena did a lot of yoga, I did a lot of meditative walking, and at one stage I saw Lena walking with somebody in the park. The two approached me, and it happened to be Marina. We didn’t know she’d be there in the middle of nowhere in India in the most exclusive and strange place and she didn’t know we’d be there either. During our three weeks together, Lena became very good friends with Marina. I kept being cautious, but then one day Marina said: “Ulay let’s forget the past. Let’s start over. Let’s start anew. I recently turned 70 and I was thinking everything over. I want to have joy and be gracious and have fun”. And that sounded good to me. We correspond and talk to each other ever since’.
I was dumbstruck by this tale, and my mouth dropped. After hearing something like that one finds it hard not to believe in destiny.
The third, and probably the most important woman he drew was Lena. ‘That’s an interesting story. Eight years ago, in 2008, I was asked by Tevž Logar to come to Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana, where I gave a talk with Ješa Denegri while they were hosting an exhibition by a Croatian artist, Janoš I think was his name. I saw a woman there, a blonde woman with a sort of crazy Andy Warhol kind of hairstyle and a big black dog. But we didn’t talk that night. And exactly one year later, in October 2009, Tevž Logar invited me back to Škuc Gallery, to prepare an exhibition of my work. So, I came back of course, because I really love Tevž and I really love Ljubljana and once again there was the blonde woman with her big black dog. I started flirting with her while talking to other people, after which I, with some other people, went to go grab a bite, and Lena came with us. We ate at some kind of fast food restaurant. After dinner, Lena told me that she was homeless. I have nothing against the homeless. But I didn’t understand what she meant. I had a room in a shitty hotel and I told her she could come and sleep there. And she did. The next day we drove to Tobačna, where she had a big studio, and she showed me around, and etc., etc.…so then we got together. I went back to Amsterdam and checked the situation and whether I could move back – not to that hotel, but somewhere. And I came back with a suitcase, to stay forever. I landed in Maribor; Lena picked me up at the airport and then took me home. And it was very special. And three years later, we got married. She saved me. Lena saved me’. I asked him then if he proposed to her, and what he told me was very touching: ‘We talked about it, but before that I asked her mother and her father while down on my knees’.
Naturally our conversation led us to talk about love: ‘Love can be interpreted in many ways. There are many sorts of love. You can love your dog, your husband or wife, your friends, your lover, anything. Literally anything, but with a different feeling, different intention and relatedness. To love is a very tricky thing, and being in love, especially the first time, is an incredible sensation. There is a chemistry going on inside of you that is not easy to describe, butterflies and stuff. But love…you know I’ve been together with Lena for eight years now, and our love is changing. Love is subject to change, just as my life has been. Now at my age, with my experience – and I had some lovers, not many but some – I think I entered a stage, an experienced stage where love becomes wiser. So, I’m now busy with the wise love. Living with someone a long time, the understanding of love changes. It becomes much more about security, faith, trust and understanding, so love eventually becomes very rational, but also beautiful, but very different from when you are at the beginning of a relationship’.
When I asked him about the most important woman in his life right now Ulay said: ‘Well that’s obvious: Lena. It’s Lena’. Then I dared to inquire who the greatest love of his life was and Ulay gave me the most beautiful, most adequate, most perfect answer I could have thought of: ‘Maybe myself’.
We finished our intense five-hour talk at Magda – where it all started – with a glass of a mighty fine whiskey on the rocks discussing death and how Antonin Artaud is now in literary art heaven with all the other great artist that inspire him. That is why he additionally drew a halo above their heads on the paper that I gave him. ‘All these people passed away and nothing changes. Nothing. Some people feel sorrow, some people will write stuff in their honour, some people will remember the impact this person had on them…but nothing changes. That shows how small and insignificant we are, we think we can change the world, but the world is gone living. “So, what’s all the fuss about”? he asks again a little bit more intensely, gazing directly into my eyes: “What’s all the fuss about”’? And I smilingly answer: ‘I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out’. ‘So how old are you again, dear’? he inquires. ‘Twenty-one’, I say. ‘Oh…oh…so young. Then there’s hope’. I shyly laugh away his statement and wait for what’s next. He tells me to give him some paper, asks for another glass of wine and writes down my vedic numerological profile and the rest is entre nous.