Where Angels Fear to Tread
February 14, 1988
The country which is nowhere is the real home.
LAST MARCH 30, artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay set out to walk the length of the Great Wall of China.
They began at opposite ends, some 3700 miles apart. In the east, Marina stepped away from the Yellow Sea and onto the wall at precisely 10:47 a.m., the auspicious moment chosen for her by those Chinese officials who’d come along to bear witness. In the west, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) planted a flag honoring Moroccan explorer Ibn Batouta at the canyon where the Great Wall ends; then he turned to follow it east into the Gobi Desert. The artists would simply walk toward each other until they met.
Ulay and Marina’s performance work had always forced them into unknown and dangerous territory. And the work had always illustrated and depended on their own relationship, as it supported them through terra incognita. Crossing the Great Wall would take the project to an epic dimension. “The Lovers” they’d called this piece originally, meaning lovers of each other, lovers of the world. But eight years had passed between the dream of walking the wall and the first real step onto its crumbling remains. The epic they’d intended had become impossible. Another would unfold in its place.
From half a world away, Marina and Ulay were metaphors crossing a symbol. The Great Wall is said to be the only human artifact visible from outer space. Chinese mythology describes it as the body of a sleeping dragon. Ulay had stepped off on its tail, and Marina on its head. In pictures, the Great Wall runs snakelike over mossy hills. In pictures, Nixon strolls along it with Mao. But as I prepared to visit the artists last spring, I couldn’t picture what they were going through — what vistas, what struggles over mountains and deserts, what people met along the way. Then, in May, I received a “letter” from Ulay — a page from a daily calendar, actually. On it he had written the words: “stranger than innocence.”
GOING OFF TO FIND the artists on the wall was a trip that I’d saddled with some do-or-die meaning. I suppose I thought it would change my life. Certainly the artists expected the walk to change theirs. In art and myth, that’s what happens on the perilous unpredictable voyage: the sea change. Into something rich and strange. I could be the next pilgrim in the long brooding line. So, if I went through months of anxiety over money, if I didn’t know how to plan because I didn’t know where they were, if I had to delay leaving a dozen times — what were these little traumas compared to the artists’? It had taken them five years just to get permission to walk.
I think of Ulay and Marina as exemplars of those who make the inner journey, who use their art to sculpt the self. Typically, they place themselves in some precarious circumstance, facing not just the unknown, but the unknowable. At first, the risks they took were always physical. Their shocking or bizarre actions pushed the artists to their limits, while making some primal experience real for an audience.
In a piece called Three (1978), for example, they crawled over a floor on their stomachs with a python who hadn’t eaten in two weeks, both of them making sound vibrations to attract it. The snake went straight to Marina (“like in the Bible”) and followed her intently for four hours as she slowly backed away from it. When it finally broke eye contact and turned away, the artists declared the piece over.
In the ’70s, they created classic Body Art pieces they called Relation Work: sitting back to back with their hair tied together for 17 hours; breathing each other’s breath until they felt faint; slapping each other till one of them chose to stop; moving mobile columns by repeatedly hurling their naked bodies at them. They chose difficulty and risk for their art, uncertainty and insecurity for their lives. For four years they lived in their car, nomads with uncompromising, self-imposed rules: permanent movement, transcending limitations, no fixed living-place, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition. They have since described this period as one of the happiest of their lives.
By 1980, however, they felt they’d exhausted the possibilities of such work. They turned their attention from the unarticulated voices of the body to those that layer the mind. In the meditative Nightsea Crossing series, the artists sat motionless for seven hours at either end of a long table, trying not even to blink. And they did this 90 times in museums all over the world, completing the series in 1986. Both have called Nightsea Crossing the most painful and difficult work they ever did. Marina once said that she reached a point, as her muscles cramped in each of the 90 performances, when she felt that she would die. She’d tell herself, “Okay, then. Just die. So what?” Ulay described states of near-catatonia and panic on that edge before the body locks. He said he was “permanent on a brink.”
When I watched Nightsea Crossing for three days at the New Museum in 1986, I thought of Ulay and Marina as two people balanced on a seesaw over the abyss, as if both would fall if either of them moved. Each knew, however, that the other was unmovable. The piece was trust — and will — made visible. The content was the artists’ inner life; the body was mind. “We believe in the art of the 21st century,” Marina once told me. “No object between the artist and observer. Just direct transmission of the energy. When you develop yourself strongly inside, you can transmit your idea directly.”
I could almost see their connection, like some filament between them. Here was a performance in which nothing happened, yet I found it very moving — because of the artists’ courage, and the image they created of mutual empowerment. I suppose the relationship-as-tableau represented some ideal of love and work, of trust and acceptance, that I despair of attaining. Like Relation Work, Nightsea Crossing addressed feelings not easily forced into language — as difficult to describe as emptiness.
Motionlessness, said Ulay, was “the homework.” When he spoke of his birth in a bomb shelter in what is now West Germany, of spending the first years of his life among the ruins, or when Marina described her early performances in Yugoslavia, cutting herself in front of an audience for the simple reason that she was afraid to bleed, I would think — they’ve been preparing to walk the wall all their lives.
I HAD TO PREPARE, I decided, by entering into the spirit of the work: Take a look if you must, but leap. I converted my life savings into travelers checks, and flew. The artists’ heroism, the epic walk, the Great Wall — it was really much larger than life to me. I felt small. When I looked down from the plane and realized that that was China — just an endless undulating brown prairie, really — I began to cry, overwhelmed because I’d come so far, and I don’t mean geographically. It was June 1 in the Year of the Dragon. Entering Beijing, I was dazzled by the everyday — the cliche herds of bikes all pedaling in the same heartbeat rhythm, the young guys playing pool on a table in the street, the sign wishing me to become “one of the 200 lucky fellows,” the language that sounded the way it looked, all big blocks. It was a relief to tune into the details and think small and get real.
