The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue
Art In Conversation

ULAY with Alessandro Cassin

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

This past February, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) met with the Rail’s Alessandro Cassin in Amsterdam, to begin work on a book project. Here is a preview, which starts from his current interest: water.


Ulay: Recently I decided that whenever I meet someone, I should introduce myself as “Water.” Think of it: our brains are about 90 percent water, our bodies about 68 percent. Not even Waterman, simply Water: it makes people curious, they say, “pardon?” and I say again “Water.” This immediately starts a conversation and creates an awareness about it. This new name conveys my deep concern about water.

Alessandro Cassin (Rail): How did this begin?

Ulay: For some years I have been working on several art works, educational projects, and lectures concerning water. Sweet, fresh, drinking water. This is an urgent issue; for some it’s beyond urgent.

In 2004 I wrote a series of questions directed to water in the form of a poem. The poem triggered my initial investigations.

Rail: I understand you are launching several initiatives.

Ulay: I’m presently concentrating my efforts on an online World Water Catalog. It will be compiled exclusively from artists’s works about water. There are more and more artists in all media dealing with water or water-related issues. We are building a secure website, where artists can show their works.

Rail: How will it work?

Ulay: Anyone with a computer will be able to look at it. As far as participating, it will be by personal invitation only. Artists will get a password that will allow them to upload their work. We need to be very careful about copyright, plagiarism, and theft. I want to change the image of water through the “artful eye.”

Rail: Is the website ready?

Ulay: It’s in the making. It will be up in May or June.

Rail: Why artists?

Ulay: Because they have a different view of water and a specific sensibility. Water issues are a top agenda for many international organizations. If you look at their publications you find words, graphs, numbers and statistics. Not exactly compelling. Aid organizations may use images, but generally appeal to sentiment in order to get donations. I want to make water beautiful! I think artists are the ones who can achieve this.

Rail: What are the other related initiatives you are planning?

Ulay: Lena Pislak and I have set up a foundation in Ljubljana, Slovenia, called Nastati, which means become, arise. We designed the World Water Catalog (an artist based enterprise), Three Women for Water (a socially oriented approach) and the World Water Institute (a scientific project).

Rail: How will this foundation operate?

Ulay and Marina Abramovic,
Ulay and Marina Abramovic, "Modus Vivendi," 1984 color Polaroid. Courtesy of the artists.

Ulay: The foundation has a board composed of three women and myself. Three Women for Water is about social networking. The initial three women, individually or together, will approach three more women in another country who are already engaged locally in water projects. The idea is to root the global problem of drinking water into the local reality of different countries: global problems—local solutions. Thirdly, the World Water Institute will be about the science that could contribute to solving the problem of drinking water. We are living a true water emergency: imagine that in sub-Saharan Africa a child dies of dehydration every 15 seconds.

Rail: What is your personal connection to water?

Ulay: I have been doing performances for a long time, working with my body. Body art, body language, body. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started asking myself: what can I substitute my body with, and how? My realization that the body is mainly water led me to see water as an opportunity to go into the essence of the body. The problem is the vastness of this subject. If you Google “drinking water,” in 0.48 seconds you get about 35 million references.

So you really have to learn to swim in order not to drown in the subject.

Rail: Water is also a major component in analog photography.

Ulay: It is no coincidence that today it is referred to as “wet photography.” I spent years in dark rooms, among liquids, mastering all aspects of the analog process. Those were wet places!

Rail: Your projects combine contemporary concepts such as “open source” collaboration with age-old one-to-one personal communication.

Having three women as the ambassadors of a global project suggests that basic tribal forms of communication are still current.

Ulay: Yes, ancient to contemporary. Computer work must go hand in hand with field work.

I like your word tribal. I have always felt like a tribe member, a tribesman, always did, I just have never quite identified my tribe yet.

Rail: Is it fair to say that your life’s work, initiated with self-scrutiny through your auto-Polaroids, has brought you years later—through water—to a concern for the world outside yourself?

Ulay: I have long been interested in what goes on around me. Today water is a question of life and death. The fact that large sectors of the world population do not have access to safe drinking water is an outrage.

