Depending on what you think about the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous crossdresser in the history of art is actually Marcel Duchamp—his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, was photographed in the 1920s by Man Ray. But a new exhibition at Berlin’s GNYP Gallery highlights another historic male artist exploring his identity through wearing lipstick and fake breasts. ULAY: Body of Pain, Body of Love, Body of Wisdom is a survey of the German performance artist’s work with instant photography that spans the past 30 years. A series of intimate closeups from the 1972 Renais sense series, self-portraits titled PA-ULA-Y, capture the artist playing dress-up with feathers and fake eyelashes. But besides genderbending, the show tells a story of ULAY’s long relationship with the film format, from performative self-portraits to soft, skin-filled portraits of others, abstract plays with form, and striking still-lifes, all curated by Maria Rus Bojan under the guiding principles of three themes: pain, love, and wisdom.
Ulay moved to Amsterdam from Germany in the early 70s and fell into a crowd of gender nonconforming people, whom he was drawn to for their outsider perspective. During this time he began to explore himself through crossdressing, and in Amsterdam he also began experiment with instant photography. This was his claim to fame before he began to collaborate with his longtime, now ex-, partner, Marina Abramović. After their infamous Great Wall of China breakup, Ulay began working with polaroids again.
Though the body is the central point around which Ulay works, not all of his snapshots deal literally with human forms. A triptych from the Water for the Dead series from 1992, for example, features three abstract photographs playing with light and darkness. Two monolithic black forms are surrounded with a radiating light, while the central photograph inverts this form; a sliver of light emerges from darkness. Across the room hang five works from the series Lichaamstaal (Body Language) from 1998, that draw a compelling parallel between the abstract forms of Water for the Dead, and the figurative forms of Body Language. Nude bodies are lit dramatically against a white background, to cast shadows on cropped images of the human form. One image depicts a subject from the side, cropped from the lower torso to the knee. With light coming from the left of the picture plane, the backside is dark while the front is light—this form gives the Water for the Dead images across the room a particular bodily association.
Speaking to the themes of pain and death are a number of works from the 1990s. Two faceless portraits from the series Carina depict the tattooed arm and pierced nipple of a woman. On an adjacent wall is a polaroid of a skull smudged with black paint, appearing to have been wiped over the bones like finger paint. The woman’s arm, inked with a skull, is a (literally and physically) painful reminder of death, while the skull is a momento mori similarly smudged with the fingerprints of an artist.
The show covers a lot of ground, but still manages to retain a strong sense of careful curation. It anticipates an upcoming fall retrospective of the artist at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Ulay Life-Sized. View more striking images of Body of Pain, Body of Love, Body of Wisdom below.
ULAY: Body of Pain, Body of Love, Body of Wisdom is on view at GNYP Gallery in Berlin until October 16, 2016. Find out more on the gallery’s website.