The young woman who’d met me at the airport announced that in another day I would accompany an official to somewhere in northwest China. To Ulay. In other words, the leap of faith that had brought me there had just been a practice jump. I’d have to do it again every day. I wouldn’t know where I was going, what I’d find there, or (usually) who was taking me. And the plans were ever-changing. There was no choice but to flow with it. The next day, during an unexplained five-hour delay at Beijing airport, I tried to get a grip on my first fit of Western impatience. Or maybe it was pride. I’m not used to feeling so helpless. I speak no Chinese, and my traveling companion, part of the sponsoring Chinese Association for the Advancement of International Friendship (CAAIF), spoke no English. I would point to the line in my Mandarin phrase book: “When does the flight take off?” and Wang Yunfeng, solicitous and paternal, would tell me: “Yinchuan, no.” Yinchuan was a destination too far off the tourist track to merit more than a sentence in my guidebook.
Sometime after 7 p.m., we finally taxied off in a plane that vibrated hard and smelled like a hundred years of sweat. There were no safety tips. The stewardess handed out kiwi sodas, then a square gray box of snacks: two dry rolls, two pieces of cake, a chocolate wafer cookie, and peanuts (“the tasty food of tourism,” it said on the packet). I had to laugh at myself, at my snack for a sea change. Outside I saw craggy spooky mountains, thin peaks like frozen waves. I hallucinated a dragon in flight from a patch of river golden with sunset. I looked up the word “beautiful” to show Mr. Wang, but it wasn’t in my phrase book.
SUCH A STRANGE and ambitious project as walking the Great Wall wouldn’t have been possible in China until recently — until the new policy of kai fang (opening to the West), instituted under Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese had been building walls for over 2000 years. Qin Shi Huangdi, called the first Chinese emperor because he unified the warring states, connected existing border walls into a Great Wall between 221 and 210 B.C. Subsequent dynasties built more walls as borders shifted. And the project culminated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), whose emperors connected and added to everything constructed before, giving the Great Wall the course it takes today. Ostensibly built for defense, it never worked in defense. The wall, Ulay would tell me, was “a groove in the Chinese mind.” Beyond it, throughout their history, lay foreigners and hell.
Ulay’s and Marina’s performances, with their elements of ritual and ordeal, have no counterpart in China outside religion or politics. Commitment, struggle, pilgrimage — that was the Long March. Before the artists sent their first formal proposal to Beijing early in 1984, no one in China had ever walked the length of the wall. No one had run it or crossed it on horseback (as Westerners have now done, more or less, in the first few years they’ve had access to it). No one in China, apparently, felt compelled to do such things. Then in 1984, Liu Yu Tian, former railway worker, suddenly became the first person to go the distance on foot. The artists thought this was no coincidence. Ulay called it “plagiarism.” But the artists weren’t crossing the wall to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. They were surrounding themselves with the unfamiliar in order to find the unimaginable.
That’s what they always did. In 1980, for example, they spent six months in the central Australian desert. This experience was the pivot that turned them from aggressive physicality to motionlessness. Forced into stillness by heat that rarely dipped below body temperature, they discovered the “nightsea” of the subconscious mind. And it was in the desert that they decided they would someday walk the Great Wall of China.
They became world travelers, seldom at home, based in Amsterdam but not Dutch citizens. They had no wish to be anyone’s citizen. They performed Nightsea Crossing, for example, in Brazil, Japan, Finland. In one episode, they sat with an aboriginal medicine man and a Tibetan lama. And they began a series of videotapes, one for each continent, further exploring the spectacle that unfolds in motionlessness. In the three completed tapes — set in Thailand, Sicily, and Boston — local people pose in tableaux that are saturated with things to look at, saturated with the tension of remaining still. Some detail in each, like a gently billowing dress, makes time visible. The artists’ self-imposed rule: one take, no second chance. They also began a series of lifesize Polaroids, some featuring themselves as archetypal figures or anthropological objects, others capturing their shadows.
At the heart of all the work, still, was their connection and commitment to each other. The artists themselves described their relationship as lovers, brother/sister, husband/wife. And the work was an “energy-dialogue,” which created a third entity they labeled “That Self.” Three was “their” number. They had it tattooed on the middle fingers of their left hands.
They had met in Amsterdam in 1975 on what happened to be their mutual birthday, November 30 (Ulay was born in Germany in 1943, Marina in Yugoslavia in 1946). They had immediately felt confidence in each other. “Like we knew each other before,” Marina once told me. In their work together, with their somewhat similar profiles and sometimes similar haircuts, they became the image, at least, of the ideal couple. Or the symbiotic one. They sometimes designated themselves UMA.
In walking the Great Wall, crossing mountains and deserts to reach each other, they wished to experience at their meeting “the apotheosis of romantic love.” They thought they might get married at that meeting, right there on the wall. They planned to camp as they went, exposing themselves to nature as they had in Australia, conditioning themselves to make new work. They shipped a year’s supply of freeze-dried tofu and seaweed to China. They bought tents and camping stoves. They would study the wall and make paper rubbings from its stones. They’d be retracing the earth’s “geodetic force line,” for the wall’s coiling path (rarely ever the shortest distance between two points) had been determined by geomancers, ancient diviners of the earth’s energy, and they felt that walking this force line might change them. They thought the walk might take a year.
