Amalia Ulman

Excellences and Perfections (2014):

In 2014, Amalia Ulman used her Instagram account to create a five month “performance” in which she blended fact and fiction to present a narrative which commented on the extreme makeover culture prevalent on Instagram at the time. Through a series of social media posts and selfies she created a semi-fictionalised version of herself, the background research for which she describes here:

“I began by researching the cosmetic gaze and the beauty myth, then I prepared a script and timeline that followed the rhythm of social media. I identified three popular trends: the Tumblr girl (an Urban Outfitters type); the sugar-baby ghetto girl; and the girl next door, someone like Miranda Kerr, who’s healthy and into yoga. Part of the project was about how photography can be a signifier of class, and how cultural capital is reflected in selfies.” (Eler, 2017: 242)

Although some aspects of the performance were carefully and elaborately orchestrated, such as pretending to have breast augmentation surgery, other parts were real – Ulman followed the strict Zao Dha Diet, went to pole dancing lessons and moved from London to Los Angeles. The introduction to the work on the New Museum website describes the series like this:

“Through judicious use of sets, props, and locations, Excellences and Perfection evoked a consumerist fantasy lifestyle. Ulman’s Instagram account is a parade of carefully arranged flowers and expensive lingerie and highly groomed interiors and perfectly plated brunches. These images are excessive, but also believable – because they’re so familiar. For many privileged users, social media is a way of selling one’s lifestyle, of building one’s brand. And Ulman went to great lengths to replicate the narrative conventions of these privileged feeds, from the use of captions and hashtags (#simple, #cutegasm), to the pace and timing of uploads, to the discerning inclusion of “authentic” intimate or emotional content (a photo of a lover or a moment of despair).”

When Ulman brought ‘Excellences and Perfections’ to an end in September 2014, many of her thousands of followers who were unaware of her performance, were so emotionally invested in her character that they felt hurt by what they perceived as her deception. Other commentators praised the way her project drew attention to the double standards that allow women to be simultaneously valued and shamed for the way they present their bodies online. Lucy Souter (2018: 103) describes how Ulman was praised by critics as “one of the internet’s sharpest infiltrators” and for “deconstructing the tyranny of smug social media bragging.” She regards ‘Excellences and Perfections’ as an example of parafictional artwork as it requires the belief of the audience to give them a jolt of reality. She makes this analysis:

“Who is to say where the line between fact and fiction lies in “Excellences and Perfections”? For after all, isn’t this the artist’s actual person? Ulman made real physical changes in her appearance for this project, to the point of exercising hours per day and having fillers injected into her face. Might not some of these experiences or emotions depicted also be at least partially genuine? And what of the unguarded responses of her followers? Are those invalidated when she “outs” the project as being staged? Once unveiled as a hoax, Ulman’s project is a fiction that remains provocative in its negotiation between authenticity and commodification as foregrounded by selfie culture. For indeed, we all encounter a degree of contradiction between our experience of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the world. The internet has merely extended the reach and velocity of our self-imaging.” (Souter, 2018: 103)

In an interview Ulman addresses the controversy that ensued following the realisation that her social media was an art project rather than reality by drawing an analogy with the way people jumped from their seats when confronted with the Lumières first public film screening:

“in a way, everyone knows at that their core, that all reality online is fabricated. Maybe that’s where the bitterness came from (in relation to the performance) because that exposure not only involved me, but everyone who followed and saw themselves reflected in it.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)

When the interviweer makes a comment about the project being bound with “the ethics of suspending disbelief on social media”, Ulman makes a reply about the construction of media in general:

“I think it is important to offer skepticism about media in general. Even though it is well known, for example, that news networks are manipulated depending on their ideology and that women’s magazines are constantly censored by their advertisers (mainly the cosmetics industry), reminders are always worth generating. This is because they point out hierarchies of power and manipulation, they help the audience to become more analytical about their sources of information. If I generated a fiction, everything else could be a fiction too.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)

Peggy Orenstein defines Ulman’s series as spoofing the language of Instagram by creating a “commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness…[set to] perform rather than to feel sensuality.” (Winant, 2016) Carmen Winant makes this analysis which describes the fine line that Ulman successfully negotiates through the series:

“In a moment in which feminist art is defined primarily by its immediate context and authorial claims (Ulman does not describe practice as “feminist” or ascribing to any other political categorization), [Excellences and Perfections] could be considered incisive or lacking rigor. In any case, by revelling in the exhibitionism she seeks to critique, Ulman’s work gets to have it both ways.” (Winant, 2016)

I find ‘Excellences and Perfections’ a compelling series – completely convincing even when you know it is a construction, and complex in the way themes of gender politics and the gaze of the internet are explored. The series possesses the quality that all social media presentations of this type strive for – authenticity, something which ironically has no relationship at all to reality.

