The Story of Marina Abramović & Ulay

The Story of Marina Abramović & Ulay

Legendary couple in performance art – Marina Abramović and Ulay – lived together for 12 years and made pioneering work as a duo. In this extraordinary double interview the artists look back on their relationship – from their first meeting in 1975 until now.

Abramović and Ulay met for the first time in Amsterdam in 1975 on their shared birthday. Abramović was fascinated by Ulay’s looks – dressed as half man, half woman – and recalls the German photographer as a “self-made man,” interested in transgender and living a very free life. In turn, Ulay remembers the young Serbian performance artist “as very much fatal,” having an “enormous Balkanesque temperament and stamina.” He tended to her wounds after she had cut a five-point star onto her stomach for the work ‘Lips of Thomas’ (1975), and the two artists fell in love and soon after decided to live and work together.

In their first spectacular performance, ‘Relation in Space’, the two nude artists passed each other with increasing speed, resulting in violent collisions. This became the first of the duo’s iconic series of ‘Relation Works’, in which the dynamics between male and female energy were investigated: “We wanted to take the possible conflict of a relation to an extreme,” says Ulay, who emphasizes that “what we did in performance was actually the absolute opposite of how we understood, how we lived and loved each other.” Abramović adds that, looking back, “this relation was extremely important for the history of performance art. They’re all historical pieces, and I think that they came out of the amazing mixture of our existence, our love for each other and the incredibly dedicated work …”

For years the couple lived a nomadic life in a Citroën van, driving and working all across Europe. In the beginning of the 1980s they had become a power couple in the art world, as Ulay comments: “From deep in my heart and in my guts I always had a flirt with anarchy. So when the anarchist becomes an institute that’s of course ridiculous.” Their interests and passion as artists also began to move in different directions, most notably in the ‘Nightsea Crossing’ series (1981-1987). In 1988 their breakup was captured in the epic work ‘The Lovers’, where they walked The Great Wall of China starting from the two opposite ends and meeting after 90 days to say goodbye. The couple didn’t speak for 20 years, but have now reunited: “Everything naughty, nasty, disagreeable or whatever from the past, we drop, and since we became good friends again. That’s a beautiful story actually,” as Ulay explains. And in Abramović’s words: “I think what is left is this really beautiful work that we left behind. And this is what matters.”

Marina Abramović (b. 1946) was born in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia and is now based in New York, US. She began her work as a performance artist in the 1970s and is now regarded as one of the most important artists in the field. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind. In 2017 the retrospective ‘The Cleaner’ was shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, and at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, among other places.

Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, b. 1943) is a German artist, now based in Amsterdam, Holland, and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Ulay received international recognition for his work as a photographer, mainly in Polaroid, from the late 1960s, and later as a performance artist, including his collaborative performances with Marina Abramović from 1976 to 1988. His work has continuously dealt with politics, identity and gender. In 2016 Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, held the first major retrospective show of his work ‘Ulay Life-Sized’.

Marina Abramović and Ulay were interviewed by Christian Lund at Sank Petri Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2017 in connection with Marina Abramović’s major retrospective exhibition ‘The Cleaner’ at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Camera: Rasmus Quistgaard & Anders Lindved
Edited by: Roxanne Bageshirin Lærkesen
Produced by: Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2017

Supported by Nordea-fonden

  • Mika Rottenberg

    What is the Connection

    The exceptional video artist Mika Rottenberg here presents her intriguing video installation ‘Cosmic Generator.’ Set on the U.S.-Mexico border and in a huge Chinese market, the work explores the collapse – or reinforcement – of distance.

  • Svetlana Alexievich

    A Human is a Scary Creature

    Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich is known for her monumental non-fiction narratives exploring war and its aftermath in the former Soviet Union. In this video she discusses the role of the writer in a corrupted society permeated by money.

  • Eileen Myles

    A Poem Says 'I Want'

    “I think a poem really is a statement of desire.” Meet the legendary American poet, writer – and homosexual icon – Eileen Myles. In this video, she discusses the innate power of poetry and how to address the absence of the female genitalia.

  • Sambuichi

    One with the Earth's Cycle

    “Architecture should thrive like a plant.” Gain insight into the philosophy of a frontrunner in sustainable architecture, Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, and hear how he created some of his unique, site-specific buildings.

  • Naja Marie Aidt

    What You Don't Want to Hear

    “Life’s fragility is ever-present.” Deeply moving video with Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt, who opens up about the tragic death of her 25-year-old son, and how she dealt with her overshadowing loss and grief through literature, gradually returning to writing.

  • George Condo

    The Way I Think

    George Condo was part of the 1980s wild art scene in New York. In this video, recorded in his New York-studio, the iconic artist shares his life-long love of drawing and thoughts on his artistic expression, which he describes as “artificial realism.”

  • Marina Abramović & Ulay

    A Living Door of the Museum

    Standing naked in the main entrance of a museum, facing each other while the audience passes sideways through the small space. Legendary performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay share the story behind their poetic work ‘Imponderabilia’.

  • Bill Viola

    Cameras are Soul Keepers

    When video artist Bill Viola was 6 years old he fell into a lake, all the way to the bottom, to a place which seemed like paradise. "There's more than just the surface of life." Viola explains. "The real things are under the surface".

  • Wang Shu

    Architecture is a Job for God

    The Chinese architect Wang Shu’s buildings – a crossover between traditional Chinese culture and large-scale modern architecture – have earned him prestigious awards. “Democracy means a really diverse society,” says the architect in this inspiring interview.

  • Margrethe Odgaard

    Colour Diary of New York

    Becoming more aware of your surroundings can “open a new dimension inside as well as outside yourself.” Meet award-winning Danish designer Margrethe Odgaard who has trained herself to register the world through colours.

  • Nick Cave

    The World is my Skin

    Have you ever wished that you could put on a suit which would open up the imagination and take you to the world of your dreams? In this video artist Nick Cave presents his wearable sculptures, the 'Soundsuits', made from discarded everyday materials.

  • Gerhard Richter

    In Art We Find Beauty and Comfort

    “I don’t really believe art has power. But it does have value. Those who take an interest in it find solace in art. It gives them huge comfort.” Gerhard Richter, one of the greatest painters of our time, discusses beauty in the era of the internet.