ARTICLE n. 4 / 2021

Some Can’t, Others Don’t


I’m not special,
but I’m different.

All autobiographies begin with a sense of solitude –  that feeling simply cannot be escaped. I was born in a bomb shelter in 1943. It is one of the things that happened to me in my life that defined me the most; perhaps it was the most important thing. That shelter. Although it was a sort of unconscious memory, it absolutely informed the way I think and feel about the world.

The world, hollow, populated with a million pairs of eyes, the eyes of both people and animals, gazing at each other without even knowing why.

Finality is announced and imposed on humanity. And here is also the unrelenting and arbitrary nature of things—one minute you’re alive, the next minute you may be dead. In between some shivering, and also, of course, confident decisions that mean that our lives are in our own hands.  Ha! What a feeling! Expectations? Never completely fulfilled. Because always, but always, it is unbearably difficult to live with what you are, and even harder to be something that others believe you have to be.

Some can’t, others don’t.

This happened to me very early on: my parents expected a girl. They even had a name ready—some Scandinavian  name, Silke. But I was a boy so they called me Frank. Not long after, two more Franks were born near the place where we lived, so they renamed me Uwe. It rhymes, almost like poetry. Eventually I realized it was difficult later for others to pronounce. So I changed it to Ulay.

I was a wild child. When I was eleven, despite the disapproval of my parents, I simply refused to go back to school because they wanted to make me part of the system. A decision like this changes your expectations of life. You have a different outlook, an outlook that keeps getting stronger and stronger. You become more distinct—I don’t want to say better or more intelligent—but you become different. For myself, as an artist, I think this difference was essential throughout my entire career.

I’ve never conformed. Over time I believe that I created or generated a logic in myself that is based on a different outlook in relation to many of the things in the Western society where I live. But I am stuck here. I cannot ignore it. I have to deal with it every single day. But how?

Other opinions don’t easily excite me. If asked, I express my particular opinion. But if I am not asked, I seldom feel the need to egotistically proclaim my own truth and logic. It is an issue of truth and reality. In German, these words are Wahrheit and Wirklichkeit, and sound so beautiful. To me: everything is true. Even a lie is true especially if it is an effective lie. I’ve always merged truth and reality and this has brought me to a kind of ethics of reality.

Have I ever failed? Of course I have, but that is part of the package. If you can allow yourself to fail, you won’t have any problems. Failure is hard for many people. It can knock you out mentally, emotionally, socially, professionally. Failure isn’t considered a positive concept for those who strive politically, economically, socially, scientifically. However, if you’re honest with yourself when you fail, you’ll discover extra space within yourself. Failure is a great experience.

I’m not special, but I’m different.

I lived with my parents on a street called Lindenbaumstrasse on the outskirts of Solingen. There was a big garden that belonged to a convent opposite the place where we lived. I remember that I often climbed the fence to steal rhubarb. I still really like rhubarb. Just outside, to the left and the right, there were ruined houses with only cellars and basements left. They were overgrown with weeds, grass, scrubs, things like that. Apart from the garden, that was the closest I got to nature. I had two friends. One was named Frank. He was small and he would scramble over this third kind of landscape, over the bombed houses. A lot of water and heating systems remained. We were fascinated by this and would try to rip out the pipes. Later, we did it with more intention, because pipes, especially copper ones, were very valuable. During the postwar era, you could get money for collecting and selling metal by the kilo. It  was a hustle and not really a suitable activity for children. The area was soon fenced off but we figured out how to get under the perimeter. We would take things and pass them back under the fence. 

There was a park a little further down, behind my first school, and there was a bomb shelter in this park. The bomb shelter had huge steel doors that were no longer locked anymore so we could go inside and explore. It was smelly because people used to shit in there. Then, from this place, across the fields, you could go into a forest. It was incredibly idyllic, romantic and beautiful, because, down that hill, you were already a kilometre from home. In the forest, there were brooks, little streams, and a beautiful watermill with huge wheels that powered a great hammer mechanism. People hammered steel there and it made a really amazing sound. We found more friends, and together, we went into the forest and picked blueberries, dropping them into our buckets.

I would love to go there again and do that. Ja. I want to put the blueberries on my porridge.

Later, even though we were hardly experts, we would go further into the forest and collect mushrooms. They looked magical, as if they came from fairy tales. We would collect mushrooms and bring them home. Of course, my mother always threw them away, but the joy was in harvesting them with the other children, dropping them in our buckets.

Once I was walking the same way through the fields—already lush with tall and yellow corn, not long before it was set to be harvested—and I heard a shot. I heard the shot and then the bullet hit me. It went through my rubber boot. I assumed it was a 22 calibre. I could put a single finger through the hole. Someone was trying to shoot a deer or a pheasant or something like that but had missed and hit me. My foot bled like hell. Of course, when I got home, my mother was completely terrified. She took me to the doctor and he took the bullet out.

