Ulay, Invisible Opponent
4 April 2016- Film screening Performing Life
5 April 2016- Performance, Invisible Opponent
Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva
In 2016, the artist Ulay, pioneer of performative photography and body art, returned to the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva to offer a new world premiére performance entitled Invisible Opponent , the same space where he gave the seminal performance Balance Proof with Marina Abramović in 1977. For Ulay the body is the medium for investigating the human identity and condition, and the intelligence of the body the
medium for acquiring knowledge.
In 2011, Ulay was diagnosed with cancer. His body in sickness became the subject of his documentary film, Performing Life (2013), a montage of fragments of previous performances, interviews and conversations about art. The film was screened as a prologue on the eve of the performance. Having formidably defeated the cancer, in Invisible Opponent , Ulay dressed in white and barefooted on a chalk-coated pink mirror laid on the ground, etched with his fingernails raw emotions, enigmatic words and gestures, and windows revealing the mirror beneath. Silent all but for the sound of Ulay’s fingernails scratching into the surface of the chalk, viewers were left to ponder the multiple narratives of his battle.
AN ULAY REVOLUTION
Ulay’s name will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art. He is one of only three or four conceptual artists who appears regularly in standard intro to art history textbooks (I remember studying him my freshman year, along with Giotto, Michelangelo, Ingres, Malevich and the rest of the 101 gang, and he was one of only five or so still living, among the 200 or so artists referenced). But while he has always been respected, he has been more of a critical and cult favorite—those in the know knew his work, but he was not a household name, largely because he never sought fame for fame’s sake, never chasing wealth and notoriety. Gallerists courted him, and he never stopped creating works (though he did slow down on performances), but he did what he wanted, not what some publicists dictated. A free agent, he never accepted representation by a major gallery. Until now.
We are in the midst of a full-on Ulay revolution. It began with Project Cancer, a soulful documentary that begins with Ulay approaching his cancer diagnosis and treatment as a sort of forced performance piece, an idea which fades when the reality of the situation sinks in, but which ends with the cancer in remission and a new lease on life, seeing the world with fresh beauty. He has embraced the chance to live again. Ulay was marked to leave us, stricken with cancer and a poor prognosis. But he beat it, threw it into remission, and has never been stronger.
Excerpt from Noah Charney, text for e-flux.com, 25 March 2016.
Noah Charney is an American art historian, professor of art history, internationally bestselling novelist, and a regular contributor to the Guardian, The Art Newspaper and the LA Times.