When Marina Abramović and Ulay Moved the Art World to Tears

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Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010 Ulay
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010Via YouTube

In the wake of Ulay’s death, Miss Rosen remembers the time he made a surprise appearance at The Artist Is Present, culminating in one of the most moving moments in recent art history

In April 1988, Marina Abramović and Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, who died yesterday) staged The Lovers, one of the most epic works in the history of performance art. Stationed at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, the famed artistic couple set forth to walk some 5,995 kilometres of the Wall and meet at Erlang Shen, Shenmu, a Buddhist temple in the Shaanxi province, where they were to be married. But things did not work out as they had planned.

They chose the Wall because it was the only manmade creation visible from space, and they recognised something of this scale and scope which made it the perfect setting for a work of art. It took them eight years to secure permission, during which time their relationship had deteriorated.

Their grand romantic gesture revealed just how arduous the relationship had become, as Abramović found herself climbing through piles of rubble where the Wall had fallen into disrepair. She was accompanied by a translator who was forced to walk beside her as punishment from the government for making an underground photography book about American breakdancers. For the first two months, they barely spoke – while entire villages came out to see a woman walking the wall alone.

On June 27, Abramović and Ulay finally met. Then he dropped a bombshell. “He told me his translator was pregnant with his child. He asked me what to do. I told him he should marry her,” Abramović told The Art Newspaper. They hugged and said goodbye.

“For her, it was very difficult to go on alone. For me, it was actually unthinkable to go on alone,” Ulay told Christian Lund for the 2017 film, The Story of Marina Abramović and Ulay. “If love is broke it turns to hate. She hated me.”

They hadn’t spoken in more than 20 years when Ulay made a surprise appearance at The Artist Is Present, Abramović’s 2010 endurance-based performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over a period of two and a half months, Abramović sat at a table, inviting viewers to take the opposite chair and engage in a silent conversation in front of a live audience.

The encounters explored realms of emotional, psychological, physiological, and spiritual space, with each engagement a non-verbal exchange of curiosity, feeling, and understanding. When Ulay arrived, Abramović looked shocked then smiled demurely. He shook his head and her eyes filled with tears. During their brief encounter, they shared so much without ever saying a word, the intensity of their past enveloping the present and spilling over into the future. 

At the end of their encounter Abramović extended her hands across the table towards Ulay, who clasped them and leaned forward to say a few words no one else could hear. The audience broke out into applause, completely overcome by the intensity of the moment. Then Ulay left and another viewer arrived as Abramović did her best to recompose herself and carry on with the performance.

Their reunion would be rocky; Ulay, who had withdrawn from the art world following their 1988 break-up, sued Abramović in 2015 and won, a Dutch court ordering Abramović to pay Ulay €250,000 in royalties. It wasn’t until 2017 that they finally made peace, creating a film detailing the story of two artists in love who gave each other everything – until there was nothing left.