A bearded old man with a weathered face stands in pink knickers. As part of his performance A Skeleton in the Closet, he is writing numbers on the wall of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum: 252, 253, 288, 289. The lucky spectators who made it in to the sell-out show – 500 hopefuls remain outside – try to work out what it all means.
Frank Uwe Laysiepen, who has worked for more than 50 years as Ulay, is one of just a handful of performance artists featured in art history textbooks. The only one better known is Marina Abramović: Ulay’s partner in life and art from 1976 until 1988. Since their break-up, Abramović has become famous worldwide, thanks to a 2010 retrospective at MoMA in New York, a major HBO documentary, celebrity friends including Jay Z and Lady Gaga and a line of Adidas commercials. Ulay, however, is hardly a household name.
The art they made together was passionate, pioneering and powerful; their extraordinary relationship lives on in indelible images, such as the pair holding a bow and arrow in tension, the arrow’s tip pointed at Abramović’s heart. This month, it faces its greatest crisis: in the law courts, where Ulay claims that Abramović has been writing him out of his own history. In his lawsuit he alleges that she has withheld money from him for 16 years, and failed to give him proper credit for their joint legacy. Those numbers in A Skeleton in the Closet? They refer to the collaborative works which, he says, Abramović has censored. She vigorously contests the claims, and says she is confident she will win the case.
Together, Abramović and Ulay made scores of artworks. They include Incision (1978), in which a naked Ulay runs toward a clothed Abramović, only to be pulled back by an elastic rope and, in the same year, AAA-AAA in which the pair scream at one another. Their relationship is symbolised in 1977’s Relation in Time, in which they performed bound together by their braided hair while facing away from one another – for 17 hours.
More recently, Ulay reappeared in Abramović’s performance of The Artist is Present at MoMA, where visitors queued (for hour upon hour) to sit silently opposite her and simply share eye contact. One day, Ulay showed up as a surprise. Both grew teary as they sat staring at one another and the moment was captured on film. It went viral, and has now been seen by millions on YouTube. The background music and explanatory text make it seem like the reunion of long-lost lovers. But the truth is rather less romantic.
Now 72, Ulay splits his time between Amsterdam and Ljubljana, Slovenia. We meet in his spacious flat, overlooking the Dragon Bridge. He first came to Ljubljana for a show of his work and met his now-wife, a renowned Slovenian graphic designer. Their apartment is full of art and found objects: antique apothecary jars, handwritten notes in a number of languages, an ornately carved south Asian screen. But Ulay is rarely in one place for long: invited to perform at Art Basel, teaching on the Greek island of Hydra, filming in Paris.
In 2013, he was the subject of a documentary film, Project Cancer, which followed him for a year after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. After extensive chemotherapy, he beat the cancer and is now in fine form. He mocks what nearly killed him with a Marlboro Red for ever curling smoke around his fingers.
Warm and soft-spoken with a haggard handsomeness, he seems to have more stories than could fit in one biography. He was born in Germany, but is synonymous with Amsterdam’s art scene, where he lived for decades and still keeps an apartment. His art career began with his role as a photographer for Polaroid, travelling Europe and the US, taking photographs with their colossal 20×24 and 40×80 inch cameras. The majority of his work remains photographic, but he made his name with his (frequently cross-dressing) performances.
The most famous relationship in performance art ended dramatically 18 years ago, after a piece in which Ulay and Abramović set out from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China – then met in the middle to say farewell. Ulay says that from 1988-99, he and she did not speak. With the encouragement of Abramović’s gallerist Sean Kelly, a contract was drawn up to manage their joint oeuvre and Ulay sold his physical archive – including negatives and transparencies – to Abramović. According to the contract, it could be used to produce saleable work at Abramović’s discretion with 20% of the profit going to Ulay. She agreed to tell him about any reproductions or sales of their work.
Since then, Ulay claims she has violated that contract. He says he has received surprisingly little money – much less, he reckons, than half of what he should have received. Each of their works sell regularly for five or six-figure sums, yet he has received a total of €31,000. “There is a lot of money going through her accounts – and of course they have a very good accountant.” He says he only learned of a major Adidas commercial that used their joint work while it was being filmed.
What concerns Ulay more, though, is his sense that Abramović is trying to write him out of art history. He claims their contract stipulates that their works must be joint credited, but that Abramović has been claiming sole authorship. “She has deliberately misinterpreted things, or left my name out,” he says.
Ulay also claims that The Artist is Present “borrows from” one of their joint works, the epic 90-day performance series Nightsea Crossing, which they performed between 1981 and 1987. “At MoMA, she just cut the table in half and invited visitors to sit opposite her instead of me.” He says his own initial indifference to the issue of authorship has contributed to the problem. “Because I don’t want to always struggle with her.”
Their relationship remained cordial and might have continued so, he says, had Abramović not interfered with the publication of his 2014 book, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay. The book – which included images from their joint works – was begun when Ulay was undergoing chemotherapy. Abramović originally agreed to give an interview – “She was extremely kind,” recalls its author, Maria Rus Bojan – but later claimed through her lawyer that she had not given permission to use either the interview or some pictures.
The publisher decided to exclude about 28 images, printing a pink square in place of each. It is the page numbers of these missing images that Ulay scribbles on the wall in A Skeleton In The Closet. “I was hurt, very much hurt.” he says. “It is unthinkable, so unjust, so not right. When I was working with her, she was great. But then, you know, the direction she went to, to become a star, is something I do not envy. It’s far away from my intentions, wishes, desires … it went to her head.”
Curator Tevz Logar, who organised Ulay’s first show in Slovenia, points out that, until recently, Ulay had showed no interest in maintaining a position in the contemporary art world. Now he is represented by the MOT International gallery, and will have a solo exhibition in London next year. “That meant that he started to enter Marina’s symbolic space, space that until now she ruled over.
“Every single person in the art world knows that the Relation Works [their most famous collaborative series] worked because of the balance between them, and of their equal and joint efforts,” says Logar. “That is how it entered the history of art and performance.”
When approached to comment on the case, Abramović’s lawyer replied: “Mrs Abramović totally disagree[s] with Ulay’s allegations. My client doesn’t want to comment on them, they are libellous. My client considers that this lawsuit is abusive and aimed to damage her reputation in public, which is proven by his allegations to you. My client is very confident in her position in front of the court. She will defend her rights and reputation by all legal means.”
As for Ulay, he is defending his reputation by more subtle means. A tiny note in the acknowledgments pages of his book Whispers reveals the reason for the pink squares – and the missing images. “I think it must have pissed her off,” he says.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and author of The Art of Forgery (Phaidon).
• This article was amended on 17 November 2015. Ulay subsequently contacted us to correct some of the details he gave at the time of the interview.
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