Rail: Recently your focus has expanded to universal themes and concerns.

Ulay & Marina Abramovic,
Ulay & Marina Abramovic, "Relation in Space," Venice Biennale 1976 (first performance). Courtesy of the artists.

Ulay: I am very cautious with the word “universal.” The “Pope of late modernism,” Clement Greenberg, declared that Modernist painting was universal. He meant that it could heal the world. I never believed that. At one point I was perceived as an early postmodern artist, but I rejected that. Theoreticians came up with the term sometime in the ’80s. They thought my work fit their paradigm. Except that I had had that same unorthodox approach on my own for 15 years.

Rail: What are some of the art projects about water you have been involved in?

Ulay: In 2004 I went to the West Bank—a place were water is immediately a political issue—to do a project with children. I went to a village about 20 km outside of Ramallah. They grow vegetables there, through an ancient system of canals carved into the rock. I introduced myself as an artist and gave a lecture about photojournalism, water, and the importance/necessity of water. I then distributed simple cameras to the participants and gave them instructions. They had three days to make their own reportages about water. I asked for images of water at home, in the village, or anywhere they chose. They produced unbelievably beautiful images. The kids were small and familiar, they had access to everywhere and everybody, whereas I, as a tall foreigner with a professional camera, would have stuck out.

Last year I went back at the invitation of the Willy Brandt House from Berlin, which has a cultural and political center on the border of East Jerusalem. They asked me to conceive a water project involving both Israelis and Palestinians. I worked with Palestinian and Israeli art students. After a month’s work the outcome was tremendous: we had a presentation and exhibition in both Ramallah and Jerusalem, the two sides of the divide together. It was deeply satisfying.

[Alessandro asked about a sign on the wall that read “Eau Non Potable.” Ulay responded by opening the sliding doors to a stack of cabinets, revealing a whole wall covered by a vast collection of water bottles. ]

Ulay: I have been collecting water bottles for about 17 years: I have more than eight hundred. Twenty years ago bottled water—except in Italy and France—was not popular. Today it has become ubiquitous: everyone from multinational companies to famous designers produce it. My bottle collection tracks the recent history of the privatization of water.

Industrial domination by private companies depletes whole areas of what used to be free drinking water. Eventually I may use all these bottles to built a water altar.


Rail: You are one of the legendary figures of the European avant-garde of the ’70s-’80s. Surprisingly, with the exception of your 12 year collaboration with Marina Abramovic (1976 - 1988), much of the work in your long career is not well known in the U.S. Your preference for ephemeral media, lack of stylistic continuity, and propensity for collaborative work make it hard to fit into categories.

Ulay: I am very unorthodox, both in my life and work. I never did what artists are “supposed to do”: I don’t follow the market, I don’t have a signature style; I am more project oriented.

Rail: You developed your career in a highly idiosyncratic fashion.

Ulay: My work has never been linear, consistent, or programmatic. I didn’t reject the concept of being a signature artist. I’m simply not that kind of person. I am not a career artist in the sense of finding a concept or style, being recognized for it, and going on repeating it. I chose a different path.

Rail: The diversity of your oeuvre can be confusing to some.

Ulay: I produced a very bizarre body of work. I experimented a lot: You have to if you are aiming at something that does not exist yet.

Rail: Lasting and meaningful collaborations between artists are a rare thing. Over the years you established a whole series of them: Jurgen Klauke, Paula Francois Bisseau, Jan Stratman, Marina Abramovic. How do you explain your attraction to working with someone else?

Ulay: I am a loner by nature. I became an orphan at 15, I had no other family. I was born into what you could call a “social refrigerator.” I had to educate myself. To be a loner can be fatal.

In the first phase of my art making, my attempts were the works of a loner. I used a Polaroid camera as my witness: these were intimate performances. There was just the camera and myself.

I guess I am that paradox: a loner who longs for collaboration.

Rail: Art making is often a solitary, single-minded enterprise.

Ulay: Artists usually work in seclusion, in the solitude of their studios. I never had a studio. I worked either in the street, or I was doing performances, mostly in alternative spaces. I never pushed the formalist aesthetic issue. I was always more interested in ethics, leaning toward social issues.

