For anyone following social media, it is painfully clear that an expression of individuality can look remarkably unoriginal today. The tasteful and the bland seem almost interchangeable as uniformity rules the day. We look for the unique, we find it, we appropriate it – and then turn it into cliché.
While previous generations of artists have been more interested in everything mass-produced and in the sheer force of consumerism, Amalia Ulman is fascinated by the way hipster aesthetics have become mainstream – or “corporate” as she has labelled it previously. Last year, she exhibited International House of Cozy in Rotterdam, a “porn movie” filled with products from Aesop and Diptyque, along with a fixie bike and stacks of Artforum.
But her most well-known work is a performance that played out over three months on Instagram, called Excellences and Perfections (2014). The work was divided into three parts, each portraying a different type of contemporary femininity. The first, a Tumblr girl, posting pretty selfies and images of pink cakes, the second a “sugar-baby ghetto girl” writing haters gonna hate style captions and getting a boob job.
The final act, after a couple of posts supposedly portraying some kind of breakdown, showed a girl-next-door type into meditation and healthy eating. Amalia’s stated goal was to show that femininity is nothing inherent to being a woman – instead, it takes a lot of effort and work.
During her performance, Amalia isolated herself in Los Angeles, where she had just moved (and still currently lives), so that even though the work started with a post saying “Part 1”, it would be slightly unclear what was fiction and what was reality. And even though Amalia was an artist involved in a public performance, she was told by a gallery she was working with that her Instagram selfies and behaviour were putting her career in danger as people wouldn’t take her seriously.
Born in Argentina, Amalia grew up in northern Spain, then escaped to London to study art at Central Saint Martins, and was later singled out by the powerful curator Hans Ulrich Obrist as a young artist to watch a year before her breakthrough in 2014. Her work has been connected with so-called post-internet art – meaning art by people who grew up after the internet went mainstream – but could just as easily be linked to an artist such as Cindy Sherman, who also has used self-portraits to deconstruct womanhood. (Excellences and Perfections is currently on show at Tate Modern in London with Sherman, among others.)
Amalia’s works span a wide variety of practices – from sculpture to installations to video pieces and Instagram – but certain themes emerge. For example, an interest in gender roles, their expressions and construction, a fascination with what she calls middlebrow aesthetics – those things, trends and styles that are neither low- nor highbrow. And finally, the questioning of aesthetic hierarchies.
At the Frieze art fair in London last year, she invited visitors to enter a room to watch her latest video piece, Annals of Private History. Going in, you had to take off your shoes, hand in your mobile phone, then sit on a red, carpeted floor while the video played out. A voiceover proceeded to tell a fictional and didactic history of diaries and how boys are given notebooks while girls’ diaries come with padlocks in order to keep their thoughts and emotions far away from public life. It reminded me of those YouTube videos where you get a summary of the philosophy of Nietzsche in seven minutes.
Amalia’s work is relatable for anyone vaguely aware of current popular culture, but its brilliance lies in the fact that she more or less treats popular culture in general, and hipster culture in particular, as a found aesthetic, then plays with it in a way that makes you see the power hierarchies within – mostly white, male and Western. As the aesthetic spreads over the world (I recently discussed the hipster coffee scene in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia with a friend, for example), you can’t help wondering what this globally-shared taste says about our current times. There is no simple answer, but Amalia Ulman is at least asking the right questions.
Are you still interested in “middlebrow aesthetics”?
How would you then define them?
The invisibility of “normal”.
With this, do you mean that what’s actually normal is now posing as “unique”, “individualist”, “original”?
No, I mean that when something is very widespread as an aesthetic, it is difficult to see. And I like the challenges this poses when making an art piece. Like, for example, a normal pair of jeans in the 80s is now a pair of very obviously 80s-style jeans. Time makes that easy to see, but I like working with the now, with what’s around me.
You’ve spoken of choosing or preferring analogue things – travel, libraries, a flat without internet. Is there something about the infinite choice in the digital realm that brings out the
homogenised side of our culture?
Exactly, because there is actually not infinite choice, but more of a running in circles situation. And I think there’s a limit to what a brain can take on at once. I love chance. For me, the most beautiful thing is to stumble upon something. That’s something that was killed on the internet by custom-made content and newsfeeds. Also, something that I find annoying about the internet is that everything is quantified by popularity – using algorithms. So it is not about quality, but about numbers… and that’s not very good for culture.
Do we run the risk of creating a culture where everything becomes an exercise in branding or something to consume?
I think this already happened a long time ago. We are now born into it.
I sometimes wonder if people are interested in experiencing new things. Or rather, they seem interested in experiencing new things in the same category: whatever’s trendy or considered hipster. So you have people going to faraway places and ending up in, say, Jakarta’s version of Shoreditch. Is this something you’ve experienced?
Totally, in many places. And I dread it, but I’m guilty, too, because I do enjoy being able to drink a soy latte in a remote place. If I was in Hong Kong and had to reply to this interview, I’d most possibly be sitting at the Agnès B cafe, with my laptop, enjoying the wi-fi and the smell of croissants. But afterwards, I’d escape to a place with no signal, some place where I don’t know what I’m being given for dinner.
