Art Theft for Turkish Migrants in West Berlin?
Revisiting Ulay’s “Da ist eine kriminelle Berührung in der Kunst” [There is a Criminal Touch to Art]
Text: Carlos Kong
In the winter of 1976, a young artist who went by the name of Ulay travelled from Amsterdam, where he lived as an art student, to West Berlin. Born Frank Uwe Laysiepen in Solingen, Nazi Germany in 1943, Ulay began his artistic career in the 1970s by producing photographs and performances that challenged gender roles and societal hierarchies. In 1975, Ulay met his later partner and artistic collaborator, the now renowned performance artist Marina Abramović. Together, they created an influential body of “Relation Works”, short live performances, the conceptual parameters and physical intensity of which innovated the history of performance art. Ulay’s trip to West Berlin in 1976, a city surrounded at the time by the Berlin Wall, was a fraught return of sorts. As he traversed the Cold War capital, he devised a new artwork called “Da ist eine kriminelle Berührung in der Kunst” [There is a Criminal Touch to Art], which would forcefully confront the power structures of German identity. Ulay’s artwork was not an art object in a traditional sense, but rather a scripted artistic “action” comprised of a major art theft. The artist planned to steal Carl Spitzweg’s celebrated painting “Der arme Poet” [The Poor Poet] (1839) from the Neue Nationalgalerie and rehang it in a Kreuzberg apartment on Muskauer Straße in which a Turkish migrant family lived.1
On December 12, 1976, Ulay carried out the art theft, and remarkably, it went as planned, as documented in the remaining black-and-white film footage. The action began at the entrance of the former Hochschule der Künste Berlin (today’s Universität der Künste Berlin), where the artist hung a poster-sized reproduction of Spitzweg’s “Der arme Poet”. Ulay then drove his van through Tiergarten to the Neue Nationalgalerie, followed by another car from which Jörg Schmitt-Reitwein filmed the artist. Marina Abramović filmed Ulay from inside the museum, where he is glimpsed removing the painting from the wall and rushing out through an emergency exit, chased by museum security guards. He then drove along the Landwehrkanal to Kottbusser Tor, where he abandoned his van and ran with the painting through Kreuzberg. Ulay hung another reproduction of Spitzweg’s painting outside of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien on Mariannenplatz, pointing out to the connection between three prevalent institutions of the art system: artist studios (housed within the Künstlerhaus Bethanien), the art school (the Hochschule der Künste), and the museum of modern art (the Neue Nationalgalerie). He entered a public phone booth and dialed the number of the museum, requesting to speak to the institution’s director in order to disclose his theft. As Ulay entered the Turkish migrant family’s apartment on Muskauer Straße, the camera panned around the wallpapered living room. The Turkish mother, surrounded by her three children, smiles into the camera as she watches Ulay remove a framed image from her wall and replace it with Spitzweg’s painting to end his act. The edited film documentation also includes footage from a finissage-like “press conference” at Mike Steiner Gallery, a former meeting place of the postwar avant-garde owned by the producer of Ulay’s action. Newspapers with headlines reporting on the controversy of Ulay’s staged theft hung on the gallery walls, and the predominantly white West Berlin art world engaged Ulay with curiosity.
Why did Ulay feel compelled to steal Carl Spitzweg’s “Der arme Poet” and hang it in the apartment of a Turkish migrant family? And how could an art theft become a work of art? For Ulay, stealing Spitzweg’s painting was foremost an artistic gesture of institutional critique. He was keenly aware of how the painting served as a symbolic national treasure; “Hitler loved this painting and fanatically admired Spitzweg”2 , the artist recalled. Ulay’s action further challenged the authority of museums in general, and the Neue Nationalgalerie specifically, as exclusionary institutions. A modernist temple for art designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Neue Nationalgalerie opened in 1968 as part of West Berlin’s attempt to restore its postwar image through urban renewal and new cultural institutions.3 Ulay rejected the institutionalization of art in museums and its instrumentalization in state politics and nationalist fantasies; he saw this as art’s “criminal touch.” In stealing and relocating a nationally prized artistic icon, Ulay aimed to draw attention to what West German society violently excluded: the populations of foreign labor migrants, known pejoratively at the time as “guest workers” [Gastarbeiter], who endured exploitative working and living conditions, lacked political and legal rights, and faced the reality of everyday and structural racism.
