Free School for Art Theory and Practice

Ulay Interviewed by Lívia Páldi


Why in Art? Negotiating Social and Political Urgencies in the Field of Artistic Practice.  Seminar with Maria Hlavajova and Ulay


Lívia Páldi: Firstly, I would like to ask you about the relation of politics and society to art and democracy, in connection to the issue of the artistic act as a responsible (political) act. In regard to your past and present practice, what potentials do you think art/artistic activity can carry today?

Ulay: I think that first of all we have to make a few things clear, because these are more or less geopolitical issues. As for my own doings, because I am a Western European contemporary artist who has worked mostly in Western European cities, as well as in Australia and in the United States [in the ’70s]. I was very curious about the Iron Curtain, the Warsaw Pact, the Cold War era … and also about European terrorism. All these things came into the picture at the same time. Also very important at that time, since I was already living in Amsterdam, was the Dutch social experiment which was of extreme benefit to artists, most artists. That was the climate in which I was synthesizing art, society, and politics and I can talk best about this and about the events of that time.

When I decided to become an artist it was 1969 and part of my motivation was very unusual and unorthodox. Anyway it is strange to decide to become an artist as this is something you cannot learn at the academy. You can learn a lot about art at the academy but art really is something that you have to generate and accumulate yourself by using other motivations, reasons, and forces. When I decided to become an artist I was discontented with art because late modernism was still very powerful; traditional media were still the main applied media. I also opposed the current situation in society and politics. I started flirting with discontent, which is an unlikely start for an artist. Postwar art has shifted from “craft and skill” to a more conceptual, intellectual orientation, social and political responsibility and expressions. I was also discontented with the rejection of ethical values and the exclusive stress put on aesthetic values. As I put it at the time: aesthetics without ethics is cosmetics.

How would I explain this? I was born during World War II in Solingen (very famous for tableware and fine steel products). During the war, Solingen’s industries were changed over to war production and became a major target for the Allies. I was born on November 13, 1943 and by the time that I first saw the light of day the city had been totally demolished. All was smoke and ashes except the museums and churches. I grew up during the “miraculous” industrial/economic reconstruction in Germany, which was a very materialistic period and not a great climate for children and young people. Moreover, this was a moment of total devastation and disillusionment, and I also lost my family—never had grandparents, sisters or brothers … so my story is pretty complex in the sense that my social emotions and my abilities for socializing, both in conventional or unconventional terms, were very different from most people. I was an orphan, my father died when I was fourteen and my mother withdrew from society and became a recluse both because of the death of my father and the traumas she had suffered. There is a very good film, Deutschland bleiche Mutter,[i] that describes all these things. I believe that in my memory storage there is a lot which is difficult for me to recall, and it is not my preferred ambition to do so but what I wanted to say is that later on I chose art as a means of becoming involved, engaged, as well as of expressing myself … that is all connected to my specific background.

In 1969 I decided to express my strong discontent by becoming an artist. Why art? Because it held out the promise that I could operate with a free mind and gave me reasonably fair protection meaning that I could explore boundaries. From the beginning I decided to involve myself in new media. This was actually photography and performance at first, then video and computer-based media, everything that was at that time illegitimate from the late modernist, institutional perspective. The reason for this was that I wanted to express myself artistically either by performing live or working with new media: if I wanted to communicate I had to find alternative spaces. So by choosing new media I started to become an artist, I had the wish, the passion, and a concept for what I wanted, but I chose the most radical and realistic means to express myself: photography, which has captured our social history better than any other art medium before that; video, which was the first instant medium, a very powerful one … television developed out of this, which attracted quite a few cinematographers at its beginning including people like Godard. What I have to stress though is that I was not a political artist. There were politico artists that were usually rather black and white, but I was never a politico artist. However, because of the choice of media I worked with and because of the requirements of the situation I had to make myself known in alternative spaces, and I therefore became part of a social and political fabric that was outside the establishment and its institutions. Its artistic context was also subversive and because of this it became politicized.

