Over the course of several months in 2014, a woman named Amalia Ulman amassed more than 50,000 Instagram followers. In and of itself, this was not exceptional. She was young and conventionally attractive; her posts featured images signifying a normal, if slightly enviable, life: kittens swaddled in blankets, matching striped pajama sets, rain-dappled rose petals, elegant latte art, and post-shower selfies. But this wasn't the real Amalia Ulman, and not in the way Instagram's inherent curation makes it a not real thing — this was performance art. In a piece she called Excellences & Perfections, Ulman, born in Argentina, was playing a role: that of a young woman who moves to Los Angeles from a small town, trying to make it big.
This year, several of Ulman's Instagram photos from that performance piece will be shown at two art venues in London: the Whitechapel Gallery, where they'll be part of the exhibition Electronic Superhighway (2016 -1966) and the Tate Modern, where they'll be featured in the museum's upcoming exhibition, Performing for the Camera.
Instagram in the Tate Modern
Ulman's is not the first Instagram account to find its way into the art world offline. The same year Ulman began her project, the artist Richard Prince began showing other people's Instagram photos at a show at New York's esteemed Gagosian Gallery. Some sold for more than $100,000. Prince drew the ire of some, who said the prints were really just stolen artwork, rather than artistic interpretations.
Ulman's work was largely received positively, but it did draw some skepticism. Some have argued that Instagram, by its very function, is already performance art. In an essay for The Fader, Emilie Friedlander argued Ulman's project was no different than what people did on Instagram every day, but said it was "a little too over the top" to be believable. "In its unabashed food portraiture and selfie use, [Ulman's Instagram] lacks the self-awareness of the characteristically self-aware generation of which she is a part," Friedlander writes. "Most millennials I know construct their online image very painstakingly, but are also very careful not to appear to be doing so."
It's not clear if Ulman actually ever intended to trick anyone into thinking the performance was real. Before she began Excellences & Perfections, she posted a title card to Instagram that said "Part 1" with the caption "Excellences & Perfections," which could have been a giveaway. Still, because Instagram is designed to encourage users to view photos in their feed rather than dig through individual profiles, any follower who missed this image or began following Ulman after it was posted, would likely never have seen it.
Excellences & Perfections is supposed to be a criticism of constructed femininity. Over the course of the five months, Ulman portrayed three stereotypes of women she thought were common on Instagram: a small town girl in a big city, what Ulman regrettably calls a "ghetto aesthetic" (she wears a hat with the word "bae" on it), and a "girl next door" who likes "yoga and juices." The images range from pink bars of soap in soft lighting, the Chanel logo constructed out of cocaine, and Ulman meditating near a bedroom window. "It’s more than a satire," Ulman said in a recent interview with The Telegraph. "I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman."
"I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction."
Though the line between performing and mocking runs through some questionable territory here (one wonders if Ulman could find a similarly reductive aesthetic to frame her own tastes), it does fall within a relatively recent lineage of personas constructed entirely online. Twitter's Karl Welzein (@DadBoner), a guy from Michigan who loves America, beer, and his friend Dave, is a character created by comedian Mike Burns. Kid Mero, the writer behind the now-defunct blog Victory Light, wrote in a breakneck, unedited voice, insulting rappers and cracking jokes. By day, he was a public school aide. But using Instagram as a performance art medium adds another level of complexity that Twitter and Blogspot lack. With Excellences & Perfections, Ulman's own face became the face of the people she was pretending to be.
Electronic Superhighway (2016 -1966) runs from January 29th to May 15th, 2016.
Performing for the Camera runs from February 18th to June 12th, 2016.