Ulay’s action became a spectacle in the media the following day; he was first derided by the press as a leftwing radical, then as a madman.4 The ironic tone of one headline, “‘Armer Poet’ sollte Türken-Wohnung zieren” [“‘Poor Poet’ is supposed to decorate Turks apartment”], reveals the racist cultural attitudes that disavowed the humanity of Turkish migrants by directly opposing them with the supposedly civilized realm of “high art.” Ulay’s action occurred three years after the official end of the recruitment of labor migrants in 1973, amid a politically unstable period marked by economic recession, the 1973 Oil Crisis, and the violent activity of the RAF. At the time, Turkish migrants in West Germany were scapegoated, othered, and vilified, as evidenced by the racist legislative and bureaucratic practices that denied their existence as fellow citizens, incentivized their return to Turkey, and prevented them from receiving adequate housing and social standing.5 Migrants in general, and Turks specifically, came to be seen as a monolithic “problem.” Their social dispossession was falsely aligned with criminality in the West German imaginary, another misleading “criminal touch” that Ulay found inseparable from the sanitized realms of art and culture. The artist was particularly impacted by the segregation and impoverishment of migrants in the then-peripheral city district of Kreuzberg. In bringing the Spitzweg painting to the neighborhood, he sought to draw attention to the systematic marginalization and criminalization of its migrant inhabitants.
Though Ulay’s action was radical for its time, addressing the work from the present reveals its ambivalences and potential limitations. The mother and three children that comprise the “Turkish guest worker family” [Türkische Gastarbeiterfamilie] are silent in the footage of the action and remain anonymous in its archival record. They were not seen as fellow participants or collaborators; Ulay did not inform them about the painting’s theft beforehand, instead telling them he was shooting a documentary.6 The family members had no chance to tell their own experiences related to migration and instead were used as racialized props in a white artist’s demonstrative situation. In framing them based on their nationality as “Turkish,” Ulay foreclosed the family’s self-positioning while implicitly effacing the ethnocultural plurality of migrants from Turkey. While Ulay brought the stolen Spitzweg painting to Kreuzberg to challenge negative perceptions of its migrant inhabitants, his act of theft paradoxically implicated the migrant family in a risky situation predicated on the supposed incompatibility of migrants with the liberal values that Western art embodied.7 The artist additionally overlooked what the art historian Burcu Dogramaci describes as the aesthetic importance of the living room as a social space in the lives of Turkish migrants in West Germany, where “memories and emotional connections are condensed in furniture and objects.”8 Ulay’s presence in a migrant family’s living room and his replacement of its decorations with the stolen Spitzweg painting can also be seen as the result of an imposition.
Thirty-eight years after Ulay’s art theft, the artist Aykan Safoğlu formulated an artistic intervention in response to the action. Born in Istanbul in 1984 and based in Berlin and Vienna, Safoğlu’s artistic practice most often uses photography, film, and performance to explore intersections of migration, race, class, queerness, and kinship. As part of the Festival of Future Nows held at the Neue Nationalgalerie in 2014, organized by the Institut für Raumexperimente at Universität der Künste Berlin, Safoğlu was commissioned to produce the performance “Çile Bülbülüm” [My Sorrow Nightingale]. The artist’s intervention takes inspiration from Ulay’s art theft while speaking back to it, belatedly amplifying the migrant voices silenced in both the action and across broader society.