LP: In the ’70s you felt the artist had a role of a provocateur, someone who could become an agent, could act on a territory where he could actually raise questions, put issues on the table, test them. How do you see the position of the artist, your position as an artist changing over the last forty years? You have already developed a history, a respected position as an artist, how do you act on it, how do you make use of it?

Ulay: I have not yet developed my history, I have just been working. I do not work for history. I have rejected history by my decision to become an artist. I have rejected modernism and all traditional means and qualities, all justification of art on those grounds. I think from the beginning I was what you would call a “postmodern” artist for whom photography had a questionable but very important role

In the ’60s there was a lot going on, there was a lot of discontent among intellectuals, students, artists—there was something in the air. People wanted to reject, whether it was politics, the socio-cultural climate, or maybe the educational climate. When in 1968 Cohn-Bendit got the French revolution together he managed for a very short time—and it was his success—to get intellectuals, students, and workers together, and that was very powerful as they paralyzed the whole country in one day. It was the last big attempt at solidarity where within twenty-four hours intellectuals and workers joined together. I think that the postwar artists, the ’60s generation, had a tremendous vision about the future, and not only about the present. Present time was not that much threatening as yet, but a sensitive person with premonition and vision could figure out the direction in which things were leading. I think the future at that time was much more important than the actual present.

LP: But has this kind of belief in action been lost?

Ulay: Yes, because today you need a very different kind of motivation to act against something, you need to have a good reason even to operate subversively, or intellectually, or pose or operate in the wider field outside the art context on a socially justifiable level or to improve things in general. I have observed how artists at the end of the ’80s and ’90s got involved in social projects, in environmental projects either in public places or alternative places. But I must tell you that there is a big difference compared to the ’60s/’70s because it is very obvious that artists are harmless, they cannot really shift and move things with a few exceptions, those who have produced more “responsible” and “engaged” art practices, namely people from the first postwar generation like Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Barbara Kruger. The more economic value an artist has, the more he or she can push things, criticize educational, social, political, or ecological matters. This can be incorporated in the artworks but as well personally expressed, for example in the media.

There are artists who get themselves deeply involved in community issues or alternative solutions—but most take a small step into the social fabric of society and bring it back to the art context and then it becomes totally harmless. I do not think that an intelligent art audience needs to be given any demonstrations about what is going on. An intelligent audience knows what is going on. But the intelligent audience is not ready to take measures outside their established patterns, bourgeois patterns. They are not ready to engage themselves.

LP: I am therefore going to ask you a rather pathetic question: what role(s) can an artist have then?

Ulay: I think, and this is what really bothers me most, that the terms “art” and “artist” have to be redefined. That should have already happened and postmodernism tried something like this but after postmodernism … well the market was shocked by postmodernism and it knew very well how to cleverly lead it away from this frontier position back into the market. The market today is so powerful that it justifies good and bad art. There are plenty of good artists, good independent artists who do great work but they are mostly unknown because the market does not approach them, does not take them under its wings. Artists with a strong personality and character and strong engagement cannot easily be taken under the market’s wings. I am one of them, I play no role in the market. The other thing is that many artists have been taken advantage of by the same trick as is used by the whole of capitalist democracy. I have never taken out a loan/credit or a mortgage from a bank. I have always lived from hand to mouth.

In April 2007 I was in Amsterdam, where we have a tradition of squats—they are very powerful, very good, and very justifiable because they resist social injustice—now there was a whole block approached by the anti-terrorist police squad with huge vehicles and people in masks. They had to clean it up because of a development, because the owner who bought it wanted to develop it. Well, good for the economy but not so good for the social fabric, for those living on lower standards. They started fighting at five a.m., and there was an unbelievable mess with burning tires and police cars set on fire. It was war. I live close by and passed the scene twice, getting tremendously agitated. I went to a pub to meet some friends and we had a beer or two, and I said, let’s do something. Then I took off all my clothes in the pub and biked to the scene, walked into the house wanting to demonstrate, that first I am on the side of the squatters, and second, that I want to get the attention of those guys who had been cleaning out the house by force so as to talk to them. There are actually great photographs and also a film that my son made who came running after me. [What you see] is a naked man quarrelling and demonstrating on his own. Nude because I wanted to appear as vulnerable as possible to get the best chance to talk. If you go masked you are arrested immediately. They didn’t talk to me, they only wrapped me in a blanket and took me out of the house and that was all. I stood there among those huge guys looking like a dwarf, though I am not small myself, and I had a good chance to talk with them. And I expressed my opinion and said, listen Holland has a great tradition and feeling for those who were in the resistance during the war. There is a day when it is celebrated with flowers, so why not celebrate these people who are resisting social injustice? They let me talk. I still can do that. The quality of my life is my relative independence. I can do things and I want to do things and I keep that up until the end. Otherwise, I would be overtaken and my whole philosophy would be ridiculed.