Sometimes I wonder what the Chinese made of that initial proposal. Some ultimate expression of Western individuality and ego? The bureaucracy in Beijing will not even deal with individual artists. In 1983, Ulay and Marina had to create the Amphis Foundation to represent them. Ironically for two people so interested in Eastern philosophy — who had originally speculated that the piece could become a walking meditation — negotiations turned their way only after they proposed doing a film about the wall for China Central Television. They would be walking its length, then, to study it. Finally they were talking the bureaucrats’ language. The adventurous CAAIF agreed to sponsor them. The Dutch government then declared the walk a cultural exchange and kicked in some much-needed funding.
But by the time Marina and Ulay began walking last spring, almost everything about the project had changed. Where they once thought they would walk singly, each now had an entourage; the Chinese feared for their safety. The artists had wanted to cover every inch of the wall; but the Chinese restricted them from military areas. (For these detours, among other things, each artist got a jeep and a driver.) Where they once thought they’d camp on the wall, they often ended up in villages, even in hotels, because the Chinese do not camp. The Chinese estimated that the project would take four months and demanded the sum of $130,000 — more than $1000 a day. The artists sold work they hadn’t yet made in order to raise the money. Walking the wall had become something they just had to do.
But the most startling change of all was in their relationship. They could no longer call the piece “The Lovers.” Less than a year before starting, they separated. Marina told me she wouldn’t have expected their relationship — so unique — to end just as badly as any other, but it had. Marina felt that everything had broken between them. Ulay insisted their connection would continue, though it had changed. They would still work together after the walk, he said. They would not work together after the walk, she said.
Despite their mutual unhappiness, not walking was something they never considered seriously. They would surrender to the situation. They had always shared this unwavering resolve, the voice that said, “Okay, then. Just die. So what?” That was what had made their work so compelling to me in the first place. Yet their split confused and saddened me. I even wondered if they should walk. Was the project still valid? When a mutual friend suggested that the connection between them went deeper than the vicissitudes of romance, though, I agreed.
The artists had traveled along parts of the wall by train and car in 1986 — to get some sense of what they’d encounter — and when they told villagers living near it what they were doing, those people had understood it immediately as an epic love story, something right out of mythology. Of course, the project had always been more than that. But it was still, in its way, a love story made real. Ever interested in testing the limits, they would now have to contemplate the limits of love — an emotion more complicated, harrowing, fragile, and imperfect than most epics allow.
The artists considered starting at the middle and walking away from each other, but decided not to. In their very first piece, Relation in Space (1976), they had moved toward each other repeatedly for one hour, naked, first touching shoulders as they met, then accelerating the intensity till they were colliding head-on at full speed. Walking the wall would duplicate this action in arduous slow motion and would seem to mark the end of their extraordinary 12-year collaboration, even as it demonstrated what they’d once called “the impossibility of escaping one another.”
I WONDERED HOW FAR we were from Ulay, as Mr. Wang and the Foreign Affairs people and I left Yinchuan by van. The day Ulay had finally begun to walk, he’d sent me a postcard with the message: “I go now.” On the back, barely visible, were some faint blue lines. Under a magnifying glass, I recognized the second century Chinese poem called “Confessions of the Great Wall” that he and Marina had found years ago: The world is small and blue./I am a little crack in it.
Now, presumably drawing near, I noticed a billboard on which the winding wall of legend had been painted into the center of a Great Wall Tire. We drove honking and weaving into the bike and donkey traffic, past the rickshaw piled with slaughtered sheep, into the country, past the mud-brick medical office with a gingham curtain for a door. Everything familiar was now strange, and I didn’t know where I was. Couldn’t tell what direction we were going. And it was raining as we entered the Mao Wu Su desert. Mr. Wang pointed to a jagged reddish rock formation (I thought) on the horizon. “Ulay has been there,” he said. That was the Great Wall of China.
That little chunk of it must have been 30 feet long. Here in western China, the wall was built from clay. It had eroded, and so had the other ruins we passed. A broken beacon tower. A crumbled compound. Everything deserted but for the odd sheep or shepherd. “How old are these things?” I wondered. The Foreign Affairs people told me, “It is difficult to measure the time.”
Finally, after four hours of driving, we entered the village of Yan Chi. Where the Great Wall of China runs through a carpet factory. In a new but already shabby hotel covered with bright yellow tile, we found Ulay.
As he came striding down the hallway, where the dirty strips of red carpet never quite met, Ulay looked happy. As if he were home. In two months he had walked through two provinces, through desert most of the way. He’d seen camels pulling plows. He’d found people living in the wall — in caves — in the most clever way. He’d crossed the Yellow River on a sheepskin raft. He was filled with enthusiasms. And with complaints. There’d been so many detours, so many “tough quarrelings” with authorities. They would insist on hotels instead of camping. And when they did let him camp, they would sleep in the van. Often his crew couldn’t keep pace with him. And they would tell him that areas were restricted when, really, they were just inconvenient, he thought. It had been impossible to carry out the pure concept, to be one of two tiny humans moving toward each other over this broken but monumental path.
I began to see how the piece was really unfolding, as my first 24 hours with Ulay became an ongoing social event. He was not walking merely the Great Wall, but a line threaded through the gears of China’s infamous bureaucracy. Crossing a provincial border like this one between Ningxia and Shaanxi was a political event, a time for meetings, banquets, speeches, and a complete change of crew.
