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Amalia Ulman

Interview by
Francesca Gavin
From Issue 23 — Winter 2014/15

Not afraid of inviting attention or gossip with her technologically engaged work, the rising artist looks at the blandness of consumption and self-presentation, ultimately addressing questions of hierarchy and class.

FRANCESCA GAVIN  Can you introduce the project Excellences & Perfections in greater detail?

AMALIA ULMAN  Excellences & Perfections developed from a video for MOCA TV, which attempted to fully immerse in screen reality by fabricating a fictional character in three different episodes. The idea was to bring fiction to a platform that has been designed for supposedly “authentic“ behavior, interactions and content. The intention was to prove how easy an audience can be manipulated through the use of mainstream archetypes and characters they’ve seen before. The performance on Facebook combined photographs from the Instagram account, appropriated statements, status updates, music videos from YouTube. The process was slow. Repetition was the key for credibility.

FG  What were your working methods?

AU  I’d take three days off each week to get into character and produce a bunch of images that the script would require—keeping them in a folder waiting to be uploaded when necessary. These images were complemented with found material, for which I would use the same Instagram filter as the ones taken by myself, to create an illusion of continuity.

FG  What kind of feedback did you get?

AU  Mostly, the criticism is that I have depicted archetypes that should be destroyed rather than perpetuated. The idea was precisely to use the most mainstream archetypes, generally attributed to a 25-year-old girl, to show their construction: how these are not natural ideas and patterns of behavior but something acquired, and therefore, exchangeable.

FG  What interests you about the idea of persona and performance in relation to female stereotypes?

AU  Performing different characters is very common in the realm of sex work. Escorts usually provide, not only a session of sex, but also the possibility for a parallel life, and this involves a lot of spontaneous role-playing. After doing these exercises, you get to the point of realizing how much of a construction your own real persona is and how much it is exchangeable for others. I was once friends with a sugar baby who was more interested in performing different characters than in sex itself. She would very consciously live a construction of her own fabrication, after continuous research on accent, aesthetics; changing her surroundings, her friends, her boyfriends. Maybe she was bored, or maybe trying to find herself. But what I always found interesting was how these transformations would reflect on her online presence, the way she would type, the pictures she would share.

I don’t know what’s the answer to the end of this image-based exploitation, but it is something that becomes obvious when I travel somewhere where these matters are definitely under-developed, like in Italian television, for example.

FG  How do you feel about how images of women are consumed?

AU  Even though my self-representation online was shy, it was impossible to escape objectification. That, in my case, had led to a series of unfortunate events by the hands of older men in the art world, so I decided to hyper-accelerate my self-representation online, consciously manipulating my persona. I don’t know what’s the answer to the end of this image-based exploitation, but it is something that becomes obvious when I travel somewhere where these matters are definitely under-developed, like in Italian television, for example. If you find the amount of women dancing in bikinis in the background of any Italian talk show absurdly shocking, it is because somewhere else, that doesn’t happen anymore. But maybe the answer is the representation of every single kind of body type, that’d do something against the current dictatorship of forms. Maybe that’s more efficient than censorship—and something more in sync with current modes of distribution of media.

FG  How do you feel about the current rise of feminism?

AU  I grew up in socialist northern Spain. I never felt diminished for being a woman. I had a lovely boyfriend who was a feminist. It all felt very normal. Then I moved to London and first experienced the class divide. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was actually poor. Then I got in trouble because I was a single woman. Suddenly I had to deal with all these gender issues that I never thought of. I think it is important to remember that it doesn’t matter how “well“ we are doing in certain western countries, as individuals, because there are still plenty of women who live under violence of a misogynistic society, and those women are worth fighting for.

FG  What started your interest in plastic surgery?

AU  I grew up in a tattoo parlor. My dad is a tattoo artist. There were all these magazines of body modification, scarification. I was fascinated by all of this transformation. Celebrity makeovers. Body morphing and mutations. My first exposure to contemporary performance art, as a child, was Orlan. I’m interested in this idea of new liquidity and new trends in plastic surgery in relation to economic fluctuations.

FG  So defining a new version of augmented contemporary beauty?

AU  I found it fascinating in the sense of body-changing, but I’m also interested in its intrinsic violence. Mostly to women’s bodies and how it’s taken for granted, how this pain gets normalized and creates a new standard. I always had an interest in the idea of the real self and representation in relation to social media. For example, most girls in Korea get plastic surgery to look like their Photoshopped selves. Because of my research into blandness and transparency, I was fascinated by injections and the creation of the “new-new face“ and the puffy face. My real interest is in what Kim Kardashian does, for example, which is getting her fat redistributed. After years of war against fat, it has suddenly become an asset. And that’s why I got a non-surgical nose job and injections with a plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills, to go through that experience, to be able to write about it and have a better understanding of it, of this subtle way of morphing.

FG  How do you feel about the work of someone like Orlan?

AU  She really didn’t tackle something real. Orlan didn’t get anything done that real women from LA haven’t taken further. All these women have massive implants in their chests and nose jobs and lip injections and botox injections and tummy tucks and fat redistribution. The “reality“ of this and the standarization of this pain is actually more grotesque, from my perspective, than any bizarre portrait of it.

Francesca Gavin is a freelance writer, curator and editor. She is Visual Arts Editor at Dazed and the curator of the Soho House Group.
Amalia Ulman (Argentinian-born, Spanish-raised, b. 1989) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles and Gijon.
Photographed by Jeremy Liebman at Hotel Americano, New York.

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