My first school was in Solingen. There were two large buildings—one for Catholics and the other for Protestants—with a big common playground. Although my parents had no religious convictions, they decided to send me to the Protestants as they were considered to be more serious and more straightforward. The school wasn’t far from our house. I knew a path, a shortcut, where I could climb a fence rather than going all the way round. There were two big buildings: the one on the right was the Protestant school, the one on the left the Catholic one, and in between the big schoolyard. The Protestant kids met up the Catholic kids in the schoolyard. For some reason they always played Cowboys and Indians. We called the Catholics black, the Protestants blue—don’t ask me how I or anyone else my age knew about all of this—and we got into fights. I mean, they were childish fights, but there was already an awareness of religious discrimination. Ja, it was very interesting. I went to a Protestant school.

My first grade teacher at that school was Ms. Busch. I don’t think that she was married or maybe her husband had died in one of the wars. She was like a mother hen with her little ones. What do you call it? In German, it is Henna. When the chicks are in danger, they hide under her wings, and she protects them. That was Ms. Busch. She lived close to where my parents lived. By the second year—not yet the first year—she definitely doted on me perhaps because of my shy character or maybe just because we were neighbours. There was a bond between us. And I was very good at school. You should see my report cards. They were really good. All the highest grades. I did my best and I did it mostly for her. She used to put her hand on my head. She even trusted me with her keys. If she came into class in the morning and had forgotten something, she would ask me to go to her home and get it. She would say: “You have the keys. Go to my room, on the desk, something about this or that, and go get it for me.” I really loved this and I do think that the good grades I managed to get were entirely due to her. My mother had no patience to sit down and study with me at the time. My father was always busy. So Ms. Busch became a substitute. She did what my parents didn’t do.

She was a very simple person, also in the way she taught. She had particularly strong nerves to deal with wartime children, to give them hope and to learn well, to behave well and dress well. Some of them had lost their fathers, some had lost other relatives, some had lost everything. She was the hope that gave them new wings. That’s what she did. Ms. Busch—I’ll never forget her. She complimented me. I think at that time she knew—as a woman with such a lot of experience and such a big heart—that the main thing was to give encouragement. That’s what children needed at the time. Thank you, Ms. Busch.

I remember once, when it was almost summertime, we made a camp and something to eat and drink. There was this one girl named Dagmar. She lived very close to us. Dagmar played on the street after school and I became close to her.  Ms. Busch knew everything, of course, and she said: “Well, I’m just going to have to marry you two. Make sure you’re nicely dressed. We’ll go home together and I’ll marry you and invite all the other children.” So, I could say that I was married for the first time, in 1950 or 1951, to Dagmar.

We left Solingen when I was eleven because of my father’s condition. That was very difficult for me, because I didn’t want to leave my friends or the neighbourhood, having explored it so much. We had a lovely home. My father had a great job. My mother was a housewife. Everything seemed perfect and bourgeois. Then we moved to a little village in Westerwald. There were only around two hundred people there. There was just one class in the small village school with all the children from six to fourteen. The younger ones sat in the front and the older ones in the back. The school was Catholic. I loved the priest, the Catholic priest, who lived in the village. I loved his religion lessons. I particularly loved reading the little booklets about all the saints. I loved it, just loved it. The priest was a pretty crazy fellow, and he would act out what he was saying and reading, throwing himself on the floor or hanging himself from various objects. It was fantastic. It was compulsory for the whole class to attend the funerals behind the church—great funerals in the cemetery. Every so often, processions would go four and a half kilometres into the forest. I really liked them.

The village school had a very tough teacher. He was perhaps fifty-five years old, maybe closer to sixty, and very tough. Germany didn’t have a great choice of teachers back then because so many had perished during the war. This one had a very short haircut and glasses. He had a rod, a thin rod, and, if you misbehaved, you had to open your hands and he would hit you really hard with the rod or he would pull your hair. He’d also put you in the corner. I used to snap my fingers when I knew something. He took me from my bench to make me face the corner and stare into it for an hour. Things like that. It was a really tough school, not very beneficial educationally.

My father’s health got so bad that he had attacks of breathlessness at night that were really horrific. My mother would wake me up—we didn’t have a telephone—and I would run, wearing just my pyjamas to get the doctor. It was eight hundred meters away. I lived with the fear of something happening to my father. Whenever someone knocked at the door of the village school, I was always sure that something had happened to my father.

