Representing the creative future

Templates of Cool: Amalia Ulman

In 2014, Argentinian-born Spanish artist and CSM graduate, Amalia Ulman, who is currently based in LA, gained recognition in the art world for her 4 month durational performance piece Excellences & Perfections, in which she performed the jetset rise and demise of a young LA woman via her personal Instagram account. Her piece intended to provoke its viewer’s behaviour towards what we see online, assessing the tension between fact and fabrication, in particular the way women are viewed online and the promulgation of one’s lifestyle via social media. Ulman continues to explore themes central to the notions of beauty and the obscenities of contemporary marketing in her latest work, International House of Cozy which premiered at MaMa Rotterdam.

For Amalia Ulman, a young, provincial girl from Spain, attending art school in London served as a quench to her thirst for the big city and what she believed it had to offer: fashion and the pleasures of the petite bourgeoisie. “I wanted to run around in heels and ride on the top of a double decker bus,” she explains in an interview via e-mail. Prior to her decision to attend Central Saint Martins (which she had decided on through a simple Google search of “art school London”), Ulman was about to undertake a completely different path by attending a BA on the restoration of Antique Books taking place in the mountains of Gijón, Spain, where she grew up. “When I went for the interview we were three applicants for 10 available spots. On top of that, the buses would only pass by the facilities, which consisted of an old village primary school, every 3 hours. I felt as if I was falling into a void. The thought of having to spend 3 years with the same 4 classmates repairing books from the Middle Ages made me nauseous.”

Despite having to take a year off to work and save up in order to move, Ulman admits that it was by living in London that she ‘learned to hustle on a whole other level.’ “I spent most of time in art school trying to survive. I didn’t have much time to think, to study, or to pay attention. I couldn’t have fulfilling conversations with the tutors because I was always on the go, from one stupid retail job to the next, with constant headaches because I was living on rations of boiled rice.” Of course, she wishes that things had been different. “I would have been much happier and I wouldn’t have come across as such a weirdo to my classmates and teachers.”

Nonetheless, Ulman had gotten a job as a shelver at the library, which was also her favourite job amongst the various retail jobs she worked and served as her main source of income. “Working at the library was the most precious form of research”, she says. “By being a shelver I was always rewarded by other people’s researches: the selection of books in the trolleys were truly randomised and I discovered a bunch of jewels this way.”

CONSUMERISM, IN THE IMAGE BASED SOCIETY WE LIVE IN, CANNOT BE DESTROYED;
NOT UNLESS WE TURN OUR SET OF VALUES UPSIDE DOWN.”

After being hospitalised following a Greyhound bus crash in 2013, Ulman decided to embark on her Instagram performance piece Excellences & Perfections. Ulman took this opportunity to stage a series of photos showing her in a hospital for breast augmentation consultation and surgery. Its fictional narrative seems vaguely reminiscent, although much more exaggerated, of Ulman’s personal story; where “a provincial girl moves to the big city, wants to be a model, wants money, splits up with her high-school boyfriend, wants to change her lifestyle, enjoys singledom, runs out of money because she doesn’t have a job, because she is too self-absorbed in her narcissism, she starts going on seeking-arrangement dates, gets a sugar daddy, gets depressed, starts doing more drugs, gets a boob job because her sugar daddy makes her feel insecure about her body, and also he pays for it, she goes through a breakdown, redemption takes place, the crazy bitch apologizes, the dumb blonde turns brunette and goes back home. Probably goes to rehab, then she is grounded at her family house.”

By fabricating a fictional persona manifested through Ulman’s physical body, it was Ulman’s intention to prove how gullible an audience can be about what they see on an online platform such as Instagram, which was supposedly designed for “authentic” behaviour, interactions and content. Its imagery included representations of mainstream female archetypes that we are all so familiar with seeing online on a day to day basis – the “Hot Babe” who uses social media as a means of self publishing. Through careful use of setting and props, which included snapshots of her in luxury hotel rooms and perfectly plated brunches, Excellences & Perfections evoked a fantasy consumerist lifestyle.

“IT WAS BY GOING TO ART SCHOOL THAT I LEARNED TO ARTICULATE MY THOUGHTS WHILE
BECOMING BULLETPROOF TO PEOPLE’S CRITIQUES.”

