Amalia Ulman: Meme Come True
After her ‘cosmetically enhanced’ selfies hoodwinked the internet, the conceptual artist behind the Insta-scam of the century speaks out
How would you feel if the last picture you double-tapped on Instagram turned out to be a booby trap? You might try asking the tens of thousands of people who followed the ‘fake’ social media account of Amalia Ulman, a radical conceptual artist whose work examines a post-#nofilter, post-Rich Kids of Instagram world where all social is aspirational and the self is something to be performed online.
The idea of deconstructing the tyranny of smug social network bragging came to Ulman during a period of forced incapacitation. It was October 2013, and she was lying in a hospital in rural Pennsylvania after surviving a horrific Greyhound bus crash on her way from New York to Chicago, which left bones sticking out of her leg. “It was like a weird rollercoaster,” says Ulman of the experience. “Up and down – my mind was trying to erase it all. But I’m very good at dealing with trauma.”
Thousands of miles from her family and friends, the 24-year-old had nowhere to turn but the comforting glow of a hospital-loaned iPad. Here, in her regulation patient’s gown, she began to sow the seeds of her latest project in a prescription drug-addled haze, as she Instagrammed a series of risqué selfies and snaps of her hospital-prescribed diet.
In the spring of 2014, her thoughts crystallised with the launch of her Excellences & Perfections project, which she announced via a simple text-based image on Instagram stating “Part 1”. Taking social media as her canvas and ‘basic bitch’ selfies as her muse, she reinvented herself as an aspiring actress who relocates to LA and undergoes a series of cosmetic procedures in a quest to experience life beyond the velvet rope. For four months, she fooled her growing army of followers with her counterfeit luxury lifestyle as she fanned crisp $100 bills, flashed her embellished manicures and posed at her spa-day downtime. The project climaxed with her cosmetic surgery hoax, which she termed #frankenboob. She counted down the days to her silicon gel implants in each consecutive upload. When the day finally came, she bound her breasts with the same kind of surgical tape used to treat her genuinely life-threatening wounds in hospital just a few months previously. Next she applied a flattering filter and published the discomfiting – and highly misleading – image to her online followers.
By bringing the commitment of hardcore method acting to her art, Ulman’s aspirational selfies raised serious questions of how images of beauty are used against women and how social media can manipulate our attitudes towards the female body. That might sound straightforward, but keeping 72,000 followers entertained on Instagram takes real skill. So how did she do it?
On a pit-stop in London, Ulman suggests we meet at Sheer Bliss, a budget beauty salon in a weary east London brick building. In the flesh, the artist is slight and unimposing – she can’t be more than 5ft 5in. Wearing a simple beige button-down and crotcheted cardigan, she’s a far cry from the babelicious vision you see online – in fact, you’d hardly notice her if you weren’t paying attention. Settling back for a foot massage, Ulman explains her motivations behind her project. By exposing the gulf between image and reality, she says, her aim was to make people reflect on the artificialities and unthinking ‘likes’ of online social interaction. “A friend of mine told me about this girl she knows who goes to luxury hotels to take selfies because that’s what goes on Facebook; that’s the new capital,” she says. “Better to have her selfie in an environment like that than just in her shitty bedroom.” In December of last year, Ulman neatly summed up the question underlying her approach on a panel at Miami Art Basel with Instagram founder Kevin Systrom: “How do we consume things and how do they consume us?” In this simple axiom – and woven throughout her nearly-nude selfies –was hidden a plain truth: even when you show it all, you reveal very little.
The real Amalia Ulman was born in Argentina in 1989 to a Gen-X mum and tattoo artist dad, and grew up in Gijón, Spain. Most of her time was spent milling about the skate park or getting inked by her dad, until she picked up a camera. “I was secretly mesmerised by body modification when I was little,” she says, sipping a cucumber water. “I grew up in a tattoo shop. My dad pierced me as well when I was younger. Mostly I was just bored, I guess. When I was growing up I was an anarchist, whereas all my friends were communists. I grew up in an expat community and was always seen as the ‘other’. I was too utopian, too artistic.” That artistic bent led to her first solo photography show, Lost Between Books, featuring a model whose face was obscured by an open book. She bagged several local art prizes and eventually chose to study at London’s Central Saint Martins after Googling ‘art school London’.
Ulman’s work recalls that of other female artists who have gone to extreme lengths to explore perceptions of women in society. There’s French artist Orlan, who underwent (for real) a series of grotesque, Picasso-like body modifications in an emphatic rejection of the pressures women face to conform to an expected standard of beauty. And there’s Cindy Sherman, who wrestled back control of her body through her multi-personality, staged self-portraits, in much the same way that Ulman’s work mimics unrealistic images of women the media spoon-feeds us. Through provocative, exaggerated selfies of her slinking down a dance-pole, Ulman critiques the pressures women face to achieve a dancer’s bod and what it legitimately takes to get there. She’s the first to admit it was a slog – twice a week for an hour and a half she worked the pole. “I had a regime,” she says. “I went to the gym, pole dancing classes, got my hair and nails done – it was hours and hours of work.”
Ulman has other peers, like LA artist Petra Cortright with her YouTube self-portraits, and Alexandra Marzella, better known as @artwerk6666, who keeps her online viewers lapping up crotch snaps and nipple-pinching portraits. “I think they have the same issue that I do,” Ulman laughs of her friends. “Either people fall for them or feel really uncomfortable.” Together, this trio are shifting their body-positive, anticapitalist agenda closer towards their target market: generation selfie. “This is not a joke. This is very serious,” Marzella told us back in July, speaking about the intent behind her seemingly tongue-in-cheek dance videos.
As Ulman’s project drew to a close, some of her Instaciples caught on to the fact that something was amiss. “Is dis real? Sooooo confuzed,” wrote one of her stumped followers. But she concealed her intentions to the end. She knew the project served a deeper purpose. Did she feel pangs of guilt that her following was buying in to this counterfeit dream? “Kind of – at the very end because it was so long; it was four months and it was like, ‘Come on…’ My aim right after I finished the performance was to contextualise and detox and explain what was really going on.” And when she did? “Most of the people who got the performance and were attracted to it were women. They really got it. They saw the amount of work it took to build up the body while men were like, ‘What? I don’t get it, she just looks hot!’”
The future for Ulman is looking a little less bootylicious. She’s just wrapped her first solo exhibition in New York, Stock Images of War, at the James Fuentes gallery. Billed as “an immersive installation exploring themes of deconstruction, confinement, fragility and war”, the show presents a series of wire sculptures in a room filled with the cloying scent of baked apple strudel. But despite the real-world concerns, narcissism is never far from the surface in her work: “We need mirrors to learn our poses,” she writes cryptically on her website of the exhibition.
As Ulman removes her feet from the bubbling bath, she takes another sip of her cucumber water while the nail technician starts to apply a clear gloss. It’s a more natural look than she’s been accustomed to lately. As her focus turns away from body image to the frontlines of warfare, perhaps it’s all the armour she needs. With her gaze no longer fixed on her iPhone camera, her work is beginning to speak for itself, even as her subjects become more difficult to grasp. “I don’t want to make things easy for people to understand,” she says. “The point is making something good.” Now that’s worth a double-tap.
Originally published in Dazed