SAN DIEGO — In its spare beauty, the exhibition of works by Ulay/Marina Abramovic is one of the most remarkable to have come the way of San Diego this year.
Titled cryptically "The Sun and the Moon," there is no clue as to its contents. There are few objects in the University Art Gallery at San Diego State University, but the space resonates with their presence and conveys a nearly palpable energy.
All of this is very strange because the real art works of the collaborative team Ulay/Marina Abramovic are performances, not objects.
The partners are Ulay, a German artist who has contracted his real name of F. Uwe Laysiepen, and Yugoslav artist Marina Abramovic. He was a photographer; she was a painter, but she no longer believes in the viability of the medium.
In 1975, the couple met in Amsterdam, which has remained their residence, and immediately fell in love. A number of coincidences, including the same birth date, convinced them that they were soul mates fated to spend their lives together.
Their collaboration has been provocative and richly productive.
Their chosen art form is performance art. "Performance" in its pure form is essentially a visual experience. But it has always been open to appropriation by artists whose orientation and interests are in theater.
Ulay/Marina Abramovic have created a series of "performance art" works that are remarkable for their demands on the psyche as well as on the body.
In the frequently performed piece "Nightsea Crossing," they sit opposite one another without moving even the eyelids for 90 non-consecutive hours.
In a solo effort, Ulay sewed his lips together with a needle. When members of the audience angrily asked if he felt pain, he refused to answer. The point was that the will to do what he had done was more important than the pain.
The evening of May 2, the collaborative art partners presented the U.S. premiere of "The Sun and the Moon" at the SDSU gallery.
The audience, having entered a darkened space, found the artists already in position. Abramovic in a plain dress stood motionless to the right. To the left, Ulay, in a dark suit, sat atop a very high chair that looked as if it had been made by someone familiar with German Expressionist design. (The precarious structure was actually three ordinary lecture hall chairs piled on top of one another.)
Ulay during the hour of the performance remained motionless on his perch above Abramovic. She, however, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, performed a number of physical acts: She lifted her right arm, she rocked forward on her feet, she crouched. All the while a solo cello droned an accompaniment, including harmonics, open strings, double stops.
Despite the minimal activity, it was a totally engaging and suggestive work of art that evoked images of Greek pottery, Cretan statues, Egyptian hieroglyphs, dominance and passivity, traditional male and female roles, political oppression, Yin and Yang, and so forth.
Because of the title, I wanted to interpret at least some of the action as a symbolic representation of phases of the moon.
It was an outstanding performance that succeeded in transforming the space with life energy. It was not, however, a great performance, in large part because of the disadvantages of the site and the interruption of a banging door.
One of the satisfactions of the piece is that it demonstrated that "performance art" is not a dead medium. It is very much alive in the work of imaginative artists.
The couple have through their work experienced a number of spiritual changes. They have spent months learning from the aborigines of Australia. Next year, they will travel the length of the Great Wall of China. Starting at opposite ends, they plan to meet at mid-point.
Large Polaroid photographs exhibited at SDSU, in rich, seductive and glorious colors, may be viewed technically as documentation or as residue from performances, but they are sensually pleasing and inherently satisfying even without reference to their origin. Three videotapes also on view are much less interesting, however. And the artists' performance work will not be repeated during the San Diego exhibition.
The installation created by the artists is powerful. Their visit has been important for San Diego.
SDSU Art Gallery director Tina Yapelli deserves high praise for bringing Ulay/Marina Abramovic here.
The exhibition continues through May 21.