“Walking is the easy part,” Ulay told me that night, after the first of three banquets we would eat in two days. “All the people involved in the project are bureaucratic, administrative-trained people. There is no great spirit for exploration, for sportive behavior. They like to be nicely dressed. They like to have their dinners on time. They like to sleep.” To the bureaucrats, accompanying Ulay was hard work. To Ulay, being accompanied by them was like dragging a heavy tail. They had pulled each other in different directions, and in this tug-of-war the Chinese had taken control of the project.
The only struggle Ulay could hope to win was the ongoing struggle with his temper. Occasionally he’d become so angry that he had “choiced wrong.” For certainly he was no tourist wanting China to be a museum — new sights with the comforts of home. Ulay can become absorbed in a culture completely. Rootless and mobile, he is not much attached to his “world of origin.” At one of the banquets in Yan Chi, he told the officials and the crew that he had been born in Germany during the war and had lost most of his family then, but here in China he had found a new one.
Yet, two months into the walk, he was still fuming over how “their waterproof security system” had changed the concept. His frustration over this seemed to enter every conversation we had. He’d nearly come to blows, he admitted, one day in Ningxia province when two members of his crew physically restrained him from walking farther into the mountains. They told him he’d come to a restricted area. He didn’t believe them. He guessed that they simply didn’t want to climb. In his rage, he broke the staff to which he’d tied a knotted white flag — a private signal meaning “remember to surrender.” That day, when he’d done neither, had been the worst of his journey.
I recalled his distress when, in 1987, the Chinese had inexplicably postponed the walk (for the first time). He’d described his state of mind then as “so disencouraged, so desperated.” At that point, he said, he’d been living on the wall in his thoughts for five years, and “already I have walked it 10 times. Already it is worn. It is polished.” So when he finally climbed onto it that first day to see the long-anticipated plan “bent into a different direction,” he began trying to bend it back.
Not covering every foot of the wall, not camping near it every night — these were the changes that vexed and preoccupied him, the ones he would talk about. The altered relationship with Marina he didn’t talk about, and I sensed that I shouldn’t press him. He said only that this was the first time he and Marina had worked so separately. They hadn’t even communicated. And he didn’t know what it meant. He’d decided it was “not important” at the moment. Meanwhile, he continued to speak in the plural: we feel, our work, important to us … He asked me if I’d heard anything about how she was doing.
The artists had speculated that they might meet where the Yellow River divides the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, and he wondered aloud one day which of them would make the crossing by boat — but, really, he did not want to think about the ending. When he’d see Marina again. He wanted to have no expectations.
ULAY CRAVED the first light of day, so good for photographs. He always set out between six and seven and walked until noon or one, averaging 20 kilometers. Walking became so mechanical, he said, that the earth moved beneath him like a treadmill. He was measuring the Great Wall with his body.
This was not the picturesque stone wall that beckoned from the travel brochures. That wall ran through the eastern mountains, and somewhere Marina was crossing it, headed in our direction. The clay wall Ulay followed through the west had been more vulnerable to both humans and the weather. Obviously it inspired no awe among the people who lived with it. One day it snaked through a village where we discovered homes and stables built in beneath our feet. Hours before in the countryside, we’d found it spread out into two gentle slopes and plowed.
Since the wall had been built from the best available clay, peasants occasionally made off with whole chunks of it. “Mao killed the dragon,” as Ulay put it. Mao had encouraged the Chinese to make use of this cultural relic, to take its clay for topsoil or its stones for building. Re-educating millions to leave it alone again was not so easy. At Jaiyuguan where his walk began, Ulay had seen workers restoring the wall for tourists, while eight kilometers farther on, peasants dismantled it.
Even during my first excited walk, I had to remind myself sometimes that I was crossing the Great Wall of China — from afar the stuff of legends, a giant sleeping dragon; up close, a hill to climb. That day, when we picked up the wall at the Ningxia/Shaanxi border, it was scrub-covered at first, an uneven 10 to 12 feet tall, but rounded like an earthwork on a battlefield. An hour or two later, we hit desert and began crossing its perfect shapes. Here the wall became a rough clay trail, often too broken to walk on. We were alone in a blue and yellow world where all centuries had been the same, scuttled over by scarab beetles.
As I skirted some large holes in the top of the wall, Ulay, walking below, reported that they opened into one-room caves. Here, the crew told us, soldiers from the Red Army had dug in and lived during the ’30s. An hour later, we found a beacon tower converted into a temple, where two old men in gray lived and worshiped a war hero from the time of Three Kingdoms (220 to 265 A.D.). History was just part of the landscape. No drama. No theme park. We were dots moving over the dunes.
BACK WHEN THE WALK was still an idea, Ulay had considered going the distance in silence. He is reserved by nature. He’d always said he was “no talker,” leaving the art-world social chores — openings, lectures — to Marina. Now, here he was officiating at banquets, wanting to mix, always the center of some group. If the people he passed wanted to gawk, Ulay was more than willing to be seen. He was their new information. He wanted to connect, even while surmising that “my smile comes from a different muscle than their smile.”
He had come to feel that he represented foreignness. He hated the VIP treatment usually accorded everyone who is not Chinese, which so effectively separates them from everything that is Chinese. Foreigners travel most often in groups of foreigners, staying in hotels just for foreigners. The Chinese authorities seem to want it that way (and, of course, so do any number of the foreigners). There is, in other words, a great wall.