You love to travel. What have you observed recently?
I think my most recent trips (not including London, New York City, etc) were North Korea, Beijing and Texas. All of them were shocking. In Beijing, it was “cool” to wear a plastic sprout on the top of one’s head. I thought it had a celebratory meaning, but no one really knew why they were doing it. The trend lasted for about a week.
North Korea played a part in Annals of Private History, the work you exhibited at Frieze. Why did you want to go there?
I never had any interest in North Korea when everything I knew about it came from sensationalistic press. Then I watched a documentary that my mother showed me, and it had footage of people’s homes. I realised how much it looked like my work and the rest is history. I became obsessed by it and absorbed as much tourist footage, and as many documentaries, books and movies as I could.
What did you experience?
Well, it became very personal as Pyongyang became the location of most of my dreams, I guess because I’d fall asleep watching the documentaries. I still have a dream set in the DPRK at least once a week.
North Korea is one of the most horrible regimes on the planet and yet it has an aura of something you can laugh at. Do you have any idea why?
It is easy, firstly, because the party’s literature is pathetic, and secondly, because many things get lost in translation. But I was never interested in the regime per se, I’m curious about the consequences of it. I don’t feel any attraction towards communist propaganda or the party’s own cultural material. I’m intrigued by how people live, what their fashion choices are, and how they relate to each other in such a bubble of time and culture. What do they think is elegant? What do they consider funny?
In Annals of Private History, the idea of the diary is connected to a very private moment, something hidden and secret. But the piece also alludes to vlogging, which is, in a way, the complete opposite since it’s uploaded to YouTube.
Vlogging and blogging are very similar to classic diaries in that they are personal documents. The difference is that even when they are public, one would never stumble upon them on a newsfeed. They exist under layers and layers of mainstream content, and still belong to the underground. Whatever the content may be, it will always be considered as amateur or illegitimate.
In the video, diaries are also presented as a place where women can speak of abuse without fear. Do you think there’s a connection between the rise of blogs/vlogs/Insta-gram and the fact that we seem to have a more vocal feminist movement?
There are two sides to it. There’s a lot of freedom online to say whatever one wants, but then the consequences can be really ugly. Misogynist trolls can, nowadays, be as vocal as any girl trying to express herself.
But do you think there is a power in the private discourse?
Discourse is important. There is power in community, not in individualism. Workers unions are an example. More and more, I’ve been meeting up with women artists in LA and the conversations always end up as an exchange of knowledge generally un-available to us. For example, how much a museum has given to a female artist for a solo exhibition in opposition to a male artist counterpart with same age and experience. It is scary that with the technology we have now, we are destroying the idea of the union. This can be exemplified by Handy, Uber, etc.
The video also suggests that private discourse is a way to make women stay away from public life.
The video references a lot of second wave feminism material such as the book The Feminine Mystique [by Betty Friedan], where stay-at-home mums are portrayed as isolated in their homes, by themselves or with a baby, while men are in the workplace participating in the public discourse.
Are you suggesting privacy is oppression?
Privacy is great when it’s something that comes out of mutual respect between humans. On the other hand, when being private is understood as a quality – when this happens, it’s perceived as similar to poise, gracefulness, modesty, etc, which are adjectives attributed to a very stereotypical “female essence”. But a privacy that has to be protected by a padlock is oppressive. It means that you are not respected. In the same way, the existence of rape underwear takes for granted and normalises the existence of rapists.
But today, there’s also a feeling that private things that are online – put there by you or someone else – can be dangerous, threatening.
Well, yes, some people are very invested, publishing things that come directly from their hearts. This means that they can get really hurt when harassed. That’s why there are many cases of suicide as a result of mere online bullying. And I say mere to point out the lack of physicality, not because words can’t kill.
The voiceover says that mistakes are erased. Do we live in a world where imperfection is no longer tolerated?
It was meant more in the sense that underground knowledge is highly perishable, because it is never archived, never taken seriously. This also goes back to second wave feminist ideas of isolation. An example is women not being in contact with younger or older generations, doing everything for the first time. This applies to anyone not part of a mainstream discourse, either due to health, sexual, gender related or racial issues.
Excellences and Perfections seems to build on the insight that our lives on Instagram and social media are fabrications – and your own performance brought out the performative aspect of many Instagram accounts that are incredibly popular.
I really wanted to play with fiction in social media using the rhythm and cadence of the internet. And everything that is ever posted online is curated, a construction of sorts. All of these popular characters are chosen to then be performed. Along the same lines, I was meaning to say that femininity – at least the image-based version of it, which in the world we live in is, like, 90 per cent of the feminine experience – has little to do with biology. My favourite stereotype was the most complicated one, the second episode. The more artificial the aesthetic, the more work is behind it, and that’s playful. Nothing was a satire, I was always embodying my own in-securities and fears.
”Art is about points of view, the more variety the better. If all art comes from an educated, white male privilege perspective, we are fucked.”
You’ve also spoken of people self-censoring because everything is so public. But what are your thoughts on the rise of over-sharing?
