Born: November 30, 1943;

Died: March 2, 2020.

ULAY (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), who has died aged 76, was a German artist who was best-known for his Polaroid photography which explored the concept of gender, and for his performance art works alongside his former partner, Marina Abramović.

They were together from 1976 until 1988, during which time they created a series of attention-grabbing pieces which they referred to as ‘Relation Works’, and which explored the physical and emotional closeness and distance of two beings.

Among these works, the couple – who dressed and behaved similarly, and in ways which fused the characteristics of their genders – created Relation in Time (1977), during which they sat back-to-back, tied together by their ponytails for sixteen hours; Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), in which they blocked their noses, locked mouths and breathed into one another’s lungs until the oxygen was spent, and they passed out; and Nightsea Crossing (1981-87), during which they sat silently facing one another for seven hours a day.

When the lovers broke up in 1988, it was through the medium of one final, titanic piece of performance art – Lovers, for which each walked from one end of the Great Wall of China to the other over ninety days and said goodbye upon meeting in the middle. They didn’t speak until 1999, although were briefly reunited in public during Abramović’s 2010 work The Artist is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, when Ulay once again sat across from her during a performance; the emotional moment was captured, and broadcast online.

While Ulay and Abramović’s work was about the balance and blending of the male and female, the years after their relationship brought a distinct imbalance; Abramović is now one of the most famous contemporary arts in the world, her friendships and collaborations including Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and the actor James Franco.

Although Ulay sold his physical archive to her in 1999, he took her to court in the Netherlands over the terms of the agreement in 2015, the court agreeing that she owed him both royalties and credits on the work they had created together.

It is hard to separate the legacy of Ulay as an artist from his works with Abramović (even the official website of Project Cancer, the 2013 film which documented his experience of having the disease, bears a quote from her: “It takes a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, to understand Ulay.”). Yet his own artistic practice was bold and unique in its own right, and fed into intriguing retrospective shows in the final years of his life.

Trained as a photographer at Cologne’s Kunstakademie and the owner and manager of his own photography lab in his youth, Ulay’s career as both an artist and a representative for the photography company, Polaroid, began in 1968. Following a move to Amsterdam the following year, his ambition grew alongside recognition of what he was doing in the art world. His ‘Renais Sense’ Polaroids – often featuring portraits of himself in feminine dress, make-up and poses – were far ahead of their time, in terms of their focus on gender identity.

He also explored the identity of his adopted city through its inhabitants, architecture, counterculture and sex workers, and engaged in provocative and often disturbing body art. His own conflicted background as one of a generation of Germans facing up to their parents’ crimes was also a focus; his father had fought in the Wehrmacht during both World Wars, dying when Ulay was thirteen, and his mother had a breakdown and abandoned the child soon after.

Ulay’s 1976 performance piece, There is a Criminal Touch to Art, caused a minor sensation and a police hunt; it involved stealing Carl Spitzweg’s painting, The Poor Poet – often cited as “Hitler’s favourite painting” – from a gallery wall and hanging it in the home of a family of Turkish immigrants.

He married Slovenian graphic designer Lena Pislak in 2012, and the couple divided their time between Amsterdam and Ljubljana.