Whatever we say about performance artist and photographer, born in Germany, Frank Uwe Laysiepen – Ulay, it will all be insufficient. Beyond what is seen and known, there is so much more in him that cannot be expressed with words! The artist’s interests surpass the self and embrace socially significant topics like alienation and tolerance between people, ecology and the future of our planet. The media that Ulay uses from performance to Polaroid images and self-portraits all involve, provoke and pose questions. The discussion with the artist is a verbal performance of its own, between two strangers who find something form themselves in the other with every question and answer.
Ulay shares that in the last interviews he has been giving, he is most frequently asked about his relationship and work with his long-term partner Marina Abramović. And even more frequently so – about the meeting between the two of them at the MoMA in New York in 2010, where Abramović is giving a performance and at some moment she sees in front of herself her former partner. A scene that has been seen millions of times on YouTube. I decide we skip these questions and I don’t ask him about Marina Abramović. Not even a word. After all, his personality is interesting enough and we are going to pay its due time and words. Especially now, surrounding the artist’s first exhibition in Bulgaria – Ulay: I Other at Vivacom Art Hall in Sofia.
Who is I and who is Other?
I borrowed the title of the exhibition from French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his quote “Je est un autre” (“I is another”), which I found exceptionally interesting. And obviously my ambition as an artist was 1) to depict not only myself, 2) follow not only aesthetical criteria, and 3) to represent the Other as far as the individual is concerned (mainly people with minority problems – homeless people, for instance, or Aboriginal Australians). So Ulay: I Other shows that no one is alone in this world. We live on this planet with many others and if we realise that the others exist together with us, there is no way for us to remain isolated.
When and where do I and Other meet?
Now and forever. Regardless of the fact whether you are in the toilette, or you are lying in your bed, the others continue to exist. Only when you are deeply asleep or you close the door, do you manage to switch them off for a moment. But they continue to exist.
We also carry in ourselves a lot of Others…
Yes, different personalities or characters, but this is not reflected in my exhibition. Although there is an aphorism… some time ago I wrote a poem on my skin, with which I wanted to show that there lives a second or a third self in every one of us. This is a psychological, but also a social story, because we all wear social masks in order not to go out of the social frame too much.
When do you most frequently turn to yourself?
All the time. I am a man who listens to his inner voice. In my younger years I tried transvestism, I was in transvestite circles and this for me was a test, an attempt to understand myself as a woman. I found out that there is a strong anima in me – the female spirituality. For nearly half a year I was a part of these circles and that was extremely interesting, after which I again turned back to the male in me, but with much more understanding of the role of the woman.
Probably every man should do this…
(laughing) Yes, this would be interesting. My wife Lena wears a T-shirt that says “Everybody is a feminist”.
Probably the future is feminine?
I hope so. Nature is feminine. And the only thing that is absolutely sure is the so-called system capacity.
Do you continue to present yourself as Water (after the artist’s environmental project Earth Water)?
Yes, but less often. I froze for a while the Earth Water project and catalogue, because I was very ill, I was fighting cancer for two years (and thank God I managed to defeat it), and the whole story with the water was put to sleep. For a few months now I have reactivated the project and it has been open not only to artists, but also to everyone who is engaged with this topic.
The artist is by definition a searching man. How have you changed over the years?
I have already turned 73 and I have been leading a truly remarkable life. But with years I have started seeing things in a different way, I have distanced myself and become more sensitive.
Would you ever repeat any of your performances?
No, I do not repeat my performances. For the last 12 years I haven’t done a single performance. Every time they ask me if I do any performances, I answer no and say that I am not old enough for this. This means that I don’t want to do these spectacular and frustrating performances, I want to become old enough to show impossibility of doing a performance.
How does the future of performances look in the context of social media?
You know what, I call Facebook Fuck Face and those selfies… I call them fuck-your-selfie. I have nothing to do with social media. It is called social, but in fact it is antisocial. The only thing they do is give you the feeling that you belong to a community. But to me this is not serious. It will never have any effect on my performances unless I do a performance at some point about people taking pictures with their mobile phones. To me, social media is perfectly unsociable.
Yes, but people are living much more actively in it…
This is their own business. And if they cannot see that this is gross, then they cannot realise the graveness of the matter.
What provokes you today as an artist?
What provokes me to create today is discussions. With different people. With journalists like yourself. With my wife, with the curators of my exhibition. I find interviews the most exciting, because they constantly turn me to myself.
Text: Veliana Simeonova