Within the framework of his intervention, Safoğlu organized a Turkish-language pop-up choir composed of migrants and their descendants representing multiple generations, which included some inhabitants of Muskauer Straße. The artist’s formation of a choir reflected the central importance of music in the lives of migrants, as the musical traditions of one’s homeland maintain affective connections to one’s culture and language amid life abroad. Safoğlu’s pop-up choir moreover implicitly gestured to the history of Türkischer Arbeitschor Westberlin [Batı Berlin İşçi Korusu, Turkish Workers Choir of West Berlin]. Founded in the 1970s by the composer and musician Tahsin İncirci, the Türkischer Arbeitschor Westberlin was the first Turkish-language workers choir established outside of Turkey, which had a visible presence at cultural events in West Berlin.9
In Safoğlu’s intervention, his choir reciprocates Ulay’s journey to Kreuzberg. The choir assembled at the Neue Nationalgalerie and performed “Çile Bülbülüm”, a well-known song of classical Turkish music, composed by Sadettin Kaynak with lyrics written by Vecdi Bingöl: “Issız yuvanda tektin / Çekilmez çile çektin / Kim derdi gülecektin / Çile bülbülbüm çile [You were alone in your lonely nest / You suffered the unbearable / Who said you would laugh / My sorrow nightingale]”. As pronounced in this excerpted second stanza, the song describes the sorrow, loneliness, and joy experienced by a nightingale, a figure that serves as an allegory of a migrant in Safoğlu’s performance. In his speech preceding the song, the artist evoked the intergenerational difficulties experienced by migrants in Germany, naming the NSU murders as an example of continuity of pernicious racism into the present. The choir then performed the song, and its collective voice jubilantly echoed throughout the cavernous hall of the museum, inviting the audience to reimagine suffering, resilience, and community. Ulay’s “Da ist eine kriminelle Berührung in der Kunst” inaugurated a profound challenge to the authority of German cultural institutions by calling attention to their implication in the societal exclusion of migrants. Safoğlu, in turn, offered a powerful response to the legacy of Ulay’s art theft by restituting the voices of migrants and their experiences of resistance and joy to the center of post-migrant Germany’s cultural life.
About the author
Carlos Kong is a writer and art historian living in Berlin. He is a joint-PhD candidate in Art History at Princeton University and in Film Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, where he is writing a dissertation on post-migrant approaches to archives of Turkish-German migration in contemporary art and film. He has contributed to various art and culture journals, academic and art books, and curatorial programs.
- 1On the exact fourteen conceptual steps of Ulay’s action, see Tone Hansen and Ana Maria Bresciani (eds). Looters, Smugglers, and Collectors: Provenance Research and the Art Market. Köln: Walther König (2015), pp. 95-99.
- 2Maria Rus Bojan and Alessandro Cassin, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay. Amsterdam: Valiz (2014), p. 117.
- 3The Neue Nationalgalerie was built at West Berlin’s Kulturforum alongside numerous other institutions that emerged, beginning in the 1960s, between Potsdamer Platz and the South side of the Tiergarten, including Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek and Philharmonie. West Berlin built new institutions after losing various important collections to East Berlin when the institutions and holdings of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin were divided by the Berlin Wall.
- 4See “Linksradikaler raubte unser schönstes Bild,” in BILD-Berlin, 13.12.1976, and “Irrer raubte in Berlin das weltberühmte Spitzweg-Gemälde,” in B.Z., 13.12.1976.
- 5On how the 1973 constitutional right to family unification was hindered in practice by migration bureaucracy, see Lauren Stokes, Fear of the Family: Guest Workers and Family Migration in the Federal Republic of Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2022).
- 6See “Ulay Interview: How I Stole a Painting” (2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2E0J6J3KGI.
- 7On the perceived incompatibility of the categories of “Turkish migrant” and “artist,” see Berna Gueneli, “Turkish Émigrés, European Artists: Re/Discovering a Web of Turkish-European Artists in 1980s West Germany and Europe,” Monatshefte 113.2 (2021), pp. 189-207.
- 8Burcu Dogramaci, “Das Migrantische Wohnzimmer. Wohnen und Einrichten in einem fremden Land,” Migrazine (2022): https://migrazine.at/artikel/das-migrantische-wohnzimmer-wohnen-und-ein…. For an artwork of the time that prominently features the living room space of Turkish migrants in West Germany, see Sema Poyraz’s film Gölge – Zukunft der Liebe (1980).
- 9For instance, the Türkischer Arbeiterchor Westberlin performed at the opening of the 1975 exhibition Mehmet Berlin’de/Mehmet kam aus Anatolien at the Haus am Mariannenplatz, as well as in the Berliner Philharmonie in 1976. See Ruckhaberle, Dieter (Hg.), Mehmet Berlin’de. Mehmet kam aus Anatolien. Berlin: Kunstamt Kreuzberg/Berliner Festwochen/Türkischer Akademiker und Künstlerverein (1975), and archival photographs of their performances: https://berlin.museum-digital.de/objects?tag_id=30678.