March 25, 2016 - The Art and History Museum - Ulay: Invisible Opponent
March 25, 2016

The Art and History Museum

Courtesy The Art and History Museum.

Ulay
Invisible Opponent
April 5–7, 2016

The Art and History Museum
Rue Charles-Galland 2
1206 Geneva
Switzerland

institutions.ville-geneve.ch
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Ulay
Invisible Opponent
April 5–7, 2016

The Art and History Museum
Rue Charles-Galland 2
1206 Geneva
Switzerland

institutions.ville-geneve.ch
Facebook

We live in rare times, when an almost mythical figure, who may be found in the pages of any Intro to Western Art textbook, is not only still making work (for how many living artists make the cut as part of art history’s western canon), but performing, for you to see in person.

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. He co-starred in a YouTube video (made and published without his knowledge) that has been viewed by 23 million and counting. He made international headlines and was the talk of the art world, after he broke news in a Guardian article this fall (full disclosure: I was its author). He had his own stand at Art Basel. He released a book of interviews and images of his complete works (well, images of most of them—see that Guardian article for details). Exhibits are popping up everywhere (recently his Polaroids were shown in Rotterdam and he’ll soon feature at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, to name a few). And he finally said yes to a major gallery, represented now by MOT International, with a monographic exhibition opening later this year. 

This new wave has crested late, with Ulay now in his eighth decade, and it’s one that you will want to ride. It’s like Michael Jordan coming back for another few seasons. One of the very best, most prominent founding fathers of conceptual and performance art is performing again. Remember when the Police resumed touring? When you could actually see the Pixies in concert, after two decades of silence? Needless to say, Ulay draws crowds. A recent performance in Thessaloniki, Greece filled up within minutes, and a line of several hundred waited outside, in hopes of slipping in. He is finally accepting the acclaim and attentions of the high-end art crowd, of art fairs and international galleries, stepping out of the quiet canonical admiration in which he dwelled for decades and now, in years that are often referred to in terms of twilight, he is shining brighter than ever, when his contemporaries and peers have not been so fortunate.

The passing of David Bowie makes the thriving of Ulay all the sweeter, and the more poignant. 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. There are many parallels between the two artists. Both lithe, lanky and tall, beautiful and otherworldly. Both worked in gender-bending alter egos, Ziggy Stardust and Renais Sense. Both internationally renowned, admired, with cult followings. Both scourged with cancer. But while Bowie lost the fight, Ulay did not. Imagine the thrum of fans had Bowie beaten cancer and gone on tour once more. This is just what Ulay is doing now.

His next big performance is April 5, in Geneva. Go. Then in decades to come, when your grandchildren flip through their Art History 101 textbook you can say that, while you were a bit too late to see Duccio or David or Duchamp in person, there is one canonical artist who you did.

 

By Noah Charney

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Invisible Opponent
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