top of page


Artist 208

Ulay Performance artist Ulay is the stage name of Frank Uwe Laysiepen German born 1943 who passed away on 2 March 2020 was a German performance artist. He was based in Amsterdam and Ljubljana and received international recognition for his Polaroid art and collaborative performance art with longtime companion Marina Abramović. In the early 1970s, struggling with his sense of "Germanness," Ulay moved to Amsterdam, where he began experimenting with the medium of Polaroid. Renais sense (1974), a series of self-reflective and autobiographical collages, depicted overt visual representations of a constructed gender that were considered scandalous at the time.

In 1976, Laysiepen, who went by the single name Ulay, met the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. They began living and performing together that year. When Abramović and Ulay began their collaboration, the main concepts they explored were the Ego and artistic identity. This was the beginning of a decade of influential collaborative work. Each performer was interested in the traditions of their cultural heritage and the individual's desire for ritual. In an analysis of phantom artistic identities, Charles Green has noted that this allowed a deeper understanding of the artist as performer, for it revealed a way of "having the artistic self-made available for self-scrutiny".

The work of Abramović and Ulay tested the physical limits of the body and explored male and female principles, psychic energy, transcendental meditation and nonverbal communication. In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. They each walked the Great Wall of China, in a piece called Lovers, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. But before and after the meeting with what he will often define as his muse, Ulay has carried on his artistic life focused on photography and live performances.

With the former, especially analogical or with the artistic use of Polaroid, he undertook research based on the concepts of identity and body, documenting the culture of transvestites and transsexuals and receiving his first major recognition in 1974. After their separation, which took place during the performance The Wall Walk in China in 1988, the two met several times in courtrooms for the copyright of their works, closing their artistic association forever. It was from that date that Ulay began his solo career again, concentrating all his work on the photographic medium and on some innovative experiments such as Photograms and Polagrams. Despite the variety of themes he tackled, Ulay has never lost sight of the question of identity, a fundamental theme for all his artistic experimentation. All his works of that period are closely linked to the concept of feminine sensitivity which, after a process of experimentation, he discovers he has in the first person, and on the representation of androgyny. Ulay experimented extensively with incorporating audience participation into his performance art.

In 2013, director Damjan Kozole released the documentary Project Cancer: Ulay's journal from November to November about the artist's life, work and 2011 cancer diagnosis. The film follows Ulay's treatments, meetings with friends and travels, as well as his ongoing practice. He recovered from the lymphatic cancer in 2014. During this period of treatment, he decided to start a new project alongside director Damjan Kozole, the documentary Project Cancer. For this reason, he will travel the world, retracing through places the key moments of his existence, performing yet another experiment on his own body: “At the peak of my career, I treated my body very badly with masochistic, self-aggressive actions, hurting myself. Three years ago I discovered I had cancer. But it had nothing to do with my work: my past performances, in fact, taught me that the mind must be more powerful than the body”.


bottom of page