Rail: What is striking in your early work is that it immediately creates a sense of community, either between you and your camera, or in collaboration with a partner.

Ulay: Creation implies a desire for community!

Rail: Your work and lifestyle often involve taking great risks, at times even physical ones. Do you feel you have put your life in danger?

Ulay: I’ve always been vulnerable and cannot hide this aspect of myself. Yet I have kept major dangers away.

In 1968 I befriended a man from South Yemen. We worked together and became good friends. But he was volatile and at one point things deteriorated. He tried to kill me three times on three consecutive days: first with a knife in the dark room, then by strangling me, and the third time, attempting to run me over with my own car. Each time I just surrendered and that drove him mad. He wanted me to fight back, but I would not.

Rail: Turning vulnerability into strength seems fairly counterintuitive.

Ulay: I have no secrets. I understood that “secrets have no secret,” and this has become my way. This makes me vulnerable and openhearted.

Western science is based on the premise starting with a secret and trying to unravel it. Man cannot live without secrets. When there are no secrets we start mystifying, and we get mythology.

My statement that I have no secrets is a rather radical one. You can ask me anything and you will get an honest answer. I have been living without secrets for years. Not many people can stand this.

Rail: You have a knack for summing up large questions in concise statements.

Ulay: I like direct communication. If I am clear about something I like to express it in a phrase: “There are no secrets,” “Identity through change,” “Aesthetics without Ethics are Cosmetics.” These are some of the philosophical questions that have concerned me for a long time.

Rail: Your career began with photography, evolved into performance, and returned to photography. What you get from a Polaroid is one single image. Like performance, it’s unique and non-reproducible. While the Polaroid arrests time, your performances were often about marking the passage of time. Can you elaborate?

Ulay, "Hermaphrodite," 1973. Auto-Polaroid. Courtesy of MB Agency, Amsterdam.

Ulay: I see deep connections between these two practices. There are, however, important differences: performance is ephemeral while Polaroid produces a material object. As I began using the Polaroid camera, mainly pointing it at myself—a practice I called auto-Polaroid—I immediately discovered its performative element. I performed in front of the camera, giving priority to the resulting still image.

These were intimate actions, carried out in the absence of a live audience, ephemeral in nature, yet arrested in time. At one point I realized that I could have gone on doing this all my life. So I felt the need to quit.

Rail: For some, self-portraiture is a life-long enterprise.

Ulay: Indeed. Throughout the history of art, when someone paints a self-portrait, they hardly ever stop at one. As they recur over the years, each portrait is different. In my case, after trying to find myself through self-portraits for four years, I decided to stop.

Rail: How was your performance work different from what you had been doing in front of the camera?

Ulay: One is inherent to the other: I went from performances for my Polaroid camera, to performances in front of an audience. And years later, back to Polaroid. When I returned to it, I took on a very large format camera that allowed me to take life-size pictures. That is where the ontological in the photographic image comes in. An idea of André Bazin’s that I was fascinated with.

Rail: While shooting your early Polaroids, exploring identity and issues of masculine vs. feminine, were you thinking at all about showing them or conceived them as art works?

Ulay: Not at all. These were very intimate and private works, my business, nobody else’s. I started to point the camera at myself. It was a mirror, a true mirror, but with one main advantage: it kept the images. Once you shot them, you could not run away from them.

Rail: How did you transfer your own self-searching urgency into the work with Marina?

Ulay: We were a couple, male and female, and the urgency for us had an ideological basis. The idea was unification between male and female, symbolically becoming a hermaphrodite. This became increasingly important as our relationship grew more symbiotic. We were living and working in total unity. We used to feel as if we were three: one woman and one man together generating something we called the third. Our work was the third.

Rail: Some of your images included auto-aggressive behavior: they are difficult to look at. What struck me about them was how you exposed a vulnerability that people usually hide.

Ulay: That is my power. It always was and still is today. Vulnerability is a great strength, definitely my strength.

Rail: Why did it take you close to thirty years to show the early Polaroids?

