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Monique Bourgeois view profile
Mississauga, Canada
Bio: Searching for just the right words to take your busines to the next level? Look no further! All your writing needs are just a few clicks away at or
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Marina and Ulay: Performing the Tale of One

 [Image Credit: Marina Abramovic, Lisson Gallery, Stedelijk Museum collection, ]


There comes a point in many relationships where this weird thing starts to happen. Gestures of the pair start to mimic each other, words or phrases each has never formed before suddenly start becoming common practice, they may even seem to be dressing from the same closet. While it’s an unusual phenomenon, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not uncommon. That is unless you’re talking about Marina Abramovic and Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay).

Born in Yugoslavia, Marina was the daughter of two military parents and had an extremely strict upbringing. Until she was 29 years old and moved out of her parents’ home, she was always held to a 10 o’clock curfew. But even this didn’t keep Marina from her craft. She was always home in time for curfew, even when she was doing extremely dangerous performance like her Rhythm 0 show. In her Rhythm 0 performance, she stood next to table with 72 objects, everything from a feather, knife, bullet and gun on it and for 6 hours became the public’s “play toy,” allowing anyone in the audience to do anything they wanted to her. At first, things went fairly harmlessly, but as people got braver, things became more and more aggressive. At one point, one audience member pointed the gun at her until another observer took it away. It was when she connected with Ulay though, that her truly pioneering work surfaced.

Marina and Ulay are the mother and father that gave birth to performance art or Art Vital as they called it. Together, they created performance pieces that even 30 years later are considered the gold standard of their art form. Most of their work strived to challenge the ideas behind what it means to be a man or a woman. Their identities entangled together so much that not only did they start dressing the same; they physically started looking the same. To solidify this new androgynous being they were becoming, they even started referring to themselves as “the other”. They lived, worked and breathed together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for – essentially – their whole relationship. Good thing they were in love!

In 1975, Marina received one of her most precious pieces of mail. It was an invitation to appear on a TV series about Body Art in Amsterdam. Her grandmother, seeing the invitation and noting that the appearance would be on her birthday, November 30th, encouraged her to go, saying everything you get on your birthday is important. Marina took the advice, and it was at that taping that she would meet Ulay, who was also performing. That was just the beginning. After the show, they went out with the rest of the cast for dinner. To celebrate her birthday, Marina ordered everyone a drink; when Ulay went to do the same, Marina called bluff. Only after Ulay showed her his diary with the page marked Nov. 30th torn out did she believe him, because she does the same with her diary. There was undeniable chemistry between the two of them, and six months later they met up in Prague, where they stayed to live and work together.

Both already on their way to making a name for themselves as artists in their own right – Marina in performance and Ulay in photography – they gave it up. With just their bodies, a camera and a few rules, “no fixed living-place, permanent movement, direct contact, local relation, self-selection, passing limitations, taking risks, mobile energy, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition,” they started on a new journey making art together.

Relation in Space was their first collaborative piece, and it would become a symbol for all the work they would come to do together. For one hour they walked towards each other at increasing speed and collided in the nude. When asked about the performance during an interview, Marina explained, “We really wanted to have this male and female energy put together and create something we called That Self.”

While they created a number of groundbreaking pieces together, another milestone performance was Breathing In Breathing Out. Their mouths were sealed together forcing themselves to breathe in one another’s exhalation. After 17 minutes, they both collapsed from lack of oxygen. Their goal was to represent that for any collaboration to work, it requires the death of both the artists’ egos. A practice they took to heart in their own work.

As close as they were their relationship ended up becoming strained. The final straw came when Ulay divulged that he had been unfaithful and was expecting a child with another woman. They decided it was time to part ways, but they wanted to honour their time together with a proper farewell and as a gesture to acknowledge the separation of their identities. So on March 30th, 1988 they started a three-month 2500km pilgrimage across the Great Wall of China. Marina started at the Yellow Sea and Ulay at the Gobi Desert. When they met in the middle, they embraced for the last time and continued on their way.

They never saw each other again until 2010, during Marina’s performance of The Artist is Present. Over three months’ time, Marina spent 736 hours inviting anyone willing to sit with her in silence for as long as they wanted. It was a depiction of energy exchanges between people. Unbeknownst to Marina, after her brief pause between guests, she opened her eyes to a very familiar face – Ulay had come to see her. Watch the video of their reunion online and you’ll find your throat start to tighten. Barely a move is made the entire time and not one word, there were none needed and none to do justice to the moment. 

Posted on November 7, 2013 in Theatre Fables by Monique Bourgeois

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