This video work is a documentation of the live Action Ulay performed in Berlin in 1976. It shows step by step his arranged "art theft" of Carl Spitzweg’s painting "The Poor Poet" from the Neue Nationalgalerie and his reception in commentaries and reactions from the press. During his performance Marina Abramovic, the artist who in the same year became his partner in work and life, took on the camera work and the visual documentation.
The announcement "There is a criminal touch to art", spoken by Ulay, forms the beginning of his account which first presents the headlines and original sounds of a radio report, and solves Ulay’s mystery of the so-called "picture theft" by revealing that the 30-year-old was an Amsterdam art student whose Action had been a "demonstrative act".
With Carl Spitzweg’s picture of the "Poor Poet", Ulay has in a sense stolen the "symbol of the German soul" from the National Gallery to hang it up in Kreuzberg in a Turkish family’s living room. Since it is not only one of the paintings best-known and loved by the public, but has also fallen into disrepute thanks to Hitler’s admiration of the artist and his works, Ulay’s demonstration gives a clear sign. His concern is to make people aware of the difficult situation of immigrants and their families in Germany.
Before showing the video of the Action, Ulay describes the course of events in 14 programmatic steps as follows:
He starts by hanging a reproduction of the Spitzweg painting "The Poor Poet" measuring 2.50 m in front of the College of Fine Arts in Berlin. Then he drives to the National Gallery in his own car and parks it at the back of the building. From there, he walks into the National Gallery building like any normal visitor to the museum, removes the picture from the wall, walks quickly back to his car and escapes in the direction of Kreuzberg to the "Künstlerhaus Bethanien" where he leaves his car. From the Künstlerhaus, he walks into the Moskauer Strasse, still carrying the picture. Once there, he enters a house for immigrant (so-called guest workers’) families where, in the living room of one of the families, he takes down a reproduction and hangs up the painting by Spitzweg instead.
Each individual step of the performance is now shown as it is being carried out. There are small, unexpected interactions such as the dispute with a woman museum attendant while shooting Ulay’s Action. With the camera running, she informs Ulay that filming is prohibited in the National Gallery and that he must leave the museum. At last, he is able to continue his Action but in the Gallery, only still photographs are taken to document how he is walking through the exhibition rooms, taking the painting off the wall and escaping with it to the car.
From a phone booth near Moskauer Strasse, Ulay informs the director of the museum of the whereabouts of the picture.
The whole performance takes thirty hours.
Afterwards, Ulay documents some of the reactions to his demonstrative act in the video by hanging up the various press reports and focusing the camera on the headlines: "Madman steals world-famous Spitzweg painting in Berlin", "Poor Poet to adorn the living-room of Turks" , "The ‘Poor Poet’s’ short-lived jaunt", and "Poor Poet now sits under acrylic", and in this order they look like a shorthand description of his Action.
The press reactions thus form an important part of Ulay’s performance because it is only via the media that the artist’s symbolic act can achieve its aim and make the public aware of abuse. His confrontation is touching a raw nerve in society as it realises its (status) symbols and operates with them. This "theft" does not constitute a harmless simulation but an act intended to hit home, to hurt. In that sense, this work is connected with Ulay’s concern with the sore and tender spot of both man and recipient which he strives to reveal either through self-mutilation or, as in his "Fototot" (Photo-dead) works, by making it impossible to watch, so that it reflects the inner hurt of the artist back to his ignorant audience, holding a mirror up to them.