World notorious performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay ended 12-years of intense personal love and shocking art collaboration, in 1988, with an art stunt never seen before. It was named “The Lovers: the Great Wall Walk” in which they decided to make a spiritual journey that would end their relationship. Each of them walked half the length of the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. There they would end it all…..
Marina Abramović “the grandmother of performance art”
Abramović is a Serbian artist based in New York who in the seventies basically invented so called “performance art”. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind. Active for over three decades, she is often described as the “grandmother of performance art.”
One of her most daring and notorious performances (named Rhythm 0) was to test the limits of the relationship between a performer and his/hers audience. Abramović placed on a table 72 objects that people were allowed to use in any way that they chose. Some of these were objects that could give pleasure, while others could be wielded to inflict pain, or to harm her. Among them were a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet. For six hours the artist allowed the audience members to manipulate her body and actions.
Initially, members of the audience reacted with caution and modesty, but as time passed (and the artist remained passive) people began to act more aggressively. As Abramović described it later: “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.” … “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
Abramović meets Ulay
In 1976, after moving to Amsterdam, Abramović met the West German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen who is generally known by his artist name Ulay. They immediately bonded and started working and living together, exploring personal ego and artistic identity. They formed a collective being called “the other”, and spoke of themselves as parts of a “two-headed body”. They dressed and behaved like twins and created a relationship of complete trust. Their (very notorious) performances include Relation in Time (1977), Breathing In/ Breathing Out (1977) and Rest Energy (1980).
The Break Up: The Lovers, The Great Wall of China Walk
In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to end their intense artistic and personal relationship with a final performance in the form of a spiritual journey. After years of negotiations with the Chinese authorities, the artists got the permission to carry out ‘The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk’, in which they started to walk from different ends of the Chinese Wall in order to meet in the middle and say good-bye to each other. The final act would end their relationship and they decided to never meet again afterwards.
Abramovic started walking at the eastern end of the Great Wall of China, at Shan Hai Guan, on the shores of the Yellow Sea, Gulf of Bohai, walking westward. Ulay started at the western end of the Wall, at Jaiyuguan, the south-western periphery of the Gobi Desert, walking eastward. After they both continuously walked for 90 says, covering 2500km each, they met at Er Lang Shan, in Shen Mu, Shaanxi province. Here, they embraced each other and said goodbye. From then on they would both go on with their life and work separately. As their work had often employed ritualized actions, mythology and Eastern thought, ‘The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk’ has to be considered the perfect end of the common oeuvre.
Unlike other – less artisticly dramatic – kickasstrips, Abramović and Ulay’s Great Wall of China Walk accomplishment meant the end of the journey, a collaboration, a lovers relationship and even an art form. This multidimensional end of such a long journey made the entire walk such an incredibly deep and spiritual journey. It is hard to imagine what would have gone through their heads in those 90 days of solo-walking.
Abramović described it as follows: “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”. Abramović conceived this walk in a dream, and it provided what she thought was an appropriate, romantic ending to a relationship full of mysticism, energy, and attraction. She later described the process: “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 we both would be really alone, whatever we would do.”
But would that really be the last time they were/performed together……?!
BBC Documentary: The Great Wall, Lovers at the Brink
The performance journey across the Great Wall of China was recorded by Murray Grigor for the BBC (16mm film, transferred to video), which resulted in the documentary ‘The Great Wall: Lovers at the Brink’. It is a true piece of travel art that has turned in a kickass classic.
Flashforward to 2010. From March 14 to May 31 that year the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Abramović’s work. It was to be the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed “The Artist Is Present,” a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.
And guess who showed up?!
Yes indeed, Ulay!
Most of the visitors who took a seat in front of Abramovic simply remained seated in silence, perhaps too intimidated and excited by the proximity to be able to say something. And so did Ulay. He queued with the other visitors, he sat straightening his jacket and stretching his legs and waited for Abramović to reopen her eyes. The expression at 0:27 tells the rest.
Alone on the Great Wall of China
Shortly before Abramovic & Ulay’s Great Wall walk another person – William Lindsay – had completed another unique crossing of the Great Chinese Wall. He became the first person to cross and run the entire length of the Great Wall of China! He called his adventure and subsequent book – Alone on the Great Wall of China – and maybe it was his unique trip that actually inspired Abramovic and Ulay for their ‘Great Wall of China’ stunt….
As truly great artists do they refused to comment…and keep the mystery alive!