No matter how I try to preface this article, the words that I type seem to ring hollow, and do the subject of this piece no true justice. So, my fine young readers, I’ll just get right to it.
In 1976, performance artist Marina Abramović moved to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. It was there, after a tumultuous and sometimes near-fatal early career, that she met German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, who goes by the shortened “Ulay”. The two of them commenced a twelve-year relationship that was more often than not a strained and problematic proposition, due to the two artists’ competing egos. In 1988, Ulay and Marina decided that they had had enough.
As an end to their career together, as well as their personal relationship, they decided to take a spiritual journey of sorts, walking the Great Wall of China, one from each end, meeting in the middle and saying their goodbyes. Marina later reflected on the journey;
“That walk became a complete personal drama. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert, and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye.” “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending … Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
Flash forward twenty-two years. In 2010, as part of a Marina Abramović retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, Marina performed a piece named, “The Artist is Present”, in which Marina sat at a table and shared a minute of silence with participants. On the opening night of the performance, Ulay made a surprise appearance.
While it is true that the two had been in contact sporadically over the years, and had also met and spoke the morning of the opening, it was during Marina’s performance that those in attendance could bear witness to something that doesn’t happen often enough, and with such poignant beauty; when the line between art and life gets whisked away like chalk on a breeze, and art becomes life…and vice versa. In that singular moment in which Marina’s eyes met Ulay’s, and in the minute that followed, a lifetime of experiences and emotions could be read within Marina’s tearful gaze. Pieces performed together, emotions shared. The walk on the Great Wall. Love, life and pain; all in the span of seconds.
People often wonder if it is possible to have a meaningful conversation with someone, sans spoken words. I say yes, it is definitely possible. The video clip below is proof of that. Whenever I find myself in doubt of humanity, and people’s capacity to feel something honest and real, I find myself drawn back to this three and a half-minute reminder.