Ulay: So You See Me
- David Pollock
- 14 November 2017
Urgent exhibition for our times
The oldest original piece of work exhibited here – not including those older works which have been updated at the request of the Cooper Gallery – dates back to 1997, and yet it's hard to imagine a more thought-provoking and urgently current selection of contemporary art being shown anywhere else in the country this year. This selected retrospective by radical German performance artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a photographer originally, and noted collaborator with Marina Abramovic) trades in issues of identity, gender, nationhood – particularly in respect to the European Union – and the relevance of art in the face of pressing social concerns.
That it manages to do all of this with a subtle sense of introspection and an awareness of its own form and content over cack-handed drum-banging is even more impressive. The largest – but not the most striking – piece is 1976's 'There is a Criminal Touch to Art' in the gallery's foyer, a wall papered with clippings from German newspapers and bearing two screens showing grainy documentary footage of Ulay stealing Carl Spitzweg's classic German painting 'The Poor Poet' from a West Berlin gallery and hanging it in a migrant Turkish family's living room.
In one thirty hour action, occupying roughly thirty minutes of footage, he encapsulates everything from the notion that all artists thieve from what has gone before, to a statement that art should know no borders or cultural barriers, to his often-repeated disdain for the European Union as it existed then. Indeed, his attitude towards Europe hasn't softened; the exhibition also contains 'Fortress Europe: Kill Your Pillow', another video recording of an anti-European protest 'live-in' held in Amsterdam in 1992, and 1992-1997's striking 'Women with Flags'.
The latter shows a procession of smiling, confident women of colour from outwith the European Union, striding boldly with flags in inverted colours of Europe's countries, revealing the version of Europe which Ulay denounces as one of white-skinned protectionism, while he appears in favour of a multi-racial global internationalism. It's an inversion of the arguments of 2016 and beyond.
In this context, Ulay's series of 'Aphorisms' may also be construed as a cross-cultural observation. A series of short text poem-sayings (sample: 'Renaissance / Renais sense / Time doesn't heal all wounds our time is the wound') hung from wire and wood frames, mounted on the wall or read aloud, their translation for this exhibition from German into English creates a demarcation zone of language which mirrors the European embrace of the 1970s, when they were first created, and friction in the 2010s, when the translations were added to include an English-speaking (i.e. British) audience.
Elsewhere, Ulay engages in photographic performances which play with his own sense of gender identity, across dress-up sets on a beach (he appears as a white-suited dandy, a gaudy Rocky Horror Show cross-dresser and a nude, otherworldly glam rock androgyne) and the photographic works 'Pa'Ulay' and 'S'he', in which the artist uses his own appearance as a canvas to play upon with representations of gender identity. There is a sense of fun and exploration throughout, but also an uncanny prescience as to some of the most pressing concerns of Europeans in the 21st century.
Ulay: So You See Me is at the Cooper Gallery at DJCAD, Dundee, until Sat 16 Dec. There will also be an International Symposium on the work of Ulay, performance and participatory practice in the same venue on Sat 2 Dec.