Ulay said that in all his travels to the remotest parts of India, Australia, and North Africa, he had never experienced such “fear for a person who has two eyes, two ears, and a mouth.” Here he had been so many people’s first foreigner. Again and again he’d observed in their eyes that “moment of doubt and strangeness.” Tall and lanky with a brown mustache and ponytail, carrying a staff, wearing baggy drawstring trousers, big hiking boots, and sometimes a flowing overcoat — Ulay was a sensation.
All of our walks ran through territory closed to foreigners, and for four days, we stayed in the closed village of Dingbian. “A real Forbidden City,” Ulay called it. Soon after arriving there, we decided to take a stroll and a crowd materialized around us within steps of the hotel. People had stared at me since my first day in China, but in Dingbian they were mesmerized. As though we were movie stars. Or monsters. On their faces I saw joy, fear, hostility, disbelief. We were no longer ourselves, but spectacles of ourselves. I was learning how racism feels, how frightening it is to be other-than-human. Soon we were leading a large blue and green parade through the heart of the village, everyone silent but openmouthed. When a hundred people followed us back into the hotel and watched as we climbed the stairs, Ulay joked that in all his years as a performance artist, he had never had such a big audience.
“Alien,” said Ulay, referring to our Alien Travel Permits. “They use the right word.” He did a lot of theorizing about China. He’d come to love it and wanted to understand. “The Chinese have been isolated for such a long time. Deliberately. And if a large group of people isolates themselves from the rest, something strange has to happen. You have a circulation throughout your body. Take a rubber ring and put it around your finger. The circulation becomes disturbed and something starts rotting. And if you take it off, you poison your own system. Maybe that’s why they generate one wall after another.”
This was what he thought “stranger than innocence.” Not that the Chinese were innocent of the world but that for many of them, the rest of the world simply didn’t exist. He’d discovered that people who lived along the wall often didn’t know it was a wonder of the world, and many had no idea that it crossed most of China. The translator who’d traveled with him and Marina in 1986 said she’d grown up thinking that the moon belonged to her village. “They have a non-ability to look out,” Ulay told me. “They are unable to see there is one sun and one moon which is touring.” He thought China womblike, thermal. He pointed out that people constantly drank boiling water (of necessity, for there’s no potable water anywhere), and that even in June, men wore long underwear. “They live like they’re preparing for hibernation.”
OFTEN AS WE WALKED, Ulay pointed out tools used by the peasants, used for centuries and so ingenious. He would roam from the path of the wall occasionally to explore, wanting to know the history and customs of the area. He’d lit a fire in one of the beacon towers, because signaling in that way had once been their function. And when we found pottery shards along the wall, he could often identify the dynasty from which they came.
For Ulay the walk had become a study of China, and there he had focused his emotional energy — rage for the bureaucrats, love for the yellow earth of the northwest and for the peasants’ way of life. So, while his walk was no longer romantic, it had acquired perhaps a touch of romanticism. It was about another sort of yearning.
In the countryside, he’d observed a bare-bones and to him idyllic life. He’d observed that those who lived it had no complaints. “There is contentment, which I find a more reasonable term than happiness.” Such a room as one found in a commune — with a brick bed, bowl of water, two chairs, and a table — it was all one needed, really. His first translator had called him a “voluntary socialist.”
To the men on his crew, however, this simple life wasn’t necessarily ideal. Ulay hadn’t understood at first what rigors of exile some of these people had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Now they’d managed a better life for themselves, and the hardship he craved reminded them of old horrors. He told me in Dingbian that he now thought his problems were his problems.
He thought maybe the explorer’s nature was a sort of greed. Critic Tom McEvilley had visited him in May and observed that he was “greedy for authenticity,” and Ulay thought it was so. On our last afternoon together, we discussed what it meant to be blocked so thoroughly from language, trapped without an alphabet. “The search for authenticity is where you are exposed to a different world and have to rely stronger again on intuitive intelligence,” said Ulay. “We look to traditional cultures to sound into that intuitive intelligence. Where your sharp senses get a holiday.”
Ulay was looking for more by looking for less. Paring things away — technology, comfort, habit, even language. I was reminded of the existential drifters who appear in the work of Ulay’s favorite writer, Samuel Beckett. Molloy saying of his journey’s aim: “… the most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle.”
FROM JUNE 9 TO JUNE 12, from Ulay to Marina, I made a slow, U-shaped arc by jeep, plane, train, and car. I was still an impatient Westerner, ignorant of the difficulties involved in getting tickets or making phone calls, therefore outraged that I had to stop for a full day in the city of Taiyuan. And I still became paranoid over conversations like this one:
“Maybe she’s here.”
“Can I see her?”
“Maybe she just left.”
“Can you find out?”
Though no one in Taiyuan told me so, Marina had come through town the day before, detouring a large military area. By the time I caught up with her at a xiang (commune) north of Datong a couple of days later, I felt — as I had with Ulay — that I’d arrived at the end of the earth. I’d also brought with me certain expectations. But no, Marina had had no trouble with bureaucrats. And for her, walking had not been the easy part.
The eastern half of the wall, built from stone and famous in pictures, runs across the spine of a mountain range. One small piece of it, fully restored, is open to tourists near Beijing. There they can buy a T-shirt declaring, “I walked the wall.” There the wall is most clearly a symbol, like the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. And there Marina had refused to walk — because it was too short, too fake, and too easy. The rest of the eastern wall is now a trail of loose rock ascending and descending the peaks. Hers was more arduous terrain than his, but in choosing sides, the artists had been concerned only with symbolism. According to Chinese mythology, hers was the male part of the wall and his the female. Their work together had always balanced these polarities.