Images depicting Ulman’s character having breast augmentation surgery suggests that such an act is almost inherent to the hyperconsumerist way of life, alongside the purchase of luxury goods. “I love role playing and dressing up, so I would consider plastic surgery to be on the same line as to dying one’s hair” she tells us. “I think it is fine while it is playful and something that someone as an individual would do for their own pleasure or fun, but once it becomes a means to fit a mold better, especially for woman to be more feminine — as something imposed, as something one must do — I think it is terrible. This is called civilian beauty: to fit the standards better so you don’t offend people with your ugliness, with your differences. That’s a terrible idea because, who decides what is beautiful and what is not?” Growing up, Ulman’s mother never wanted her to conform to the societal standards of beauty.  “Pretending to be a tomboy of sorts, I still feel like an outsider to whatever is considered a normal feminine beauty standard and routine; what is considered to be girly behavior, and so on. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong – that it is not natural. And the truth is that it is not, it is all a construction, and that’s my view on it.”

The increasing aestheticization of everyday life isn’t merely limited to the way people presents themselves, but also in their surroundings. In her most recent work entitled International House of Cozy, which was on display at MaMa in Rotterdam, Ulman further challenges her viewer’s perception of everyday lifestyle aesthetics by presenting it in the form of a ‘pornographic simulacra of a corporate hipster infomercial’. Its title makes reference to “a feeling of coziness and ‘home’ as marketed through lifestyle blogs and websites such as Airbnb or Pinterest,” and its scenes are filled with ubiquitous ‘hipster’ imagery: Diptyque candles, Aēsop soap and Muji stationary, all set against white-washed interiors basked in soft, faded light. Decontextualising a screenshot image from her work, one could easily draw parallels to the imagery present on lifestyle and interior websites such as The Selby and Freunde Von Freunden, that have endorsed such aesthetics and imagery through their platform. As a result, her work naturally lends itself to a critique of consumer culture and lifestyle aesthetics – similarly appropriated in the realm of fashion and its stereotyped ideals of beauty.

Stills from International House Of Cozy, 2015

From Ulman’s point of view, our attitudes towards consumerism will merely shift rather than change completely despite being aware of such marketing tools. “Let’s say that some people who have watched International House Of Cozy will laugh while they wash their hands at the toilet of some art gallery when they see a bottle of Aēsop soap,” she says — “that’s a change on their perspective, and maybe they stop buying Aēsop because, after becoming a caricature of itself, it will be an object that represents campness instead of good taste. But something else will take its plac, another kind of soap. Something else will be fetishised.” Consequently, Ulman is very interested in interrogating the shifts that occur between what’s desirable and what’s not. “Consumerism, in the image-based society we live in, cannot be destroyed; not unless we turn our set of values upside down.”

The omnipresence of hipster imagery present in current lifestyle aesthetics is a conception that Ulman compares to corporate aesthetics, or the aesthetics of the invisible: waiting rooms, hospital rooms, elevators, which she has always taken an interest in. “I like that moment when something stops being clean and modern and becomes grim. This is how I feel about this sort of hipster imagery: it started as hip, then it was appropriated by the mainstream.” Ultimately, what was once part of a subculture has now been “absorbed by the corporate world, which transformed it into a template. I love templates.”

Install shots of International House Of Cozy, 2015

Working with mediums that are able to exist outside a traditional art institution, Ulman admits that her use of New Media operates through feeling, as opposed to a purely conscious decision to do so. “Working with new media is good but it can also be a headache because the art world still needs the art to be collectable, so in the end, galleries are always looking for ways to monetise on the artists they represent, which is a pressure point I’m not very good at dealing with. But what I truly love about things like Instagram is to be able to reach people who are not in the art world circuit, it is a pleasure to be followed by random teenagers across the globe.”

Looking at Ulman’s work, you begin to wonder if the themes manifested simply represent a reflection of the capitalist-consumerist society surrounding us, or whether they also represent an introspection of herself. “I’m an introvert, so it definitely is a form of introspection. My art is the result of many internal ramblings”, she admits. “As much as I’m an introvert, I really had to learn to put my things out there. This wasn’t easy. I remember a lot of people crying during crits at CSM, especially to that infamous question: “WHY?”

Since graduating Central Saint Martins, Ulman tells us that there hasn’t been much of a difference in her career as an artist, compared to her time at the college. She had already been exhibiting in group shows during her second year, but found her degree show to be “terrible”, thus she tried not to think about her years at the college as soon as she left. Lately, Ulman is in the process of producing her imminent work, The Annals Of Private History, which is part of her upcoming project at Frieze Live with South London gallery Arcadia Missa, which will be a narrative on introspection, enclosed environments, parallel histories and diary writing; an essay on all things lost due to a lack of safe platforms where to share one’s thoughts.

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