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One Good Thing: The celebrity art couple who turned love into performance

Ulay and Marina Abramović’s legacy is often overshadowed by an elaborate breakup, but their body of work is a valuable lesson on love and creativity.

Ulay faces Marina Abramovic at her 2010 exhibit, “The Artist is Present,” at the Museum of Modern Art on March 9, 2010.
Ulay and Marina Abramović’s unexpected 2010 reunion at Abramović’s solo exhibit “The Artist is Present.” The two artists supposedly didn’t speak to each other for over 20 years since their split.
Will Ragozzino/Getty Images

Modern celebrity couples can be exhausting to keep up with. Their appearances and antics invite considerable attention and scrutiny, so much so that romance often becomes an afterthought to the spectacle. What matters to the public is that the couple is seen together, which confers some aspect of togetherness.

If you, like me, are tired of hearing about how horny Megan Fox is for Machine Gun Kelly or how Ye likes to dress up Julia Fox (no relation to Megan), consider turning your attention to a pairing no longer in the public eye, one that has already parted ways. The best lessons on love and romance, after all, are often understood in retrospect.

One such couple is Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) and Marina Abramović, two performance artists whose 12-year collaborative partnership from 1976 to 1988 elevated them to micro-celebrity status in the art world. Ulay died of cancer in 2020 at age 76, while Abramović, 75, is still performing and exhibiting work. What piqued my initial interest was the relationship’s elaborate end — how the two artists decided to split, rather than the why — although as a romantic, I later found myself drawn to their earlier works, produced while they were still madly in love and living nomadically in a van.

But first, the breakup. It was grounds for their final, arduous performance together, titled “The Lovers.” In 1988, Ulay and Abramović began at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, and trekked on foot for three months to meet somewhere at its center. It took eight years to secure permission from the Chinese government to embark on the journey. The original plan was to culminate the walk with a wedding — a celebration of love. Instead, the nearly 6,000-kilometer pilgrimage became one of the most elaborate uncouplings documented in modern history.

The two artists supposedly didn’t speak to each other again for over 20 years — not until Ulay unexpectedly showed up at one of Abramović’s 2010 performances at the Museum of Modern Art. If you were on the internet in 2010, chances are you’ve encountered viral footage of their reunion: Two former lovers, silently gazing across a table; Ulay shaking his head in disbelief and Abramović blinking away tears before reaching for his hands. The gesture is incredibly moving to witness but, as with most viral snippets of life, the video reduced the artists’ intense, dramatic, and convoluted relationship to a feel-good blip on the internet.

Ulay went on to sue Abramović in 2015 and won, receiving €250,000 worth of royalties that she owed for violating their contract over joint works. Abramović also published a 2016 memoir that included details of Ulay’s infidelity in the relationship’s final years, and revealed that he impregnated his translator during the Great Wall walk. In spite of this, the two eventually reconciled as friends in 2017, and offered commentary on their work and romance for a short documentary. “For her, it was very difficult to go on alone,” Ulay said of their split. “For me, it was actually unthinkable to go on alone.”

A 1983 Artforum piece described the couple as “Tantric collaborators” and “karmic acquaintances,” who recognized each other as spiritual counterparts in separate bodies. They shared a birthday on November 30 (although Ulay was three years older), resembled one another in personal style and physiognomy, and perhaps most importantly, were single-mindedly devoted to their craft.

“We really worked with the idea that ego is not important, that we have to create something that we called third energy,” Abramović said in the 2017 documentary. They operated as an artistic unit, and refused to attribute ideas to a single individual. And while the couple chose to not have children (Abramovic’s disinterest in conceiving was a turning point in the relationship), art was the thread that tied them together. The posterity of their performances briefly seemed as rewarding as raising a child.

“We were a couple, male and female, and the urgency for us had an ideological basis,” Ulay said in a 2014 interview with Brooklyn Rail. “The idea was unification between male and female, symbolically becoming a hermaphrodite … We used to feel as if we were three: one woman and one man together generating something we called the third.”

It’s a shame that Ulay and Abramović’s collaborative legacy is often overshadowed by the enormity of their final act (and the messiness thereafter), which feels at odds with their earlier body of work. I am most fascinated by their previous collaborations, particularly the series “Relation Works” (1976-1979), which examines the duality and dependence inherent in romantic relationships — in relation to gender, identity, and the natural world. There was an earnest synergy to the series, a mutual devotion toward their newfound togetherness. They were learning to love, while discovering how to make art in unity.

The most memorable “Relation Works” performances often manifested in crude, physical violence (self-inflicted or toward the other), but some were contemplative, even repetitive. Ulay and Abramović have stated that these violent outbursts were not reflective of their domestic life. Instead, it was “the opposite of how [they] understood, lived, and loved each other,” according to Ulay.

Their first performance, “Relation in Space,” consisted of the two artists running and hitting each other with their naked bodies for an hour. In “Light / Dark,” the couple sit facing each other, trading slaps on their partner’s right cheek. They start slow and accelerate the pace of their slaps for six minutes. In “AAA-AAA,” they yell, faces within a few inches of each other, for nearly 10 minutes. What was perhaps their riskiest performance, “Rest Energy,” was deceptively sculptural and serene: Abramović holds a bow, while Ulay nocks an arrow aimed at her heart. They lean back and sustain the pose for four minutes, as microphones broadcast the sound of their heartbeats.

However, it was “Relation in Time,” a 17-hour performance in which the couple sat back-to-back with their hair tied together, that foreshadowed the meditative pivot their work later took. These tableaux vivants required great mental and physical stamina, done with the intention of melding their separate selves into a complete work of art. It was much harder to be still for hours at a time, Ulay said, than running against a wall naked for an hour.

In “Nightsea Crossing,” a series of 22 performances between 1981 and 1987, the couple sat for seven hours over the course of four days, staring at each other in various settings. Preparing for this “required abstinence and distance in our off hours,” Abramović wrote in her memoir. It also marked the beginning of the relationship’s three-year death spiral. Ulay was uncomfortable with their burgeoning fame as artists, and could no longer physically endure the lengthy performances. Meanwhile, Abramović was insistent on continuing the work they were doing, and refused to settle down to start a family. They both had affairs, and began to talk less and less. In Abramović’s mind, they failed for “the stupidest, pettiest reason — the failure of our domestic life.” Private life, she said, was also part of the artistic work.

It’s a revealing sentiment, because for those of us who aren’t world-famous performance artists, domestic life is all the work there is. Relationships fail for all sorts of stupid and petty reasons. Abramović and Ulay may have left behind an iconic canon of collaborative work, but there is solemn condolence in recognizing that any union — even if it’s creatively charged or uniquely karmic — can unravel under very mundane circumstances: lack of communication, waning trust, and differing visions of life. Love, like art, is a lot of work.

A short 2017 documentary on Ulay and Marina Abramović’s relationship is available for viewing on the Louisiana Channel website. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.