Each morning Marina had had to climb for two hours just to get to the wall. She would reach it exhausted. Then it would take all day to do 20 kilometers, then another two hours to climb back down. She’d never once camped. She’d descend to find a place in the nearest village or xiang. There she would ask the people to tell her stories about the wall. Not its history, but its legends.
Marina is affable and vivid, the poetry of her rather ungrammatical English only adding to her charm. She was even on a first-name basis with her quiet young interpreter, Han Dahai, and the crew that accompanied her throughout the mountain trek had affectionately dubbed her “Pa Ma Ta Je” (Big Fat Sister Ma) because of her bulky clothing. “I wish new Chinese name,” joked Marina, who’s fairly slim. Like Ulay, she wore big hiking boots, baggy trousers, a multipocket vest, a flowing overcoat. More importantly, like Ulay, she had an iron will. But they had reacted as opposites to the changes in the walk. Where he had struggled with the authorities and lost, she had yielded and gotten her own way — by incorporating their changes, making them her changes.
But then, Marina didn’t really care about the camping. To her the big change was in her relationship with Ulay. She’d even been reluctant to start. “Before was this strong emotional link, so walking towards each other had this impact … almost epic story of two lovers getting together after suffering. Then that fact went away. I was confronted with just bare Wall and me. I had to rearrange my motivation. Then I always remember this sentence of John Cage saying, when I throw I Ching, the answers I like the less are the answers I learn the most.
“I’m very glad we didn’t cancel the piece because we needed a certain form of ending. Really this huge distance we walk towards each other where actually we do not meet happily, but we will just end — it’s very human in a way. It’s more dramatic than actually just having this romantic story of lovers. Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
She’d insisted that she had to walk directly on the Wall at all times, and the Chinese allowed it. In the mountains, this meant ascending or descending on unsteady piles of rock, climbing to “the border of human possibilities,” up peaks where even the local guides would not go. To avoid a fall, or an avalanche, she’d had to concentrate so hard on every step that she could think of nothing else. She couldn’t think about Ulay.
Before we left the xiang, she described the drama of her fourth day, when she and Dahai had nearly fallen to their deaths. They’d been descending the mountain at the end of the day, when it suddenly dropped off at a 90-degree angle, the rocks “polished like ice,” below them an abyss. “We were hanging there on the tips of our fingers.” They had, of course, no climbing equipment. It had taken two perilous hours to inch back up.
Where I met her, the Great Wall had been built from clay. She complained that walking was so easy here her mind could wander. She’d come to love the stone wall, its dangers, its “continuous falls and ups like real life.” While never foolhardy, Marina appreciated danger. “Is danger what wake you up, and that’s what I like so much.” With months of this behind her, she had the survivor’s conviction that she could face anything.
MARINA HAD PERMISSION to cross just one of four counties in the province of Shanxi (not to be confused with neighboring Shaanxi, where Ulay was). As we started down the wall behind the xiang, I pointed out that we were going east — the wrong way. Marina was taken aback, then shrugged her shoulders. The new crew had driven her to the starting point the day before, and she’d started — that’s all. I couldn’t help but think of Ulay — his precision in estimating where he’d stop for the day, calibrating the mileage, his U.S. Air Force map, the most detailed he could find, always tucked in a vest pocket. Marina rarely consulted maps, wouldn’t think of carrying one, and didn’t plan her days. It was one of their differences: “his practicality, my chaos.”
We set off down the border of Inner Mongolia, for this was one of the rare places where the wall still served that function. And at the end of the day, we came upon a network of ruins. I was sure it had been a massive fort. In the field south of the wall, where peasants were weeding on hands and knees, sat two ancient greenish stone lions, and beyond them a walled city. I figured this had been the passage to Mongolia, heavily armed back when the wall was supposedly stopping the hordes. Marina wanted to spend the night in that ancient city, where I could learn the history and she could get a legend. We bounced through the same gate that once saw chariots — I was sure of it. I was overwhelmed by it. The buildings were yellow mud; their windows were oiled paper. Our jeep was the only vehicle there. Dingbian, in comparison, had been the picture of urbanity.
The jeep dropped us at a shabby old house festooned with pink paper — the village radio station, half its area filled by a brick bed wide enough for six people. “The sheets,” Marina laughed, pointing to the dirty corrugated cardboard on the bed. She was excited, for what she liked most was staying with peasant families in villages like this one. She disliked the xiangs. (They now function more like county seats than communes, but there’s no exact equivalent in English.) Laid out like cheap motels, in straight brick rows one story tall, they embodied order. They were always the same. They were too much like Yugoslavia. “These straight lines. This socialist aesthetic,” she would sigh. “Bad light and hospital green. Why they choose this form of expression?”
I, however, felt a sort of vertigo in the village, an irrational panic I couldn’t explain to her. Perhaps I was simply more alien(ated) than I had ever been before. Perhaps when nothing fits a single groove in your memory, you’re like a newborn. I would remember this later as a most valued moment.
But at the time, I took notes as if a list could help unravel my “doubt and strangeness”: a couple of sheepskins, the door of a jeep, a telephone so old it might have rung during the Long March. Women and children began to sit down in silence across the dusty yellow yard from us, to stare, while an old man came in and, without acknowledging our presence, began broadcasting into a mike with a red cloth tied over it. He was calling the head of the village, said Dahai. Or trying to. None of the ancient equipment seemed to work.
