For performance artists, their bodies are the canvas on which to paint, the marble from which to sculpt. Some have pierced their bodies with pins, others with vicious hooks linked to chains from which they hang by their nearly-torn flesh, as in some grotesque fresco of martyrdom out of The Golden Legend. Their art is performed by themselves, live, not created in a studio and then shipped off to a gallery. They are in the gallery as you watch. In some cases, they are the gallery. Any record of their art is secondary to being present with them, in the form of film or photographs or ekphrastic attempts at typed description. Performance art is loved by some, hated or dismissed as silly by most. It is the ultimate definition of art as whatever an artist claims it to be. And one of the very few world-famous performance artists, whose work appears alongside the Old Masters in survey textbooks of Western art history, is Ulay.
Frank Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay is a nickname) was born in Germany in 1943 and began his career as a photographer, at one time running a very successful studio and one of the first sponsored photographers for Polaroid. He left his career and family and moved to Amsterdam, where he launched what would become a hugely-influential career as an artist, first in photography, exploring the possibilities of Polaroid technology (from the point-and-shoots to the giant studio models), before turning to performance art. For better or worse, his work is inextricably linked to a period of time (1976-1989) when he was the romantic and artistic partner of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic is now certainly the best-known performance artist in the world, since a film about her career (The Artist is Present) and a major retrospective at MOMA in 2010 (and the PR assistance of Lady Gaga), while Ulay remains admired and known to artists and art historians, but is not the household name that Abramovic has become. There are reasons this should change, and this film is one of them.
When I studied art history at college, I was always more interested in the dead white European males of the past. I found performance art generally silly and weird, although there were some works I liked. Joseph Beuys wandering a room with a timber wolf haunted me. And several works by Ulay and Marina Abramovic resonated, including one, Imponderabilia (1977), in which both stood naked opposite each other in a narrow passage through which gallery visitors must squeeze, awkwardly and sideways, between their naked bodies, in order to enter the gallery. There are other works of theirs that did not quite suit me, or I felt that I did not understand (running headfirst into walls, thereby pushing the walls outward, or intentionally bumping into each other as they walk back and forth across a room), but it is telling that Ulay is one of only four or five performance artists who are regularly included in general surveys of Western art history. I was pleased to meet Ulay a few years back, when it turned out that both he and I had married Slovenian women and were living in Ljubljana. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, to see a documentary film about him, made by Damjan Kozole and released recently (with its first UK screening September 25 at the Raindance Festival in London).
Kozole’s documentary follows Ulay in 2011-2012, when he was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment, ultimately defeating the disease. We see him at various stages of physical distress, undergoing chemo, traveling to Berlin to meet Abramovic, marrying his Slovenian love, and telling portions of his life as he journeyed to meet old friends (among them fellow celebrities like Chuck Close), with the knowledge that, should his chemo fail, he would be seeing them for the last time. The film is part poignant diary, part retrospective, with a lush collection of his photographs mixed in with films of his performances, and talking heads describing his impact.
Considering the title, Project Cancer, which links to the “projects,” “actions,” or “happenings” of performance artists in the 1970s, I imagined that the documentary might present the battle with cancer as a sort of performance. Since Ulay’s body has always been his performing canvas, most obviously in his early series, (S)he, in which he dressed and made himself up as a woman on exactly half of his face, which was divided vertically between the eyes, one might consider that the body’s changes during cancer could be taken by a bold and dedicated performance artist as a performance unto itself, over which one has little to no control. There might be an eerie parallel to Abramovic’s famous Rhythm 0 (1974) in which she stood for six hours beside a table covered in 72 implements, many of them dangerous, and permitted anyone to do anything to her with any of the implements, including injure her. This, her most famous work, offers up the body to the whims of others, and is a neat analogy for many things, illness among them. Could Project Cancer have been conceived as a parallel performance, with the anonymous tumors playing the role of actor with dangerous implements?
It did not turn out that way. As I watched, I could almost imagine that as the initial idea, but the realities of it are too much to oblige making light, or art, of such a situation. What we have instead is an intimate journal framed by Ulay’s treatment, a career retrospective, interviews, and a tour to say farewell to old friends. In the end, it turned out to be more of a “see you later” tour because, thankfully, Ulay beat cancer. He remarks at the end of the film that the audience probably would have been more satisfied if he had died, or at least they were prepared for it. Instead, there is a warming moment to end the film. He gazes out from the terrace of his home and thoughtfully remarks, “This is beautiful.” Then he turns to the camera. “You are beautiful.”
The film is beautiful, and one can read into the remarkably handsome crags of Ulay’s face a warmth of heart, a humility, and a dash of mischief. He, too, is beautiful.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author. He teaches courses on writing at University of Ljubljana and for the Guardian Masterclasses. For more information visit www.noahcharney.com or join him on Facebook.