Amalia Ulman has a pet pigeon named Bob, who can be her boyfriend, even God for her purposes—just anything, really. Like Ulman herself, who in past works has transformed herself into an Instagram starlet and a faux mother to-be, Bob doesn’t really have an interior. Can we interpret him to mean anything? Who knows.
Ulman’s work evades meaning, sometimes for the better, often for the worse. Her current show, “Dignity,” at James Fuentes, is one of her more frustrating outings. It combines a lot of intriguing ideas—something about women on the internet here, something about performing identity there—but the whole never gels.
The main problem is that Ulman merely re-presents conditions—in a way, commenting by not commenting. That was what made her 2014 online performance Excellence & Perfections, in which she became what she calls an Instagram “Hot Babe,” a thrill. By pretending to have surgery, to attain a perfect body, she exposed everything that goes into being a female social-media phenom—and that can be hard, degrading, occasionally empowering work.
Ulman has also ventured into creating room-size installations, with less success. Here, she has on offer a new one: Jamison Services (all works 2017), a two-room installation that looks like the setting for a strip club. Velvety red curtains cover the walls of one room, hiding what sounds like a flock of pigeons, but is actually just looped audio. The second room is mirrored and features a cane-shaped stripper’s pole. There’s personal significance to this for Ulman, who, after a 2013 bus crash, was left disabled and took pole-dancing lessons as therapy. In the gallery, it almost feels as though we’re encouraged to perform, too.
On the curtains hang two portraits of Ulman, Dignity 01 and 02, photographed as if she were a celebrity on the red carpet. Digitally added semen is spattered on her face. These works are clearly references to the sexualized Photoshops of women that circulate online, but Ulman seems too content to mimic those images, without adding any commentary.
There’s no doubt the world she offers here—one where women are constantly being observed—is a truthful one, but it’s also a bit hollow. Ulman leaves viewers in what is literally a hall of mirrors: a room where all we can do is look at ourselves looking at ourselves. What can that possibly solve?