Yet the head of the village arrived soon after. A middle-aged man with Beatle bangs and a Mao jacket, he told us several times that “conditions” here were not so good. Marina assured him several times that “conditions” did not matter. But no foreigner had ever stayed in this village before, and he clearly didn’t want us to be the first. We left for a xiang.
There we were able to discover that the village, over 2100 years old, had been there before the wall was there. But no one knew anything about the ruins. No one knew any legends.
WE SET OUT the next morning around nine or nine-thirty. Marina never began earlier. She followed the habit acquired in the eastern mountains of walking all day, with a break at lunchtime.
“Here is like Ulay wall,” she complained. She didn’t like it — this ragged line of baked clay surrounded by plowed fields. “This like the endless tail. Like the burial ground of the dragon.” It was a day of blazing heat. At noon, Marina asked about the jeep — since of course she had made no plan — and the security man with the walkie-talkie said, “Six kilometers.” Insects and heat shimmered off layers of brick scraggly with grass — the Great Wall. Apart from this enigmatic line built by unknown hands so long ago, the landscape could have been Iowa.
Two hours later, we still hadn’t found the jeep or even a road. Now the security man was telling us, “Just over the hill.” But it wasn’t there either, and we’d run out of water. “Kafka is good literature here,” said Marina, who now felt sick with headache. She, Dahai, and I sat down across the river from a factory belching chemical fumes, while the crew went on ahead. Around three, Dahai pointed to a stick figure atop a distant beacon tower. They were telling us the jeep couldn’t come.
We spent the night at a nearby graphite factory, where all the offices had brick beds. When a blackout hit around 10 p.m., someone appeared with candles almost instantly, suggesting that this might be routine. In the hallway, a tallow burned on the handlebars of the bike parked just below the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. We joined the workers who’d drifted into the yard with their thermoses and teacups. A voluble middle-aged man in a white T-shirt made some little speeches (through Dahai) about how welcome we were.
People always talked to her this way, Marina said. It was so hard to get past the platitudes. The worker went on to say that “conditions” weren’t so good, then he asked us to please sing. Marina had soon persuaded him to sing instead, and in a beautiful tenor he sang bits of local folk songs. I went in for a jacket and returned to find that Marina had assured the group I would now sing. A dozen workers watched me expectantly, as Marina suggested I do “Strangers in the Night.” Mortified, I gave them my best Sinatra. They only looked baffled and stunned.
IN EVERY VILLAGE she’d come to after descending from the wall, Marina had asked to meet the oldest resident. She would photograph that person and ask for a legend about the wall. The oldest person was always a man. She had never been able to get a woman to tell her a legend. She hadn’t been able to get a woman for her crew, either, though she’d requested one. Holding up half the sky they may have been, but the women I’d seen (in rural areas especially) stayed shyly in the background and were rarely included in the official dinners or meetings. Marina must have seemed doubly strange — not just a foreigner, but a female on an incomprehensible mission. In one mountain village, people had gathered to watch her fall asleep. A different group was sitting around the bed when she woke up.
Judging from the legends she’d heard, Marina believed the wall’s origins were connected more to mythology than to defense. The legends spoke of marvelous fierce dragons. White, yellow, and black. Mountain dragons. Sea dragons. They fought. They caused earthquakes and tidal waves. Where she’d started, at the Yellow Sea, the builders of the wall had sunk ships — representing, in some legends, the sea dragon; in others, the head of one giant dragon slain by the emperor of the air. To control the creature’s energy, peasants had designated “energy spots” along the Great Wall, like acupuncture points along the dragon’s spine. There they placed copper pots, then covered them with heaps of stone. When Marina found these places along the wall, she stopped and spent time. To absorb the energy.
She was convinced that the geodetic energy line was alive in the mountains (while the clay wall, much of it older, felt dead to her). That was why she’d insisted that she couldn’t leave the line of the wall. She’d come up with a phrase that described her process: “boat emptying, stream entering.” She would empty her mind as a meditator does — the danger she faced forcing her to stay in the moment, to stop thinking of past or future. The stream was the energy of the wall, the force line, nature.
Marina had made the walk an inward journey, a way to strengthen herself for the new life ahead when she would work, she said, without Ulay. She called it “a broom for my soul.” Art should be done, she believed, from that extraordinary state of mind one could only get to physically, through exhaustion or pain or repetition. This was what attracted her to hardship and risk. “I put myself in a circumstance where all my defense is broken and all my habits don’t exist.” Every day of the walk in the mountains had exhausted her and caused her pain. She’d had two months of that. She thought it essential to push herself for a long time. Then — “is like gate to me, when the body give up.”
THE MORNING THAT WE LEFT the graphite factory, we soon came upon steep velvety hills. The wall ran up the sharpest incline, at the angle a ladder takes against the side of a house. It was no mountain, but it looked impossible. Marina scrambled straight up, exhilarated. Winded after toiling to the top of the first stretch, I could see that this was nothing to Marina and Dahai. The wall here was stone, unsteady beneath my feet, and dropped off sharply on the left. Wind snapped my hat off, began strangling me with its cord.
Finally the wall leveled off on a barren plateau that stretched toward what looked like forever. It was so empty. Not even a tree. Just to the north was a breathtaking vista of treeless, silver green hills: Inner Mongolia. I began to imagine that we were the first humans who’d been here in centuries.
