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Delving into Amalia Ulman's critique of racking up followers on social media

A ring-side view of performance and new media’s ‘It girl’ Amalia Ulman's new body of work (2015-2019).

by Georgina MaddoxPublished on : Sep 30, 2019

Amalia Ulman’s penetrating body of work that deals with issues of class, gender and sexuality, and lowbrow middle-class aesthetics, makes her one of the most happening artists on the global performance art and new media scene. Ulman was born (1989) in Argentina but raised in Gijón, in the Spanish province of Asturias, after emigrating with her family. She studied art at Central Saint Martin’s in London, where she graduated in 2011. In 2013, she was in a serious Greyhound bus accident that left her with a permanent disability. Ulman currently lives and works in Los Angeles, since moving there in 2014.

Ulman broke into the art scene in 2013 with her first video essay Buyer, Walker, Rover as a Skype lecture at the Regional State Archives in Gothenburg. In October 2014, during Frieze Art Fair, Ulman presented a solo show, The Destruction of Experience, at Evelyn Yard in London. In 2016, her work, Excellences & Perfections, was selected to be included in the group exhibition Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern, London (February 18 - June 12, 2016).

Amalia Ulman created wide variety of works for Privilege such as videos, cartoons, fashion photoshoots, images and a lot more | Amalia Ulman | STIRworld
Amalia Ulman created wide variety of works for Privilege, such as videos, cartoons, fashion photoshoots, images and a lot more Image Credit: Amalia Ulman

The work first made its debut on Instagram and the world watched as Ulman’s story unfolded, climaxing with a (fake) boob job and a public apology. At that point, when almost 90,000 followers were invested in Ulman’s life, she announced that it had all been a hoax. Ulman shared that on Instagram most people shared curated personas and the one that racked up most followers was the ‘wellness goddess’ that has a firm grip on Instagram’s 800 million active monthly users.

Excellences & Perfections predicted the way in which so many now adopt a one-size-fits-all personality in order to appeal to a greater number. It demonstrated that there was a formula for racking up followers, it’s just that the formula meant a very selective representation of reality.

Another important work that defined Ulman’s career was Privilege (2015-2016). Abandoning the dubiously-fictional for the hyper-real, Ulman’s online performance absorbed the cultural climate of the world during that time period, and she promptly spewed it back out in a concentrated form on social media, enacted through an exaggerated, almost caricatured version of herself, executed primarily in a corporate office setting. 

Central to the performance and functioning as a sort of temporal backdrop to Privilege was the artist’s own ‘performative’ pregnancy. Recalling her first Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections (2014), there was no allusion to the fictitious nature of Ulman’s pregnancy, only well-crafted visual evidence suggesting its legitimacy, accompanied by the culturally-ingrained notion that a pregnancy in your late 20s is business as usual. Heralded by an image of the artist holding a positive pregnancy test up towards the ceiling of her office that is tiled over with images of a cloudy sky, a visible baby-bump soon appeared in her continuous self-portraiture, which in turn became a late gestation mound as the performance reached its later stages.

Privilege (2016) was enacted mostly in the setting of a corporate office, representing office culture and the political climate of the time | Amalia Ulman | STIRworld
Privilege (2016) was enacted mostly in the setting of a corporate office, representing office culture and the political climate of the time Image Credit: Amalia Ulman

While Ulman’s ‘pregnancy’ developed on her feed, the artist ceaselessly created a slew of other visual materials reflecting developments in mimetic culture as well as the global happenings of the time, a period that was notably punctuated by the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its nightmarish conclusion. Ulman’s approach to the images and videos she constructed was one that abandoned divisions in culture, commonly associated with class and taste through the sheer heterogeneity of the content produced.

A Vine-style video of the artist performing 2016 hip-hop dance sensation Juju On That Beat was accompanied by an array of New Yorker-style cartoons, placed next to self-portraits of the artist in the style of Google Medical Illustrations, surrounded in turn by memes. “That work was mostly imitation, because gathering a large online crowd was an important step. And it was about distancing my online persona from my real self,” says Ulman.

Though Ulman’s approaches were disparate enough to feel like a dozen Instagram feeds interwoven together, her visual materials were scrupulously connected by guiding lines. The drudge of conservative office culture served as a backdrop, though its flatness was suddenly torn down by the introduction of an enigmatic pigeon named ‘Bob’, who veered between real animals and plastic prop, hobby and obsession of the artist, and between performance, companioned the sidekick to the de-facto protagonist.

While the enigma of Bob developed, other visual motifs remained constant: red balloons, escalators, Mary Jane shoes, cloudy blue skies, elevators, elegant stationery, paperclips and airports; extensions of the artist’s own taste and interests pushed to fantastical extremes.

Overall, Ulman’s work looks at and deconstructs the popularity of an image, by creating faux personas, situations and ‘mood boards’ to accessorise life.  

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