This is certainly a problem, something that has transformed the idealistic, old internet into a continuation of a Hollywood romantic movie. I feel that most people keep a profile in the same way they’d go to the dentist or wash their car on Sundays. For me, it is related to this idea of “civilian beauty”, which means making oneself look good to not bother others. Just normal and tidy.
I find that I use the #nofilter hashtag when reality is up to scratch, so to say, which perhaps is a bit sad. Do you like social media?
I use social media for work mostly. Sometimes I’m delusional and open up to a new platform where it feels like only a few friends are [on]. But then I’ll receive a message from a random person, and it’ll make my heart sink a little. But still, I never publish anything anywhere that I wouldn’t mind seeing on a billboard, so to speak. I also don’t text any photos that I wouldn’t mind seeing on a pornographic Tumblr.
What interests you more, the most successful Instagram accounts or the girls and boys who are emulating them?
In that sense, there are no originals [and no] copies. To me, it feels that they are all the same. It is interesting, but only up to a certain point. My favourite kids are random, little weird children that post crazy collages and play with the layout a lot – and have very little likes. Most of them are conservative, extremely religious Catholics from the middle of nowhere in America.
Your art is described by yourself and others as feminist. What need do you see for feminist art today?
I wouldn’t want to say that I make feminist art. I’m just a feminist the same way I’m a leftist. Then I make art. Making art being a feminist is different than making feminist art. But art is about points of view, the more variety the better. If all art comes from an educated, white male privilege perspective, we are fucked.
While you talk about the differences between the genders, you also make it clear that men are affected by it, as well. In The Destruction of Experience (2014), you go through how Justin Bieber was portrayed with feminine traits, as a non-male, girly, gay or even lesbian. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that anything that isn’t easily categorised suffers the risk of being attacked, especially if you accept being part of the mainstream media discourse. I think that Caitlyn Jenner, after the transition, wouldn’t really be allowed to play around and maybe combine a beard with a red dress. That’s what I’m talking about, being labelled.
The voiceover in The Destruction of Experience also speaks about how forehead lines for men signify experience, but for women, become a problem.
It is not a problem, I was just looking at trends in plastic surgery. I tend to make absurd video essays because when I was in art school, the post-internet art bros my classmates and I looked up to were making these very didactic videos as their art. At the beginning, I thought it was cool, then I realised it was just a bunch of white men being patronising.
Do you find that being a young female artist comes with specific challenges?
As said previously: being labelled. When an artist has a female name, there’s more chance [she will be] googled to see how she looks.
It seems more and more women are speaking up and calling things out, though. Are we living in a feminist moment right now?
But there are also more and more MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way] speaking up and calling things out. And people like that make a shit ton of noise. Look at [Donald] Trump.
But it’s interesting that the biggest Instagram accounts [not including Instagram’s own account] are, in descending order: Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nicki Minaj. What is your take on this?
The image of a beautiful woman sells.
On one of your recent Insta-gram posts, someone called rob4317834 posted this: “I’m doing an art project and need 50 pictures of your bare feet. Thank you.” This seems like trolling, especially since the account has no followers. Being a woman in the public eye today often means being a target for abuse. Have you had any bad experiences?
Because I don’t take anything personally, not really. But sometimes I fear I am too open and that it might play against me one day.
Do you interact with people commenting these days? I saw you did during Excellences and Perfections at some point.
Not really, not if they are not friends. Generally, I have something better to do, such as feeding my pet pigeon Bob.
Hashtags are an essential part of your Instagram account, appropriating and mocking them at the same time. Do you have any favourite hashtags?
My favourite is #EggplantFriday. I got a picture removed because of it. #CIA is a weird one, too.
Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now?
I can never really expand on what I’m working on because I keep things for myself, to think over until they are released, but I’m deeply invested in a new fiction and I’m researching a lot on the aesthetics of whiteness as the aesthetics of legitimacy. Hospitals, lobbies, courts, offices, cashmere jumpers, etc.
With over 100,000 followers, as well as showing in traditional art venues, who do you see as your audience?
Right now, newspapers, and the fact that I’m being shown at the Tate, has made this go out of control. I couldn’t think of a more varied set of followers. But I have to say, it really entertains me to look at the notifications. Sometimes, it is a teenager from Trinidad and Tobago, other times a single mom from South Korea. It is never-ending and fascinating.
Do you think you have any responsibility when reaching people who don’t know what you do is art?
I’m not a politician, I’m an artist and art is about freedom. My only responsibility is to try my hardest to make good work. That being said, I refuse to be hurtful for the sake of my art, but some things escape my reach.
In fashion, the amount of Instagram followers you have can transform a normal girl to a street style star. For models, it is more and more important to have a big following. Does this have an impact in the art world, as well?
I think it has a very negative impact. The art world hates the popular, and I don’t think this is ever going to change.
All photographs by Amalia Ulman & Ilia Ovechkin for Bon. Cartoons courtesy Amalia Ulman and Arcadia Missa Gallery. This interview is published in the S/S 2016 issue of Bon, available in select newsagents now.