Two weeks ago Amalia Ulman uploaded an image to Instagram, a grainy photo of the artist dressed in a traditional men's business suit, holding what appears to be a pregnant belly. The phrase "I finally did it. I'm part of the problem" hovers in the empty space alongside her.
The picture recalls a specific 1980s branch of feminism, when childbearing was deemed a hindrance to women's progress. And yet its visual language clearly reflects that of contemporary memes, where blunt, simple text sardonically cuts through the image alongside it. Complicating things is her caption -- the word "empowered," in all caps, straddled by two trophy emoji.
The post has 1,151 likes and a steady stream of comments, including one from user zzzaaafffaaarrr, reading: "Is this social commentary. If so, it's genius and my respect for you as an artist has grown." Ulman responds with an unimpressed "lol wow." Zzzaaafffaaarrr, unfazed by the obvious shade thrown, hits back with, "So I'm guessing this isn't some sort of provocative social statement." In steps fellow commenter raphaelight with "half these commenters are always so callous :-(." Finally, Ulman shuts it down with a single word: "men."
"I really enjoy replying to men that try to be clever on my Instagram, that’s one of my favorite things," Ulman explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. "When men try to come up with really deep things to say about my work, I just really like to be a little mean."
If an internet troll and a catfish made sweet love, Ulman would be their mischievous offspring, endowed with a desire to use her artistic powers for good, or at least for playful provocation. In 2014, she introduced the world to her work via an Instagram performance titled "Excellences and Perfections," in which Ulman adopted the persona of an Instagram "It girl," chronicling a story of moving to Los Angeles and trying to make it as a model.
Through the course of 186 posts, lined up in chronological order like an unconventional chapter book, Ulman played the role of a small-town artsy girl relocating to the City of Angels, falling into a cycle of anxiety and low self-esteem. She eventually adopts a new "bad girl" persona by dying her hair blonde, getting a boob job and working as a "sugar baby" to make ends meet. In the end, she finds her balance as a "Goop"-type girl next door, achieved her inner zen by posting about yoga, avocado toast and gratitude.
Ulman's posts reflected those of the stereotypical, privileged, self-obsessed social media star, filled with opulent brunches, bougie hotel rooms, fuzzy white robes and designer shoes. Selfie mirror pics abound, juxtaposed with comments like "Matching!! 🌸🌸 #flowers #girl #iPhone #nails #sunglasses #dolcegabbana #dolce&gabbana."
Those close to Ulman -- unaware of the fiction -- were confused, and often slightly repulsed, by her performed Instagram thirst. And then, at the end of three months, the artist revealed to her new fans and old friends that the entire scheme had been an elaborate performance, writing: "THE END -- EXCELLENCES AND PERFECTIONS."
The series was subsequently hailed as "the first Instagram masterpiece."
Ulman's online performance addressed the bizarre breed of self-portraiture rampant on social media sites, where individuals are driven to express themselves freely, yet end up creating inauthentic personas that are virtually performance pieces themselves. But beyond criticizing social media and the obsessive behavior it enables, Ulman's project revealed the artificiality embedded in femininity itself, exposing the strategy and work that goes into imagining oneself as a woman today.
"It’s more than a satire," Ulman told The Telegraph. "I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men [...] The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn."
In our conversation, Ulman expanded upon her interest in the way contemporary American culture's privileging of authenticity ends up yielding a steady stream of simplistic clichés. "I find authenticity to be a really tricky word," she said. "It’s really only understandable through clichés. It’s hard to be authentic when people’s backgrounds are far more complicated than we can really put out there. Especially now everyone has such short attention spans when it comes to paying attention to people’s stories. People become caricatures of themselves to communicate with others."
Throughout "Excellences and Perfections," Ulman was surprised by the strong negative reactions she received from her friends and art world colleagues, who begged her to stop posting sexy selfies lest she ruin her burgeoning art career. Ulman sensed the intense, intellectual aversion to her semi-fictional alter ego, who subscribed to normative ideals about feminine beauty and self-imaging, implying a smart and respectable artist would never dare show her ass on the internet.
This revelation served, in a way, as the foundation for Ulman's current Instagram project, which uses a more complex and abstract internet language to explore ideas of femininity in terms of race and class. There is not so large a gap between the Ulman we see and the Ulman we imagine, a successful artist establishing her brand while sharing carefully selected details about her life. And, in a way, that's exactly what Ulman hopes to deliver: people's projected perceptions of her persona, what we imagine of a white woman who's a contemporary artist.
More specifically -- a white, woman, pregnant contemporary artist.
Thirty weeks ago, Ulman posted a photograph of herself skirt up, underpants down, along with the caption: "No period yet bye." A few weeks later came an upload of a lone, oversized hand, reaching up toward the heavens -- or a sky patterned tile on the ceiling of a sanitized office space -- like Adam reaching for God. In its grip was a pregnancy test and the result was positive.
