Slipping between photography and performance, activism and documentation, Ulay’s work eludes easy definition. At the core of his practice, and central to this exhibition (the first solo show of his work in the UK), is the construction and malleability of identity. Yet despite the ubiquity of such enquiries, the work presented elucidates unnerving parallels with the contemporary climate—migration and Euroscepticism are recurring themes, and Ulay’s photographic invocations of gender fluidity now appear oddly prescient. In its spare, understated assemblage of work from Ulay’s lengthy career, So you see me asks us to consider the capacity of art to effect social change in times of unrest and upheaval.
A wall of screaming tabloid headlines welcomes the visitor to the exhibition, dwarfing the TV screens that document the 1976 action, ‘There is a Criminal Touch to Art’. This notorious performance, recorded in a DIY set of instructions in the accompanying exhibition guide, saw Ulay snatch Carl Spitzweg’s ‘The Poor Poet’ from its frame, transport the painting to an apartment block in Kreuzberg, and re-hang it on the wall of a Turkish family’s living room. Viewed within a nation-specific context, signalled here by the untranslated German headlines, the action takes on new significance. Spitzweg’s celebrated—albeit saccharine—work was heralded as a classical symbol of German cultural identity, but its violent relocation to the home of a migrant family evokes the difficult subject of integration and belonging—namely, what it takes, for example, for a migrant to become a fully accepted member of an adopted society. This is a deeply politicised action, one that took place in an era of intense, widespread, and arguably justifiable paranoia. The problems it poses, of course, remain just as relevant in the era of Merkel’s controversial asylum policies as in the case of a divided Germany.
The theme of division and fear continues with the large-scale projection of ‘Kill Your Pillow’ (1992), an Amsterdam gallery ‘live-in’ that took place under the umbrella of Tim Brennan’s Fortress Europe project. The artists colonising the space sought to evoke the sense of isolation and segregation experienced by a new generation of migrants. Ulay’s voice-over, relayed through headphones, recalls that particular suspicion was reserved for anti-immigration rhetoric as the EU continued its expansion into Eastern Europe. Listening to the artist re-voice his concerns that the coalition would transform into an impenetrable and totalitarian superbloc (Ulay sarcastically invokes white European fears of the ‘unwashed people’ beyond the southern borders of EU territory), it is difficult not to think of Calais’ hellish refugee camps, or the desperate scenes that continue to take place around the Mediterranean.
Yet this righteous indignation occasionally provokes a sense of unease. ‘Women with Flags’ (1992-7) marks a rare glimpse of colour in Ulay’s mostly monochrome photographic work. The series depicts an ethnically diverse group of women wielding reconstituted EU flags, accompanied once more by a descriptive voiceover. Again, he questions the nature of European identity and, specifically, its lack of diversity—he expresses his fears, or what he calls ‘premonitions’, of the potential for EU to lock down its borders in order to preserve a degree of racial homogeneity. The low-level discomfort evoked by this work is exacerbated by Ulay’s rhetorical question and answer: ‘Why women? I love women’. This rather irksome aside hints at a more difficult reading of the work, suggestive as it is of tokenism and (no doubt unintentionally) perpetuating a fetishisation of the exotic female Other.
Identity politics adopt a rather different form in the main gallery space, where the focus lies on corporeality and transformation. Ulay is perhaps best known for his performance practice, and the spare grouping of fragments in this room traces a more biographical account of his career, beginning with an image of the artist on his first day of school. As with the EU-inflected works, however, the prescience of Ulay’s early sources of fascination is plain to see. The ‘Renais sense’ series (1973-4) seems strangely prophetic in its adroit manipulations of gender, where close-up shots of indistinct pieces of flesh render male and female bodies as largely interchangeable. In ‘Pa’Ulay’, the faces of Ulay and Paula Françoise-Piso (his former partner and collaborator) are roughly spliced together, suggesting not simply a desire to transcend gender, but an attempt to fully fuse the self with another (foreshadowing Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s Pandrogyny Project by several decades). Meanwhile, the large-scale auto-portraits that comprise ‘S’He’ depict Ulay in varying states of drag, the image increasingly obscured until only a slit of his face remains. Individual identity is sublimated, transcended, dissolved; at the same time, the title seems to presage contemporary debates around gender self-determination and pronoun usage.
Performance is inevitably memorialised in fragments. Recording the live event leaves us with impressions of the body and of actions completed, contained within a particular moment in time. Ulay does not provide painstaking documentation or re-enactments of his work. Instead, this exhibition revolves around notions of visibility, erasure, and ephemera, and it is left to the viewer to piece together the remnants of events past. Two glass vitrines contain a dense assortment of photocopied pages, providing a rare glimpse into his research process. The contents of these cabinets of curiosities range from circus performers and medical peculiarities to handwritten notes, magazine articles, and event invitations. Cartoonish images of tattooed bodies, bearded ladies, and conjoined twins float amidst a sea of text, but this chaotic assemblage nonetheless underscores the significance of transformation and queerness to Ulay’s oeuvre.
For the most part, Ulay remains outside mainstream academic discourse, even within the relatively open-minded arena of performance studies (were it not for the insistent writings of Amelia Jones and Dominic Johnson, his work would likely be further obscured from view). This significant and timely retrospective provides an important insight into the diverse legacy of a pioneering figure, its themes eerily relevant to the current, deepening global identity crisis. In a time where it seems that we are constantly asking what is to be done, Ulay’s work suggests that the answer might begin with individual, impactful acts of reflection and resistance.
Lucy Weir is a Teaching Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Edinburgh