LP: So, how do you actually live?

Ulay: Not too badly. I do various jobs. They pay little but they still pay for my life as I have few living costs. There is a lot of hassle and traveling. And the way I live in Amsterdam, well, I have reduced my costs to a level at which my economics [is balanced]. I still manage to make my income equal my expenses. And I would not want it differently

This year, apart from Budapest, I have been in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Rijeka, also in Romania, teaching, running seminars, lecturing, almost exclusively in Central and Eastern Europe except DasArts in Amsterdam. It has to do with my background and with my history because I think that in Central and Eastern Europe the first generation of post-socialists has grown up.

LP: And you feel that they need your experience?

Ulay: Yes, partly because these countries missed out the ’60s/’70s.

LP: Now, I would like to continue with education and teaching as you mentioned that art as well as the artist’s function, position, and role needs to be redefined. And of course, it has been greatly affected by academies that actually produce a lot of artists.

Ulay: About education, I would make two points: firstly about my own education, and how I dealt with it, and secondly, my urge to communicate my experience and knowledge. It has to do with age and the unavailability of what I have done. The larger part of my work is known only by a very few people.

I enrolled in the academy in Cologne with an interest in photography in 1969 due to a good friend of mine, Jürgen Klauke. At that time there were neither departments nor faculties for photography nor were there professors. In 1969 I was already very advanced both technically and in the history and phenomenology of the medium. I am not a picture-maker really. I have always been mostly fascinated by the phenomenology, the philosophy of photography, what Vilém Flusser started to work on writing as a “philosophy for photography.” What I could do was join the department for graphics, which used photography not as photography but transferred photographic images for etching plates, or printmaking, but there was no teacher.

LP: There was a lot of experimenting then.

Ulay: Yes, and I have kept experimenting with photography up to now as well as questioning the phenomenology of photography, of the medium and not only the image making [process]. After a year and a half my professor suggested that I leave the academy. I was shocked because the social context of studying at an academy is very strong and it was amazing that you shared an emotional, psychological environment with many others. But I left and then I was in the streets again and then I decided not to have a studio in my life but to make the whole world my studio. I have been so fascinated by the power of photography that has recorded our social history more than any other art media. I left the academy, the classic setup for the artist, and got engaged in working with new media and within the social and ethnic fabric as I had also been traveling a lot. And I provoked both the gallery and the museum world because I wanted to perforate it, perforate the white cube, the ivory tower, to make it breath out from within and back. This was an incredible task. You had to know what you were doing, having a vision, being a visionary, and you had to be totally convinced about it and go for it and in the end you got near to it … my vision was so powerful that I went for [it] … I didn’t make concessions. I didn’t doubt—well, whenever I started to doubt, I started to doubt the doubt. Doubting produces a terrible state of mind and emotions. So I followed my vision and with me there were of course some others—the first generation of women [artists] like Valie Export, Carolee Schneeman, Ulrike Rosenbach, or Gina Pane and others.

These women were very powerful, most of them feminists, and made use of both video and also performance, a very uncomfortable medium for the art audience, where the confrontation is one to one. These were far more realistic media than the most realist painting, which is more craft than realism. They were avant-garde with an art production that was at the beginning very anti-aesthetic oriented and anti-art oriented. I should say: anti-aesthetic aesthetic and anti-art art. I think that this early female generation that emerged into a subversive art scene was actually historically more important than the men. Men stuck to concepts, to traditional anti-art aesthetics like Dada, while women detached themselves from the male (dominated) tradition and hierarchy of art and were fighting on two fronts: fighting for “life like art,” and for a new perspective on art, new parameters in art. What they did was a top gender-political issue. So they made double history. We were working in parallel to that. Maybe men were more conceptual but the first generation of men were living life like artists, while those using photography, video, and film were also rebelling against male history and the establishment because what we all did was very uncomfortable.

