Student Curatorial Team member and MFA - Art Society and Publics student Charis Edward Wells writes a reflection on her experience of Ulay's exhibition 'So You See Me' at Cooper Gallery
It's a Thursday afternoon in November and I'm sitting in the corner of the Cooper Gallery main exhibition space rubbing my chilly nose to see if it's still there. I've been invigilating the current exhibition for around a month now for three hours a week, camped in the corner with my straight backed chair perpendicular to the unique curved wall. Determined to use the time productively, my aforementioned chilly nose has been stuck in a book or illuminated by the blue light of my laptop screen. I'm alerted from my post intermittently by the sound of a page turning as Ulay's sound piece Aphorisms resonates around the room. The intangible nature of the works which we engage with aurally have been countered with a wooden structure framing twelve A4 prints which show the works written in the original German with accompanying pink English translations orbiting the originals. The individual panels in the structure contain a physical representation of the sound pieces. Each poem is contained in its own frame, suspended by the surrounding air which is full of Ulay's voice. The very air holds the artists intent, the years of experience, the history of the words and the gaps between the two languages.
I force my head down again to submerge myself into the work for my impending assessments trying to allow myself to be lulled into an academic trance by Ulay's voice. He is watching me from the wall to my right, watching me through the lens of his Polaroid from 12 years before I was born. The series of Auto-Polaroids in Elf show a younger Ulay peacocking for the camera alone in the woods. It doesn't feel intimate, more like a display, a performance for everyone in the future looking into these little windows on this wall in Dundee. As if I am a voyeur to a secret performance held many years previously. Does he know I'm watching? The title of the show answers my question: So You See Me. He is the voyeur, not me: watching me in my intimate moment of solitude in the gallery.
From the adjacent corridor, Ulay dictates his thoughts on Women With Flags, part of his social experiment series where he plays the scientist seeing if he can illicit ethical responses from us, the audience. The accompanying slide show depicts women of various ethnicities proudly parading augmented flags of the countries of their residence. I can see the bright, polymer colours of the flags dancing in the reflections on the doors from my seat. Both colour and voice invading the softness of the main gallery from the dark corridor.
It becomes increasingly difficult to focus on anything else in the space due to the heavy presence of the artist. I give up and close my laptop to walk around the space and view the works. Ulay’s presence is almost tangible. I can feel him looking at me, but it is not me, he is looking at the audience and demanding attention. From his demure reflections on his lover in Pa’Ulay (1973-74) to the extensive documentation of There’s a Criminal Touch To Art (1976) where he brazenly steals Carl Spitzweg’s The Poor Poet and hangs it in a Turkish immigrant household to draw attention to the treatment of migrants in Germany. The entrance to the gallery is plastered from floor to ceiling of the newspaper articles and ephemera associated with this ‘Action in 14 premeditated sequences.’ It is an action that ignited debate in both the art world, the public, and the marginalised communities he drew attention to. The work was/is audacious, incendiary, and paved the way for misdemeanours as an art practice.
Ulay’s work is confrontational, invasive and captivating. He steals your attention as if it was a beloved painting in a national gallery. He has asked questions of us, the audience, since before we could even answer them. Am I a participant in your social experiment? Am I the audience? Who is looking at whom? It is you who is looking at me, Ulay, and you are demanding I look back.