Imagine this, you and your lover are prolific performance artists, known the world over as the power duo with 12 years of an intense relationship filled with transgressive and emotional-heavy artistic collaborations. With all that time, love and baggage in the relationship, imagine ending it all with an unprecedented performance that would shock the art scene. Imagine walking over two opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to the center just to call off the relationship.
That is the story and performance of Marina Abramović and Ulay.
Marina and Ulay, the power duo, the two-headed body
Marina, is hailed by many, and also refers herself to as the “grandmother of performance art”. She is well-known for her performance piece named “Rhythm 0” (from 1974) , which to those who are unfamiliar, involves her placing 72 dangerous objects on the table that people were allowed to use in any way that they chose – with many of these objects being able inflict pleasure or pain in any way the audience chose. For six full hours she allowed them to do whatever they wanted, she gave them full authority to her own body. At it’s time, this was unorthodox and equally dangerous, with Marina recalling that:
“I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation” -Marina on Rhythm 0 (1974)
She met artist Uwe Laysiepen, known by his artist name Ulay in 1976 – in which they immediately bonded over collaborations and started living together. Together, they formed a collective being called “the other”, and spoke of themselves as parts of a “two-headed body” in a relationship based on complete trust. You can see that trust in action with some of their most famous performances, which includes Relation in Time (1977), Breathing In/ Breathing Out (1977) and Rest Energy (1980).
Moma, The Artist is Present 2010
Though in more not-so-recent times, you might recognize her for her equally infamous piece, “The Artist is Present” held at MoMa back in 2010. Where in a quiet piece sitting face to face with strangers taking turns, former lover and collaborator Ulay shows up and sits across from herself. In a few minutes of mental recluse between the two of them, tears wells in her eyes as they both exchange gentle smiles as what seems to be sort of an involuntary powerful moment of swirling memories. This was 22 years after they infamously decided to end things with the Great Wall Walk, a performance piece and full length documentary showcasing the 90 day walk and journey to the center of The Great Wall of China.
The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk (1988)
It took 6 years of back and forth with the Chinese authorities for the paperwork and approval but it finally happened in 1988, a time where there was already a heavy strain on the relationship between Abramovic and Ulay. The two starring lovers starring walk from opposite ends of the “dragon”, her from the eastern end at the Gulf of Bohai along the Yellow Sea, and him from the western end at the edge of the Gobi desert.
It’s the Lover’s catharsis in perhaps the most poignant performance on it out there to date. For the length of their relationship and the level of trust they have built throughout the years only amplified the spirituality of the journey. A complete journey of the past, present and future of their relationship and a symbol of 12 long years of collaborations, baggage and the “end of the road” signified by a literal walk to it.
Sometimes you’d wonder what your mind goes through on a 90 day walk alone towards the end. In most relationships, the idea of it is typified by a sense of physical togetherness and oneness, and they have done the opposite just by deciding to walk alone. It’s a quiet parallel to them finding their own paths alone in future, or without the other. The “two-headed body” must walk alone, and perhaps this is the time they needed to reflect that, a push for mental and emotional recovery and soul searching.
For Marina she said it was like a magnetic force of attracting lovers walking towards one another, pushing each other closer together. For Ulay, it was to cover the expanse of the western end of the wall, his body perceived as the smallest measuring unit, stone fragments slowly reminding him of the longest wall in the world.
In recent times well…
And despite the long past bittersweet end to their relationship and their recent resurfacing over the years, they have recently decided as well to join together in writing a memoir. This comes alongside news in 2015 that Ulay sued Marina over a violation of contract regarding their joint works during their time as lovers and co-creators back in the 1980’s.
Well, take that what you will.