So to conclude about my education: I am an autodidact and that never bothered me or anybody else.

LP: Since then, you have been teaching a lot. How do you approach teaching art and how do you work with students?

Ulay: I tell them the same as I have told you, that they should ask themselves these questions: what is art and why does one produce art? Why do you want to become an artist?

LP: And what about performance? What about programs like DasArts where students study performance?

Ulay: It is even crazier because it is ephemeral. If you are a so-called avant-garde performance artist you cannot live from it. We have forgotten in this mega-sized media environment that man is the medium par exellence; there isn’t a better medium than man. All other media are man-invented, which means that they are technologically prosthetic, they are extensions to man. On top of it, a performer when doing the performance declares it to be a work of art. Performance has qualities that no other form of art has. The word was adopted from English and has multiple meanings referring to different things that depend on the context in which it is applied. It describes “life-like-art,” live presentation, a person using himself as expressive means … but in the end … performance is a very conceptual art [form]. The performer makes up his mind, a concept or an idea as to what to perform, he/she designates a place, a date, and then it is announced. This means that one attempts to gather an audience by invitation. During the performance the performer enters his own mental-physical space to perform as closely as possible to the original concept—that is when he can retain control. Circumstances can bring him out of control: aggression, disappointment, whatever the moment brings. He/she steps out of his/her mental construction which is designed to be ephemeral. Ephemeral means living from day to day … like this dialogue: you have the recording but it is actually ephemeral, like life itself.

LP: Can you tell me a bit more about your practice and methodology at DasArts. You worked with fasting and mediation, with an amalgam of knowledge very much connected to your own experiences in the Far East, etc.

Ulay: I conducted a workshop titled “Kill Your Pillow” in 2001 for which the students had to be concerned about performance, I mean very physically. I told them we would do an exercise for thirty-six consecutive hours with continuous fasting and keeping silent: no phones, no reading, no writing, nothing. I wished to demonstrate how to separate mind from body and how nasty mind can be if you do that. So basically I conducted a Vipassana meditation that is usually longer but I condensed it into thirty-six hours because of lack of time and also the more condensed you do it the stronger the experience. We started with twelve students and those who couldn’t take it dropped out. Only two did. What happens is that you concentrate exclusively on your breathing and belly and you report anything you want to do outside the breathing/belly. If you want to do something like drinking, first you say (to yourself): intention, intention, intention; and when you want to go to the loo you say: walking, walking, walking; when you wish to drink and hold out for the glass you say: reaching, reaching, reaching; and then when it is in your hand: holding, holding, holding, etc. You describe each little step you take; you make a mental note of that which applies to inner and outer feelings. It is hard to keep your concentration but you have to have control over each and every moment. You don’t sleep because you do not have time to sleep and what happens after a while is that your mind gets nasty because of the separation. If you are able to control your breathing and your physical and sensual sensations your mind doesn’t like it. Most of the time we are “mindless,” we don’t disconnect mind and body; we take it for granted. The mind is playing tricks on you: you have hallucinations, it seduces you. The question is whether you have a mind of your own or it is just a continuous adjustment.

We learned the Vipassana meditation together with Marina to prepare our Night Sea Crossing (1982) performance, a long sitting session in total motionlessness/inactivity, fasting, and silence, three qualities of life that the Western world is not very strong on.

LP: And how did the students react?

Ulay: They were at the end of their energy, totally exhausted. They have never challenged themselves this way and the most important thing about having this experience is that it can make them think before they do something. I do the same thing. I had never done thirty-six hours before, I did it with them to be able to help.

 The interview was conducted on the July 17, 2007.

Lívia Páldi is a curator; director of BAC – Baltic Art Center, Visby, Sweden

[i] Germany Pale Mother, directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980.