One of the crew sprinted over the grass behind a rabbit. “He thinks is dinner,” said Marina. We’d brought a lunch today, again uncertain where we would eventually find the jeep. Again, the sun was scorching. We had to settle for a footwide patch of shade in a little gully. In our lunch bags, packed by the crew, we each found six hard-boiled eggs, some cucumbers, and one tomato. We ate it all. Marina thought that, given the heat, we should rest until three, and we moved on to find better shade. There was one thin tree. There was one tiny cave. In a beacon tower north of the grass-covered wall, I eased into a cranny big enough for one human and watched the ants.
When we began walking again, Marina said that I must tell her exactly how I felt. I knew that I had two feelings. Everywhere we looked was the beauty that language can’t describe, the primordial landscape, naked gullies forking into soft hills. This grass was the only jade I’d seen. And here were these amazing ruins. Not just the Great Wall of China, but walls that were once houses or stables, built long before the country I came from was a country, and over there some obelisk, all so mysterious. So I told her that I felt exhilaration. I would leave China having seen the massive Buddhas back in Datong, having seen the terra cotta warriors near Xi’an. But nothing would compare to this walk on the wall, because there I saw the things I didn’t know I would see.
But my second feeling was a great anxiety. I told her that we didn’t know where we were or where we were going or how big this plateau was or if we’d leave it by nightfall or where the jeep would find us again. I’d noticed that the security man couldn’t get through on his walkie-talkie. I supposed we were up too high. And look what had happened yesterday. Marina smiled at this, my fear, as she put it, “that jeep is somewhere and we are nowhere.” She told me that this, actually, was the ideal journey. When nothing is fixed. She got happiness from this openness, from not knowing. This was why she wanted no plan. This was where she found the “edge that make you wake.”
“In this way,” she said, “I find my destiny.”
ON JUNE 27, having each walked well over a thousand miles, the artists arrived at Shenmu in Shaanxi province. Ulay had just endured the most physically difficult part of his journey, crossing the Mao Wu Su Desert with its nearly 300-foot sand dunes and canyonlike east-west cracks. It had been two steps forward and one back the whole way. Marina had had to make another giant detour around a military area, resuming her walk at the Yellow River, at the place where they’d thought the piece might end. The day before meeting with Ulay, she’d passed through a kilometer of human bones.
Chance set their meeting at the site of 200 small Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian temples built into the hills early in the Ming Dynasty, dedicated to the warrior hero, Er Lang. The crew had found musicians to play traditional instruments. They’d hung banners to fly in the breeze and exploded fireworks. By chance, the artists were both just rounding the corner of a temple when they saw each other. By chance they had traveled for exactly 90 days, the same amount of time they’d spent doing Nightsea Crossing. And by chance, they finally came face to face at the center of a stone bridge. “Over the abyss,” as Marina put it. They embraced. She experienced a flashback of their twelve years together. He whispered something about how much they’d accomplished.
I had left China before the meeting, unable to extend my visa. But the meaning of the walk was no longer hinged there. Over the telephone, each complained a bit about the other’s first reaction. Marina had started to cry, which Ulay thought inappropriate. Ulay’s first words were something about her shoes, which Marina thought inappropriate. Marina couldn’t wait to leave China. Ulay said he could have walked on forever.
They discovered that they had both written the same little poem along the way: “Cloud in the sky/dust in the eye.” But in no other way had their journeys been the same. “For the first time in 12 years, we had separate experiences,” reported Ulay. “There will be no way to fuse it.” So the project came to have two names (see below): for Ulay, The Alien; for Marina, Boat Emptying, Stream Entering.
From Shenmu the artists went right to Beijing to hold a press conference. The Chinese media has never published anything at all, however, on the journeys made by Ulay and Marina across the wall. The artists returned, separately, to Amsterdam.
Their walk had been much like the Great Wall itself, which never accomplished what it was built to accomplish, yet it became a wonder of the world. It was both an absurd and a glorious project, a bit of a failure yet an overwhelming success. Like the aspiration to love, to transcend, to risk everything, it was too too human. ■
After the Wall
THE EXHIBITION inspired by the walk will tour the world, opening at the Stedjilik Museum in Amsterdam this June and ending eventually in Beijing. Ulay is creating a slide show for three screens, with pictures of the Great Wall in the center and pictures taken north and south of it to the left and right. Marina is making sculptures — steps, seats, and beds — from pink quartz and copper. All will be affixed to the museum wall and interactive, so the public can stand, sit, or lie to experience the “dragon energies” she found on the Great Wall.
Between these separate exhibits, each artist will place a sculpture. Hers will be two vases in Chinese orange, lying horizontally head to head; one Ulay’s height, one her height; one shiny, one matte. Ulay will place together two abstract sculptures so that the negative space between them forms a gate. It’s a crude reading of the work, perhaps, but she’s created a symbol of ending, while he’s made a passage to somewhere else.
This fall the artists returned to China, separately, to make the film they owed to China Central Television. Their two films will become one by crosscutting.
Ulay calls his The Alien. He appears throughout in bright blue silk, face covered with a blue silk mask. No one knows where he’s going or why he’s come, but he’s searching for something along the Great Wall of China. Accompanying him is a blind old Chinese woman — someone he actually met in Ningxia province, who was a cinematographer before the Cultural Revolution and had always dreamed of making a film with an alien. Now she has done so.
Marina has called her film Boat Emptying, Stream Entering. In it, she encounters mythological figures — kings and queens from the Tang and Ming dynasties, Shanghai girls from the ’20s, and peasants who drift into view in fantastic costumes while she climbs toward the peaks. As she descends from them, she encounters reality — the real wall, the tough mountain. Then at the end, she meets Ulay at Shenmu again, and for the first time uncovers his face.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2020