I grew very fast and had an odd food deficiency. I was very pale and often got dizzy. My parents went to a children’s healthcare organization and they always said the same thing: “He needs fresh air.” So they sent me to a boarding school on an island in West Frisia. It was a complete disaster. I was terribly unhappy even though there was sea, good air, all of that. After only one month I couldn’t take it any more—I misbehaved and they sent me back. That was a short excursion for my wellbeing.

I lived in the village from the age of eleven to fourteen. I spent a lot of time with farmers, cleaning stables, herding cows, making caramel—you make caramel in a little pan with a little sugar and a little milk over a fire. Herding cows in the autumn, you would see them everywhere, because the fields had already been cut. I spent a lot of time in the winter in the forest with the whole class, collecting chestnuts or gathering hay or straw. I grew stronger and stronger and was quite fortunate to spend time in the countryside—in the forest and fields with the farmers. It was how I survived, I think, and what makes me strong even now.

I developed well and cared for my father because he couldn’t move anymore. I wanted to give him some joy in his life. He liked to look through catalogues of plants and trees—that was his great pleasure. He would tell me where he would like to plant the roses, the trees or bushes, and then I would do the digging and the planting. My nails were always dirty from all the digging, and I liked that. Once I said to Thomas McEvilley, a good friend I met fifty years later: “We shouldn’t work for white nails anymore. Work for dirty hands and dirty nails.”

Then came a very dramatic period—only four years after we purchased the house in the village, my father got so bad that he turned completely yellow and was hospitalized. He was dead in a week. His liver had disintegrated. He had taken medicine for his breathing, for his panic attacks, a powder called Felsor that you put in water, then mix and drink. I don’t think it did his liver any good. Eventually the remedy that chemists gave him to ease his breathing ruined his liver. What I don’t know is whether he also had hepatitis because he’d served in World War One in France where we know they used poisonous weapons. I don’t know about World War Two, but they definitely used poison during the first one.

After that, I was sent to secondary school. The nearest one was twenty-eight kilometres away. I had to get up at five o’clock in the morning to catch the bus at about quarter past six. Then I arrived in a place called Altenkirchen. The school was improvised from barracks, a school located in barracks. In addition to German, we had French lessons. Some of the teachers were brought in from Belgium or from other places because there was a shortage of qualified teachers in German. The French teacher was Belgian and a very mean man. He would really hit you. I was thirteen, fourteen. He would hit children very hard. Some even lost their teeth. He also hit me. The only power I had over him was to refuse to learn French. I decided not to speak French. Later on we spoke to the older kids at the school—they were in Oberprima, so about nineteen years old—we told them about this and they got hold of him and beat him badly. That was the end of that story.

Most of the things that happened in my childhood were somehow connected with fear. Almost never with happiness. Having been born in Solingen in 1943, all fear was subconscious. The town had been bombed, bombed really badly in 1944 and 1945, and I lived through that. When we ran in terror to an air raid shelter, I think I was about two years old, my mother threw her body over mine and forced my mouth open so that my lungs wouldn’t implode from the exploding bombs. That’s fear, that’s…I call it an ‘inborn’ fear, which means that it’s stored somewhere from early childhood experience. I can’t talk in detail about this inborn fear, because my parents were never able to talk about these things. I didn’t ask, because I was too young to ask about those sorts of things. Only later did I understand how important, how formative, that period was for me, especially for the development of my anti-aesthetic, all of my games on ruins, sites of conflagration, buildings and social systems… One day I found beside the wall of a ruined house a helpless sparrow whose life left it as it lay in my hands. I dismembered it and that is how I created my first anagrammatic body. I returned to this concept much later in my Polaroid period, and I also recreated it in my documentary photographs of women and my first photographs from Amsterdam. The same anti-aesthetic.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can recall much else. I never went to psychoanalysis or to rebirthing or whatever you want to call it. I wouldn’t like that. I would just make fun of the psychiatrist. I like psychiatrists but I would have made fun of them I think. However, there’s something, of course, from the war years, living through that, all of those sounds and smells—it was unbelievable. All of that must be stored somewhere. 

But certainly, I became an artist out of discontent, not out of creativity, not out of a need to work in an aestheticized, formalist manner. Discontent with myself, with society, and with art-meaning and in particular late modernism. I was not sure who I was, so first I tried to figure it out through photography. Looking back at my self-portraits helped me to see that identity is a frail boat with an anchor the size of a tanker’s sailing on the ocean. And also that any act of art, whether consciously or subconsciously, deals with identity, with self-reflection, as a matter of course, whether it is the core of artistic expression or the subject of it.

The text you have just read is an excerpt from Ulay’s upcoming autobiography, written with Patricija Maličev, soon to be published by il Saggiatore.

ARTICOLO n. 46 / 2024