I felt silly asking Ulman if she was actually pregnant, but knew, given her past work, it would appear far sillier if I wrongly assumed she was expecting when it was part of another fictional exploration. Ulman confirmed that yes, the baby was real, and yes, that's not the point.
"I think it’s more important to look at the art itself than wonder whether something is real or not," she said. "I am pregnant in the performance, in this case, and whether it’s real or not it doesn’t really matter. It’s real in the performance; it’s real in the fictional narrative. It’s like watching a movie."
Ulman was inspired to fold her pregnancy into her performance after realizing how hackneyed the stereotypes of pregnancy are that permeate pop culture. "There are the romantic comedies where men freak out about pregnancy, and the horror movies where pregnancy is this monstrous thing," she added. "But there’s nothing where a woman is pregnant and it’s normal and the story just moves on."
Pregnancy, Ulman found, is usually communicated through clichés. Even the feminist debates that revolve around the politics of pregnancy are often reductive and inflammatory. "You have the hippie idea of feminism, having a bunch of babies. Or the more 1980s idea of feminism where you’re more than just a baby maker and decide not to have any kids," she said. "It’s still a very tricky and taboo topic -- it's always either heated or made sacred. I feel like there is not much playful representation of pregnancy."
Going into the performance, Ulman wasn't aware of just how taboo her subject matter was. When it came to funding the work, Ulman was shocked when big investors previously interested in her art backed out when they heard the word pregnancy. "The project they'd backed before was a male artist faking his own death," Ulman said in disbelief. "But my pregnancy was more taboo. A man can do a work about his body and he’ll be fine -- slightly edgy, but okay -- but pregnancy was a total no-no. I didn’t expect that at all."
"Excellences and Perfections" appealed to an accepted internet language, of flattering filters and follower-friendly hashtags and flaunted status signifiers. Her new series, however, floats in a far more complex, indeterminate realm. Professionally shot photos of Ulman with links to magazine interviews are uploaded alongside an odd video of Ulman chasing and serenading a pigeon. And while most images of pregnancy posted on social media are blissful, self-congratulatory celebrations of #insertbabynamehere, Ulman captures strangeness, complexity and banality of the transformative experience, no filter.
In one video, Ulman rests two ding-dong bells on her breasts, squeezing her belly bump and playing her body like an avant-garde instrument. In another, she dons a red dress, dancing sensually before a sliding mirror, her body morphed like a John Currin painting.
"Pregnancy is real and alien," she continued. "I'm interested in the dirt of it, the human body and all its processes, instead of this sugar-coated fashion spread thing. Male artists do work about crazy perversions all the time and it's fine, it’s shocking but it’s okay. But pregnancy -- not allowed. I think women should be allowed to be the bad ones as well. We're not all these sacred Madonna providers; where are the stories about bad moms?"
Another identifying aspect of Ulman's series is the setting. She selects sterile, legitimate, unassuming yet authoritative spaces in which to photograph herself. While Ulman's previous character was often depicted in gilded hotel rooms, boutique dressing rooms or the occasional trendy brunch spot, her new persona frequents architectural "no places," the indeterminate and bland locales that opt for invisibility through their stylistic choices.
"I am very interested in what it means to look normal," Ulman put it. "I’m interested in this idea of whiteness as nothingness. Buildings, hospitals, courthouses -- this white male aesthetic of what it means to be legitimate."
Ulman cites the hospital she recovered in after a serious accident and her Los Angeles-based studio as examples of such spaces, the architectural equivalents of white men in dull suits. "All of these place have the same style to them. White male. It's this legitimate stamp of approval of something being real." These clean, masculine spaces also yield a striking dissonance in relation to Ulman's body -- feminine, forbidden, and in flux.
What does it look like to be a white woman artist in America today? What do we expect it to look like? How do our expectations shape reality? Ulman navigates this uneasy terrain with Instagram images that subvert our assumptions, complex images that don't communicate in the straightforward visual vernacular we're accustomed to.
"Femininity is a social construct" one (male) Instagram user recently commented on Ulman's account, perhaps having learned from her previous series. "Except biology and hormones lol" Ulman responded, poking fun at oversimplified, sweeping claims of knowledge, especially from a man claiming to understand a woman's experience.
In a playful posture, where absolute claims to truth are most often beside the point, Ulman weaves stories of selves that constitute part of her, but not all of her. Through her self-produced images, she raises questions about what we project in an online space and these virtual projections can influence reality. What kind of self-representations garner respect? Which attract hate? Is it possible to express yourself in image form without resorting to stereotypes and cliches?
"As a woman that makes art, there are so many stereotypes I have to deal with," she concluded. "My approach is to be playful about it."