Editor’s Note: Alicia Eler is the author of “The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture,” and the visual art critic at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Argentinian-born artist Amalia Ulman’s “Excellences and Perfections” performance happened only four years ago, but in the digital age, it feels like much longer.
On the surface, the project seemed relatively simple: On Instagram, Ulman, now 29, spun a pastel-pink narrative of herself as an optimistic young woman pursuing her dreams in Los Angeles. Things started innocuously enough (“another sunny day in LA aaaaahhhh i lov my life,” reads an early caption), but after she broke up with her boyfriend (“dont be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened”), things took a turn. She chronicled her post-breakup breakdown – sexy mirror selfies, escorting, implied breast augmentation, tearful videos – and her eventual recovery through yoga, meditation and avocado toast. Amid selfies and inspirational text posts, there were photos of berry bowls and flowers in bloom.
“I like photography, performance art through photographs, and I think that was important for me to take into account,” she said over the phone from Los Angeles, reflecting on her creative choices. “Instagram is a lot of text and photographs, and that’s kind of how I work, through photography. Snapchat is too much about just the action, and I am more interested in the aesthetics of the images.”
Ulman’s Instagram account gained thousands of new followers who watched her seemingly personal journey. And then, five months in, when she hit about 90,000 followers, she revealed that it was all a performance. She’d cast herself as a semi-fictional character based on popular images that certain girls (affluent, young, often white) post of themselves on Instagram. In doing so, she revealed how emotions and experiences can be staged on social media, often for attention, or out of loneliness, or just wanting to have others bear witness to one’s personhood.
While the performance would win Ulman acclaim in the art press, it received backlash from followers who had become invested in her character’s narrative and felt they’d been deceived. But that was precisely the point of her project: to unpack the performativity of social media itself.
Shortly after the project was completed, it was archived by the digital art site Rhizome, and in 2016, images from “Excellences & Perfections” were included in Tate Modern’s “Performing for the Camera” group show, alongside work by Cindy Sherman and Yayoi Kusama. And now, four years later, it’s been transformed into a new book. Published by Prestel, it includes the Instagram posts used in the project, along with essays by the influential German artist Hito Steyerl, gallerist Rózsa Farkas, novelist Natasha Stagg, and editor Rob Horning.
Where fiction meets reality
Nowadays, Ulman is focused on other projects. She recently exhibited a film at the Armory art fair in New York, and when we spoke in mid-March, she was preparing to fly to Beijing for her first solo show in China. She’s also working on the book about a second online performance. But the book has given her reason – and time – to reflect on “Excellences & Performances” anew.
“It couldn’t be done now,” Ulman said. “It was very specific to its time.”
Indeed, in 2014, Instagram was still relatively new. It was founded in 2010, but had only been acquired by Facebook in 2012. Ads and direct messages were still new developments, and Stories were still years away. But most importantly, Ulman feels Instagram had not yet turned into a de facto branding platform for the average person.
“Now the problem is that everyone is required to be a celebrity,” she said. “(Before) only people in the arts or entertainment industry were required to have to deal with certain things, and now it’s required of everyone to learn these skills of (being) a minor celebrity – the way they look, the way they are perceived – which is kind of dangerous.”
On the last 10 pages of the book, Ulman includes captions and comments from the Instagram pics. In the comments we see a mix of people from the internet, including random strangers and fellow internet artist Ryder Ripps. Ulman replies to some of them.
On a photo of Chanel bath products, @xoangrybb (now @katya_vesely) wrote, “allergic reactions written all over dat for me,” sparking a brief conversation about products. The exchange feels authentic, and once again calls to question what is real on social media, and what is merely part of the performance. But Ulman is happy to let the viewer draw their own conclusions.
“Once it goes online, it goes online, but it’s true that it’s not me anymore. It’s just this thing that keeps on growing,” she said. “It’s just this copy that keeps on growing and acquiring new meanings.”
“Excellences & Perfections” by Amalia Ulman, published by Prestel, is out now.