Ulay: I did show some of them in 1975. Then not until in 2005, in a show called GEN-E-T-RATION ULTIMA RATIO in Murcia, Spain, curated by Maria Bojan. The reason for not showing them during all those years also has to do with the fact that they are a very delicate body of work. In my nomadic life, always on a low budget, I managed somehow to take care of them.

Rail: Paradoxically you were working with the ephemeral substance of performance while at the same time taking great care to conserve the physical evidence of your work.

Ulay: While folk legend has it that Polaroids fade very fast, these images are in very good shape. All photographic images, if not treated well, begin to fade and deteriorate. Just as paintings, Persian carpets, and just about anything else fades.

I really treasure my early Polaroids and never wanted to put them on the market. They are part of my history.

Rail: How did you conserve your photos when you were living in a Citroën van?

Ulay: Many were left in the care of friends. In the van I built special boxes for safekeeping of important materials. They were acid free, wooden structures with aluminum on the outside. Inside there was no light, no dust, no moisture.

Chaplin’s films, for instance, are in excellent condition because very early on he had designed special metal dust-free cupboards to protect the original film rolls.

Rail: This is part of understanding the nature and the fragility of your medium. Did you have any specific “tricks” to conserve the Polaroids in such pristine condition?

Ulay: Actually I did not even use the fixative Polaroid recommended. It used to come in a stick, which you applied directly onto the paper. It smelled like nail polish and made the image glossy. I found something much better: hair spray, which made a great fixative.

Rail: What kind of art training did you have?

Ulay: I am self-taught; I never finished art school. At first I felt that in order to gain legitimacy as an artist I needed a diploma. I enrolled in the Art Academy in Cologne specifically to study photography, but they had no such faculty, so I ended up in painting. I was already quite technically advanced in photography; after a year and a half, my professor called me in, offered me a bowl of goulash soup and some Unterberg (a heavy German digestive drink), and said: “I would suggest that you leave the Academy before it spoils you. The Art School community can ruin your character, just go and do your own work.” He also told me something I now believe deeply: you cannot learn art in school. You can learn about art, but not to produce art. I was thrown out of school with the best intentions!

Rail: What did you do next?

Ulay: Back in the streets, with my professor’s statements in mind, I told myself: “if you want to be an artist just do it, be it .” I began collaborating with Jurgen Klauke and also got involved in social issues. I was fascinated by people at the margins of society: transvestites, homeless people, misfits. I felt I could find my reason for being an artist in that world.

Rail: Were you looking for a sense of belonging?

Ulay: Eventually I found my place as an artist, developing it literally through the social fabric.

I had then, as I have today, quite a few reservations toward “Art” with capital A.

Rail: What do you mean exactly?

Ulay: The model for an art exhibition has been exhausted since the ’50s. Postmodernism had a great potential to change things, but I’m afraid it changed them for the worse! The 1960s and ’70s were crucial for 20th Century art. The ’60s were colored by a revolutionary élan, whereas the ’70s were under the cloud of terrorism. I could never relate to it. I followed with great interest “constructive anarchism,” in fact I first came to Holland attracted by the Provo movement. Inside the art community I was drawn toward the Fluxus people, to the initiators of Happenings, to the conceptualists, and naturally to those involved in the early performance movement. We wanted to change things, to bring the humane aspect, the social dimension into the art establishment. What Allan Kaprow referred to as life-like art rather than art-like art. But we have failed to do that and I don’t really understand why.

Rail: You mean failed to change the world?

Ulay: No, no, I was never into changing the world. I was more interested in stirring up communities and the art enterprise. I don’t think I myself have failed, but when I look at what came after us, I see that the market took over the entire decision process about what is art. Because of this I am not participating in the art market at all.

Rail: Today you live in Ljubljana, yet Amsterdam is perhaps the one city that you identified with.

Ulay: I am a model of the urban nomad. I never had an anchor to ground me anywhere. I am in the fortunate position not to have those kinds of roots. The same goes for my identity. I made a statement sometime in the ’80s: “identity through change”—which is a horrific idea to many.

