Amalia Ulman's work will be on view alongside greats like Cindy Sherman and Yves Klein in a rare example of a top gallery accepting social media-based art
Top art institutions – the ones that more or less decide what makes it into art history – are often accused of endorsing narrow perspectives. Whether it’s because of the lack of female, non-Western or ‘digital’ artists on display, world-respected galleries have long come under public scrutiny. For a generation of artists who have grown up with the internet, and whose principal mediums are its social platforms, what is increasingly apparent is the latent refusal of the high echelons of the art world to fully accept their practice as art, at least not art that is worthy of featuring in major exhibitions.
London’s Tate Modern, the most-visited modern and contemporary art museum in the world, however, is helping to set a new precedent. In its upcoming blockbuster show, “Performing for the Camera”, the Instagram-based work of internet sensation, Amalia Ulman will be on view alongside text-book greats, including Yves Klein, Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama and Marcel Duchamp. “Big deal” you might think, and you’d be right. Because, rare is it that in a gallery like the Tate you get to see a young artist creating work via social media, sharing the same wall space as some of art history’s most potent players – a bit like the Royal Albert Hall having the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Snoop Dogg's favourite Kalia Uchis headlining the same gig.
But, Ulman, who made her name through conning her 89,000-plus army of Instagram followers into believing her life under the surgical knife was real – in a four-month stint that turned out to be an elaborate performance art piece – is well placed to be included in the show, which explores the relationship between photography and performance. There’s an obvious link, for example, between Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits that reworked various archetypal female guises, and Ulman’s fictionalised identity fashioned through her Instagram selfies – both of which make powerful comments on the experience and notion of being “female”. As Ulman recently told the Telegraph, “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman.”
Ulman’s provocative project, entitled “Excellences and Perfection”, will likely be re-presented at the Tate through the images she originally posted on the app, in a controversial move that is dividing opinions as to whether social media can be deemed a legitimate medium of art. Contesting the haters, the gallery’s senior curator of photography, Simon Baxter, told artnet news, “The exhibition is about performance and the many ways in which artists have used photography to record and exhibit their performative works. Ulman's work is an example of recent practice in the same tradition.”
In effect, the inclusion of Ulman in the presentation of this 150-year long lineage – by none other than a world-respected gallery – signals a step towards welcoming the practice of social media artists into the art historical canon. It waits to be seen whether the internet-driven work of other artists like Alexandra Marzella and Petra Collins will soon be gracing the walls of the globe’s most venerated art spaces.