In 1976 Marina Abramović and Ulay began a decade of collaboration, during which the main concepts they explored were the ego and artistic identity.
Each performer was interested in the traditions of their cultural heritages and the individual’s desire for ritual. Consequently, they decided to form 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.
Rather than concern themselves with gender ideologies, Abramović/Ulay explored extreme states of consciousness and their relationship to architectural space.
In discussing this phase of her performance history, Abramović has said: “The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death self.”
To create this “Death self,” the two performers devised a piece in which they connected their mouths and took in each other’s exhaled breaths until they had used up all of the available oxygen. Precisely seventeen minutes after the beginning of the performance they both fell to the floor unconscious, their lungs having filled with carbon dioxide. This personal piece explored the idea of an individual’s ability to absorb the life of another person, exchanging and destroying it.
In 1988, both artists walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. As Abramovic described it: “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.”
This marked the end of their relationship.