Rail: Photography provided you with an arsenal of subversion tools. Before you thought of photography as an artistic medium, you had run a photo lab and accumulated an impressive amount of experience. To what extent did your technical wizardry shape your creative process?

Ulay: Photography is a second skin for me. Analog photography was an extension of my body. With Polaroid in particular, the seduction was its extremely social nature. It was a tool for social interaction. The magic of processing in sixty or ninety seconds allows you to show the photo right away or give it to someone, which becomes an opening to something further. Usually with analog photography, and more so today with digital photography, you take something away. Polaroid is the opposite: Polaroid is about sharing. It transforms the relationship between photographer and subject.

Rail: Gift giving is one of the ways of creating community.

Ulay: Absolutely. Exchanging gifts brings people together. I always gave the first shot to my subject.

Rail: Do you consider yourself a photographer?

Ulay: I think of my photos as a journey “in photography,” but I am not a photographer. My work is fast, direct, non-mediated. I don’t stage things. I think there are two kinds of photographers: one does reportage, the other stages scenes. The rest are variations on these two themes. My approach is closer to reportage, except I am not waiting for the right moment to press the shutter; I am more interested in the ethical content of an image.

Ulay, "A Water Way," Patagonia 2009. Courtesy of MB Agency, Amsterdam

Many photographers are concerned with the formal and aesthetic quality of their images. I never was. I preferred shooting arbitrarily; I neither care about light conditions, nor did I try to manipulate the camera.

Rail: In an age of oversize museum prints your work has reinforced its intimate nature through small size, requiring closeness to the eye. You deliberately go to large formats only on specific projects.

Ulay: I think of a photograph as an intimate object, an image on paper that can fit in your hand and be passed around. I turned to large size Polaroid specifically for life-size human figures, as a way to explore the ontology of the photographic image. I wanted to capture the person in their “reality,” in their own time and space.

Rail: What do you think the artistic use of Polaroid represents in the history of photography?

Ulay: Polaroid is a legend in photography. The history of analog photography is about a hundred and ninety years old. Photography was rejected for more than a hundred and forty years in the field of fine arts. It was not perceived as a legitimate art form. In 1945 Dr. Edwin Land came up with a revolutionary invention: a Polaroid camera that could take photographs which could be processed in about a minute. This was magic, absolute magic. Polaroid coexisted for roughly sixty years with other types of analog photography.

Rail: You were more than just a beneficiary of free equipment.

Ulay: I was a consultant for Polaroid International beginning in 1970-71. I became somewhat of a “Polaroid child.”

Rail: Of all the different marginalized groups, what do you think attracted you to the world of transvestites and gender crossers?

Ulay: My big anima, in the Jungian sense. Humans have animus or anima. I was always had a great flirtation with my female side, my anima. And I believe my anima is a very important part of my intuition.

Rail: You switched back and forth between photography as a means of artistic expression or as means of documentation. You took charge of documenting with photography and video all of the Relation Work (the performance oeuvre with Marina Abramovic).

Ulay: If you don’t document performance it disappears forever. I carefully arranged photo and video documentation, shooting myself or instructing others. We performed in small alternative spaces, often with audiences of twenty to forty people. If that work has endured and influenced others, it is due to both word of mouth from the actual participants, and through photo/video documentation.

Rail: If we compare the video documentation of your performances with the use of video today, the differences are striking. Most importantly the sense of time, of real time, which was one of the keys to authenticity, has been replaced by “edited time.” The assumption is that today’s audiences don’t want to go through the duration, they prefer a shortcut summary. The emotional effort for the public in the past was to stay with the performers for the duration. What happens when you take that away?

Ulay: In our video documentation the principle was always to make live, integral recordings in real time.

We did performances that lasted 14 minutes, but also ones that lasted 17 hours. The videos last for the whole duration of the piece. Today, when you see them screened in museums and art centers, you see a compilation, so a performance which took 16 hours (Relation in Movement), or 17 hours (Relation in Time, 1977) are screened for about 15 minutes each. We are talking about performances from 30 years ago. At the time you could have 17 hour performances and the audience would hang on. Our whole notion about time, our neurosis about “saving time” has changed that. Now everything is short and fast.

