Legendary couple in performance art – Marina Abramović and Ulay – lived together for 12 years and made pioneering work as a duo. In this extraordinary double interview the artists look back on their relationship – from their first meeting in 1975 until now.
Abramović and Ulay met for the first time in Amsterdam in 1975 on their shared birthday. Abramović was fascinated by Ulay’s looks – dressed as half man, half woman – and recalls the German photographer as a “self-made man,” interested in transgender and living a very free life. In turn, Ulay remembers the young Serbian performance artist “as very much fatal,” having an “enormous Balkanesque temperament and stamina.” He tended to her wounds after she had cut a five-point star onto her stomach for the work ‘Lips of Thomas’ (1975), and the two artists fell in love and soon after decided to live and work together.
In their first spectacular performance, ‘Relation in Space’, the two nude artists passed each other with increasing speed, resulting in violent collisions. This became the first of the duo’s iconic series of ‘Relation Works’, in which the dynamics between male and female energy were investigated: “We wanted to take the possible conflict of a relation to an extreme,” says Ulay, who emphasizes that “what we did in performance was actually the absolute opposite of how we understood, how we lived and loved each other.” Abramović adds that, looking back, “this relation was extremely important for the history of performance art. They’re all historical pieces, and I think that they came out of the amazing mixture of our existence, our love for each other and the incredibly dedicated work …”
For years the couple lived a nomadic life in a Citroën van, driving and working all across Europe. In the beginning of the 1980s they had become a power couple in the art world, as Ulay comments: “From deep in my heart and in my guts I always had a flirt with anarchy. So when the anarchist becomes an institute that’s of course ridiculous.” Their interests and passion as artists also began to move in different directions, most notably in the ‘Nightsea Crossing’ series (1981-1987). In 1988 their breakup was captured in the epic work ‘The Lovers’, where they walked The Great Wall of China starting from the two opposite ends and meeting after 90 days to say goodbye. The couple didn’t speak for 20 years, but have now reunited: “Everything naughty, nasty, disagreeable or whatever from the past, we drop, and since we became good friends again. That’s a beautiful story actually,” as Ulay explains. And in Abramović’s words: “I think what is left is this really beautiful work that we left behind. And this is what matters.”
Marina Abramović (b. 1946) was born in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia and is now based in New York, US. She began her work as a performance artist in the 1970s and is now regarded as one of the most important artists in the field. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind. In 2017 the retrospective ‘The Cleaner’ was shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, and at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, among other places.
Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, b. 1943) is a German artist, now based in Amsterdam, Holland, and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Ulay received international recognition for his work as a photographer, mainly in Polaroid, from the late 1960s, and later as a performance artist, including his collaborative performances with Marina Abramović from 1976 to 1988. His work has continuously dealt with politics, identity and gender. In 2016 Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, held the first major retrospective show of his work ‘Ulay Life-Sized’.
Marina Abramović and Ulay were interviewed by Christian Lund at Sank Petri Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2017 in connection with Marina Abramović’s major retrospective exhibition ‘The Cleaner’ at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
Camera: Rasmus Quistgaard & Anders Lindved
Edited by: Roxanne Bageshirin Lærkesen
Produced by: Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2017
Supported by Nordea-fonden