If you look at the Instagram account of artist Amalia Ulman, the location of the most recent post is 811 Wilshire LLC in Los Angeles, and it was put up today, at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Which would lead her 126,000 followers to believe that she was in Los Angeles this morning, but that’s impossible, because I met her at a restaurant by the foot of London Bridge here in London at 2:30 p.m. local time, or 11:30 a.m. in Los Angeles.
Ruling out teleportation, it’s safe to say that Ulman was misleading her followers. It’s not the first time this has happened. For her durational performance Excellences & Perfections, she used Instagram to craft a narrative about “Amalia Ulman” that documented her relationship, breakup, plastic surgery, and New Age recovery. For Privilege, which is still ongoing, she’s been charting the pregnancy of “Amalia Ulman,” posting selfies with a bulging belly.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that Ulman is not pregnant, and didn’t have plastic surgery. But her manipulation of the picture-based social media app has earned her accolades both in the States, where she is now based, and here in London, where she had a show at the Tate earlier this year. Here are some sample headlines. “The Instagram Artist who Fooled Thousands,” said the BBC. “Is This the First Instagram Masterpiece?” asked the Telegraph. “Amalia Ulman is the First Great Instagram Artist” is the headline in a recent profile in Elle.
“Oh, I hated that,” she said of the Elle headline, laughing. “You know what? That’s like clickbait culture.”
We were on the second floor of a spot above a sprawling Epcot-like marketplace, with little outposts for nearly 100 cuisines. Beforehand, we stopped by an Argentinian food stand (Ulman, who is 27, was born in Argentina but grew up in Spain, and went to Central Saint Martin in London) to pick up some alfajores, the chocolate and dulce de leche confection made by the Argentinian foodstuffs giant Havanna, because I told her I had never tried one.
After completing Privilege, which will come to its conclusion at the end of the presidential election in the United States, Ulman will be moving on from the time-based performances that play out on her Instagram and entering the next phase of her practice. The show up in London at the moment, at the refreshingly punk South London gallery Arcadia Missa, incorporates balloons that rise and fall, a motif informed by, though not strictly tied to, the idea of pregnancy. (The show is called “Labour Dance.”) Later this month, at New Galerie in Paris, another show will continue to ease out of the Instagram-based works she’s been known for.
“I’m visiting a bunch of universities, so I’ll still be talking about this, but my next project is not performative,” Ulman told me.
Her practice has always been varied, and deeply intelligent, but it’s the Instagram account that has infiltrated the mainstream. Ulman stresses that it’s just a part of her output, and not what she’s producing in her studio on a daily basis.
“I hate Instagram—I used Instagram because it’s there, not because I like it,” she said. We were discussing all the press labeling her as an “Instagram artist.”
“I’ve considered these works to be net art, because they function online,” she said. “But if you’ve put your works on YouTube, are you a YouTube artist? Not really.”
That doesn’t mean that she considers the performance-based works to be inferior—it’s just that they’re in the past. Ulman likened it to putting it into a filing cabinet and storing it away. Because she is in effect capturing an invented life, there is truth at play within the fiction—it’s an approach that allows her to wobble on that precipice between irony and sincerity, she explains.
“There’s a difference between humor and parody,” she said. “People denounce my performance and say it’s like, you’re laughing at basic bitches. But, you know, I’m also a little bit of a basic bitch—I’m laughing at myself a little bit. I’m also all these things—the cat lady, the crazy female artist, the feminist, and I’m the conservative woman who goes to work every day. And I’m tapping into all these things. I don’t stand on the outside and just judge.”
More than anything, she’s surprised the Instagram performances have lasted this long, after the bait-and-switch behind Excellences & Perfections was revealed many times over—in high-profile publications, and on official Art Basel Miami Beach panel discussions. She realized that, on Instagram, there is no limit to the willingness to believe in a lie, or to be outraged once viewers finally admit they’ve been duped. People still comment on her pictures, either congratulating her on her pregnancy or insulting her for trying to fool them, despite ample evidence that it is an art performance. (She likened this latter attitude to that of Donald Trump supporters and members of the alt-right.)
But even now that she’s planning on focusing on other aspects of her practice, she said she’s proud of the performances—and proud of the fact that she could somehow do it twice.
“I was surprised about, after already doing one performance, people are still angry at me!” she said. “Like—‘You faked the pregnancy? How could you!’ I was actually happy that I could still play that card again. I thought it was over.”