We used to call performance “choreographed existence.” We could seamlessly step into performance and then back into life. Today, with editing, the existential sensation and awareness of time is lost.

Rail: Performance peaked in the ’70s, as people were beginning to use their bodies in a highly politicized way. By the ’80s most of those who had been involved in it, moved on to something else. Somehow you and Marina extended the high point of performance by many years.

Ulay: In the ’80s Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and others gave up performance. Their interests shifted from performance to painting, sculpture, and installations. Performance as a specific medium or mode of expression within the visual arts had left that context to theater.

[They’re sitting at a dining table, a TV with muted volume on the floor is showing images from the streets in Cairo. Suddenly a big commotion: Hosni Mubarak has stepped down! They toast.]



Rail: In the ’80s you and Marina began a series of encounters with “primitive” cultures. Through the encounter with the “other” one often discovers or recognizes something of oneself. How did these encounters affect you personally and how did they penetrate into your work?

Ulay: Having done performance for some time, we were used to dealing with the ephemeral. There was hardly anything left behind from our performances, no objects, no relics, only some video and photography. Many ancient and primitive cultures have a highly developed sensibility for the ephemeral and that attracted us.

Rail: Can you give some examples?

Ulay: In 1979 we were invited to the Sydney Biennale. We immediately felt compelled to start researching the Australian Aborigines. Talk about culture in Europe, and you are talking about a tradition that goes back maybe three to four thousand years, but the Australian aborigines have existed undisturbed in their original environment, continuously for forty thousand years. And this is only on the Australian continent, which they reached coming from Central Asia. The idea of a people living in this most “primitive” state for that long, in one place, truly amazed me. The Central Desert Aborigines lead possibly the hardest kind of existence on the globe, besides maybe the Inuit.

Rail: What were your first impressions?

Ulay: I felt deep respect and admiration. It is amazing how people could survive so long in barren terrain and hot temperatures, still maintaining and treasuring their collective memory. Memory about a dreamtime. Theirs is a culture that does not much value material things. Their civilization evolved in a very different way. The Aborigines don’t have a society based on economic value; they have their own values and one of them is memory.

Rail: Collective memory, but no written language.

Ulay: They provide a different model of how memory and culture can be passed down. Not having a written language has been their strength and the reason for their survival. In truth, as soon as you write things down you become vulnerable; you can become subject to control, manipulation, and destruction. Their tradition is strictly oral, yet it goes back through their memory to the Ice Age. They have ceremonies and traces in the landscape that only they can detect, which are really about the Ice Man. Imagine this in the Central Australian desert! Contact with them made us realize how much of life is memory.

Rail: How did you arrange the initial contact with them?

Ulay: We told the organizers of the Sydney Biennale that we wish to meet the Aborigines and they arranged the first meeting. We were lucky to be introduced to two people: one was a lawyer who was involved with the Aboriginal Council and land rights issues, the second a Canadian anthropologist who gave up his academic position in order to I devote himself to land rights. They introduced Marina and I to Aborigines in small settlements. We found them so awe inspiring, that as soon as we got back to Sidney we applied for a one-year grant from the Board of the Australian Council for Visual Arts.

Rail: The grant allowed you a second trip?

Ulay: The idea was to spend a whole year in Australia. We decided that for half of it we would participate in the local art scene, and the other half we would live with the Aborigines, attempting to understand their needs and what we, as artists, could do with them and for them.

Rail: Did they have any particular requests?

Ulay: One thing they needed and where we could help was maps. They needed maps in which their interests were clearly marked: sacred and ritual sites. I got deeply involved in drawing maps. In order to draw the maps I had to travel around with highly initiated tribesmen, who are the only ones who can point out these places.

Rail: How was it working with them?

Ulay: Extremely difficult and extremely rewarding. The Aborigines do not explain things with the type of clarity we are used to. Further they do not reveal the locations of their sacred sites to anyone who is not initiated.

