from plastic surgery to public meltdowns amalia ulman is turning instagram into performance art
Artist Amalia Ulman subverts the role of the female artist by turning life on social media into performance art, creating intricate stories that reveal how we view women online.
Images from Excellences & Perfections by Amalia Ulman
All sorts of things happen in accidents. After his car crashed into a ditch on the outskirts of Milan in 1909 Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote the Futurist Manifesto. Frida Kahlo was never the same after she was almost killed in a bus collision in downtown Mexico City in 1925 aged only 18. And after he wrote off his Lexus on the highway leading to the W Hotel in Los Angeles in 2002, Kanye West went into the studio with his mouth wired shut and recorded a song that would change his career forever.
At 1.45am, travelling from New York to Chicago, the Greyhound Bus Amalia Ulman was riding collided with a tractor-trailer in White Deer Township, Pennsylvania, killing one of the passengers and injuring almost everyone else. "I woke up and I saw my bones sticking out of my legs. I mean I wasn't really there I was out of it, I could only hear things," Amalia says. "I was rescued in a helicopter and spent two months in Hospital by myself really high on morphine."
Amalia's legs were shattered but somehow they've been put back together and, after a lot of physical therapy - including pole-dancing lessons in Los Angeles which were part treatment and part scandalous art performance -she is recovering.
Amalia is an Argentinian artist, who grew up in Spain, studied at CSM in London and now lives in LA. She's arrived back here as she has a solo show, The Destruction of Experience, at Evelyn Yard in the city centre, and since I last saw her in the summer of 2013 at the opening of her Ethira exhibition at Arcadia Missa, well, a lot has happened to her; not least the bus crash.
I'm spending the afternoon with her in Tina Outen's pop-up salon Whoosh at the bottom of Hackney Road, where Amalia's having her hair fixed after it was (accidentally) ruined by a hairdresser in Elephant & Castle. After the act, full of remorse, he had sent his assistant all the way up to Stamford Hill to see her with a variety of placenta-based hair products in glass, but to no avail. "It's in this glass tube," she tells me, "and I cut my hand opening it in the shower. I was bleeding out of one hand and with the other one putting placenta in my hair; so it was like this weird loop of life and death." Amalia Ulman has a strange world.
How can I show you what she does? The best place to start is her Instagram with its tasteful, creamy-coloured array of butterflies, latte art and plastic surgery selfies. She has over 100,000 followers however she says they're not real:
"Right now I do have a troll, or something, that's spamming me with fake followers."
"I have no idea!"
"To be annoying?!"
This summer Amalia started acting rather out-of-character on the internet, transforming herself into a sort of Iggy-Azalea-type character, and making booty-winding videos and saying things like, "reasons I wanna look good for myself, to plant the seed of envy in other bitch's hearts for myself; sobbing into her screen, and so eliciting comments like "A N N O Y I N G" and "All this shit is so fucking pretentious oh my gah."
What really caused a lot of controversy was when she may (or may not) have had a variety of surgical procedures - fillers, a nose job, breast implants - and documented the process in selfies. At the time I was enjoying her online stories more than anyone else's, more than my closest friends', but was also really confused. On the flat surfaces of the internet, make-believe Amalia doesn't appear any less real than actually-hospitalised Amalia.
Today Amalia admits that this whole summer her online presence has been staged as an Instagram art performance titledExcellences & Perfections. She started in the springtime in Los Angeles and meticulously planned and scripted three-months-worth of photos, videos and words. She was sneaking into luxury hotels to take selfies, and visiting H&M to buy and return clothes for her character, and taking pole-dancing classes to immerse herself in this imaginary lifestyle. The idea was to tell a very contemporary fairy-tale of a good girl gone bad (and finding redemption) to show how easily audiences are manipulated through the use of mainstream narratives, and how television, music videos, movies and books help to perpetuate stereotypes by doing so.
"It's the story of a provincial girl with the dream of becoming a model," she begins, "who's scouted by a photographer and ends up doing just that and living in LA. She's running out of money and splitting up with her boyfriend, and falls into this loophole of becoming a sugar baby [a young woman who is financially cared for by a sugar daddy] but feeling ok because she has money. Then things turn darker and she starts taking drugs, she goes to rehab, and eventually she goes back to her family." The project, reveals just how willing we are to believe everything we see online.
While Amalia's boob job was only enacted on social media, not her body, she did spend around $2,000 on having a non-surgical nose job and facial filler injections in Beverly Hills. She delved deep into the world she was exploring and was even invited to the Swiss Institute in New York to meet Dr Fredric Brandt, the "Baron of Botox", a contemporary art collector and celebrity physician who resembles nothing so much as an immortal, disarmingly un-creased blond vampire.
"He's the inventor of the puffy face, so instead cutting and lifting it's all about injectables and transparent non-surgical procedures," explains Amalia. After her injections, she says, "I had spent the whole week without sleeping but I looked more fresh-faced than ever before, because of the hyaluronic acid. It felt powerful to feel so tired and look in the mirror and appear fresh-faced. And this is a good example of how in terms of fitness, the access to this sort of procedures makes oneself more privileged than others"
When I announced I was interviewing Amalia there were two questions that everyone wished to know the answers to: firstly that old chestnut of the celebrity age, did she or didn't she have surgery? Secondly, why has she made this massive Instagram performance?
"I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of self-branding, so my anti-capitalist approach to this was to destroy my online persona, to the point of creating this fake truth that I couldn't even fight with. It was all about the power of the image. I was also sick of the stereotype of the young female artist, so I was playing around with self-destruction and becoming the opposite, becoming a persona that would bring up mixed feelings: on one side attraction and on the other deep repulsion, even nausea.
"A great inspiration was the Amanda Bynes story; there were people watching and wanting me to fail badly, with this inner feeling of, 'I shouldn't be feeling like this but actually I'm really enjoying this meltdown!' I was interested in this idea of people following the story as if it was a book or a movie."
Who's the real Amalia Ulman? I find out her father used to own a skateboard factory in Argentina but that business ending with the financial crisis in 1989, which is when she was born. "My dad's a punk," she says, "my mum's very Generation X. She hates the family structure, any sort of social conventions, she's a sort of Russian nihilist." They moved to Spain when she was young and were treated badly as immigrants; a swastika was painted on the front door of their house when they arrived (which only reminds me of Mariah Carey's earliest memories of having crosses burnt on her family's front lawn). When she was 17 she won a scholarship to move to London and study at Central Saint Martins, and a couple years ago she left again to travel the world making exhibitions.
Amalia has a private newsletter too, and her latest one starts: "I'm sorry I haven't written to you for a while. I didn't want to disrupt the rhythm of Excellences & Perfections, I wanted you to believe the meltdown was real, I wanted you to trust the images over everything else… How boring would it have been if instead I had told you about my happy days in the forest; how I dressed up as a fairy for the 4th of July parade. You don't want to hear about that."
Text Dean Kissick
Images from Excellences & Perfections by Amalia Ulman