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Rise and shine 🙏

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Bettr sore than sorry

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Good Morning!! 🌸🌸

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🌾

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Links:

Bibliography:

Bennett, J. (2019) Are we all anxious now? Tate.org website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-39-spring-2017/are-we-all-anxious-now (accessed 11th July 2020)

Bradley, P. K. (2018) Amalia Ulman on her new book and internet performances. Artforum. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/interviews/amalia-ulman-on-her-new-book-and-internet-performances-75471 (accessed 19th July 2020)

Connor, M. (2014) First look: Amalia Ulman – excellences and perfections. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2014/oct/20/first-look-amalia-ulmanexcellences-perfections/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Connor, M. (2018) Rest in Peace, Ethira. An interview with Amalia Ulman. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2018/sep/11/rest-in-peace-ethira-an-interview-with-amalia-ulman/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Cornell, L. (2015) Self-portraiture in the first-person age. Aperture #221. Available at: http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=2639c33e-ec8f-4d7d-b4c5-0053f80ade3f%40sessionmgr4006

Dazed and Confused (s.d.) Dazed and Confused – Amalia Ulman interview. Dazed and Confused. Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Zb0Bdwcs8dCwcIZkcfHA2icgOIruiU5NCPWHbbfJpYk/edit#heading=h.3hj9wmyj1wh6 (accessed 11th July 2020)

Dean, A. (2015) Amalia Ulman – gentle deception. Topical Cream. Available at: http://topicalcream.info/editorial/amalia-ulman-gentle-deception/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Diehl, T. (s.d.) Inside the cover: Amalia Ulman her body, her self. Cura magazine. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1ld0yQIgqA-MGtNMktNbUdMaUs3U096TUVUM3ZDbXdLVjBZ/view (accessed 11th July 2020)

Duncan, F. (s.d.) Escape from L.A. with Amalia Ulman. Ssense. Available at: https://www.ssense.com/en-us/editorial/culture/escape-from-l-a-with-amalia-ulman?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_term=amalia-ulman_collabshare_16_03_2018 (accessed 1th July 2020)

Eler, A. (2017) The selfie generation. New York: Skyhorse publishing.

Horning, R. and Ulman, A. (2014) Perpetual provisional selves: a conversation about authenticity and social media. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2014/dec/11/rob-horning-and-amalia-ulman/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Kissick, D. (2014) From plastic surgery to public meltdowns Amalia Ulman is turning Instagram into performance art. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/wxejzb/interview-cassi-namoda-artist-mozambique (accessed 11th July 2020)

Langmuir, M. (2016) Amalia Ulman is the first great Instagram artist. Elle. Available at: https://www.elle.com/culture/art-design/a38857/amalia-ulman-instagram-artist/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Lucking, M. (2012) Artist profile: Amalia Ulman. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/nov/07/artist-profile-amalia-ulman/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Morse, E. (2015) Amalia Ulman. ArtReview. Available at: https://artreview.com/september-2015-feature-amalia-ulman/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Ruigrok, S. (2018) How this 2014 Instagram hoax predicted the way we use photography now. Dazed Digital. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/39375/1/amalia-ulman-2014-instagram-hoax-predicted-the-way-we-use-social-media (accessed 11th July 2020)

Soutter, L. (2018) Why Art Photography? (2nd ed.) Oxon: Routledge.

Small, R. (2015) Amalia Ulman. Interview Magazine. Available at: https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/amalia-ulman#_ (accessed 11th July 2020)

Tate (2016) When art meets technology… Tate.org website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/ik-prize-2016/art-meets-technology (accessed 11th July 2020)

Ulman, A. (2020) Amalia Ulman: why I staged my own Instagram meltdown. Financial Times, January 3 2020. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/d2cb7650-279b-11ea-9a4f-963f0ec7e134 (accessed 11th July 2020)

Winant, C. (2016) Our bodies, online. Aperture #225, Winter 2016. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/bodies-online-feminism/ (accessed 11th July 2020)

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