We were dealing only with male aborigines. In that culture men and women keep totally separate in many social functions and certainly in all ritual and sacred activities. Because of this, Marina was not allowed to participate in many of my activities with them.

Rail: Were you initiated?

Ulay: No, I refused. I knew what initiation entailed and thought it would be a disaster for me. I was 45 years old at the time and I don’t think I would have survived it. I promised not to tell what initiation involves, as I promised not to reveal many of the things that were revealed to me.

Rail: I imagine you communicated with them through interpreters?

Ulay: We had interpreters who spoke both English and Pintupi, which is both the language and the name of the tribe we spent time with.

Due to the Australian government’s attempt to centralize the Aborigines, (who were originally nomads) tribes were mixed and their common name is Pitjandjara. We associated mostly with members of the Pintupi tribe: Watuma Tarruru Tjungarrayi, who later performed with us in Nightsea Crossing, was my main point of reference there.

Rail: What were the main communication difficulties?

Ulay: We communicated well and very deeply, but it was never easy. In the Pintubi language for instance there is no word for “no.” Instead they say “perhaps,” (which is the meaning of Ulay in Hebrew). They gave me a tribal name, Tjungarrayi, for social order purposes, because of my closeness to Watuma Tarruru Tjungarrayi, who took care of me.

Rail: How close do you think it is possible for a Westerner to get to them?

Ulay: It depends on many things. In my case there were times when I felt extremely close to my old man Watuma, a unique man. Yet I realized there was a tremendous difference between the two of us, an inability to really catch up with them. You feel like a Janus head: one side is old and one side is young, but they can’t face each other. I treasure the entire experience as one of the most interesting in my whole life.

Rail: What was the goal in inviting Watuma Tarruru Tjungarrayi to take part in your performances in the West?

Ulay: We wanted to integrate one of these great people into our work, to show our identification and acceptance. Our hope was that people in Europe and Australia would finally open their eyes to the Aborigines and begin paying attention to their needs.

Rail: Was the decision to move from action-based performance, to more meditative, static ones, a result of your contact with the Aborigines and of your interest in meditation?

Ulay: Meditation had certainly a big impact on our work. When we conceived Nightsea Crossing in 1980, we were in the Australian desert. The temperature was about 122 Fahrenheit: in that heat you vegetate, you are just a plant. Before moving, you ask yourself ten times over if you should do it at all.

Rail: Your life is run by the economy of energy.

Ulay: It is. Thinking before acting becomes a survival exercise. With that performance we wanted to test whether the artist’s presence was enough to change the audience’s behavior.

Yves Klein once did a performance where everyone was given objects and paint while he was simply there smoking a cigarette. We didn’t even want to smoke a cigarette! We wanted to do nothing. Sheer naked nothingness. Can the simple presence of the artist be enough to move an audience? That was the general idea, therefore we chose a minimal setup: a table, two chairs, a man and a woman.

Rail: Was Nightsea Crossing first performed in Australia?

Ulay: Yes. The first time, we did it for 16 days (never again for so long!). It was hell. It was the most difficult performance we had ever done. Running against a wall naked for an hour is peanuts compared to it. The prolonged stillness was such an ordeal to our bodies and mind, it is hard to explain. After that we went to India where we began seriously studying Vipashana. Not only the breath work which is a great help, but the notion that it is possible to transform bodily sensations into mental objects.

Rail: How does that work?

Ulay: In stillness, your hands get very thick, your legs get heavy because of the blood circulation, the temperature rises, and you get pain. At that point you concentrate on the body part where you are experiencing pain and you call it: “pain, pain, pain, pain, pain” in silence. The object of sensation does not like to be called by name. So we learned to send pain away. Of course it comes back at some point, then you deal with it again. It is empowering to learn to deal with pain without touching it or taking medication, just through your will power and concentration. It is a great moment when you master it.

Rail: What else did you learn to master through meditation?

Ulay: Sneezing, for example. We did not want to sneeze. We didn’t even want to blink, but if you don’t blink for a long time, your tear glands begin producing tears. We wanted to learn to be perfect, perfect at doing nothing. We were searching for a technique to perfect nothingness.


Alessandro Cassin

Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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