Artist Amalia Ulman’s captivating performance of an aspiring it-girl’s quest for perfection foreshadowed our current behaviours
In 2014 Amalia Ulman tricked us all. The digital artist spent four months curating an Instagram profile that documented the life of a wannabe it-girl trying to make it in LA. We watched as Ulman’s story unfolded, climaxing with a (fake) boob job and public apology. At the point when almost 90,000 followers were invested in Ulman’s life, she announced that it had all been a hoax.
The performance piece was titled “Excellences & Perfections” and it was an art world sensation. Not only had Ulman shone a light on social media’s ability to dupe, she had also created what critics heralded as the “first Instagram masterpiece”. In 2016, the piece was included in a group show at the Tate Modern, Performing for the Camera, making her the first social media artist to enter into a top institution. Today, Excellences & Perfections stands up as more relevant than ever, foreshadowing our increasingly unhealthy relationship with Instagram and dubious notions of ‘truth’ online. As a new book is released (published by Prestel) detailing the work, we look at how Ulman’s performance impacted the internet we experience today, but also how it predicted it.
Today, we are fed advice about the importance of developing “personal brand” on Instagram – we’re told that we can achieve this by sticking to a consistent theme; creating a simplified character that others can consume. Even the founders of Instagram started seeing the rigorous curation of profiles as an issue when in a 2016 interview, co-founder Kevin Systrom admitted that he hadn't posted to his own app in six days because no moment had felt special enough. Systrom explained that this was a key reason for the introduction of Instagram Stories in the same year; users’ profiles had become so curated that they wouldn’t post unless the image was a ‘highlight’. The hope was that stories would encourage authenticity and provide a platform for all of life’s more average moments.
Back in 2014, Ulman was already considering the power of curating an Instagram profile. Ulman’s it-girl transitioned through three distinct stages. First, she was a young girl in virginal pastel-hues who loved brunch and cute bunny rabbits. Then, a sugar baby posing with a gun and fanning fat wads of cash. Finally, she found redemption and became a clean-eating wellness goddess. Her intention was to explore the performative side of gender and criticise reductive, archetypical stereotyping of women. She told Dazed in 2015, “Most of the people who got the performance and were attracted to it were women. They really got it. They saw the amount of work it took to build up the body while men were like, ‘What? I don’t get it, she just looks hot!’”
“Most of the people who got the performance and were attracted to it were women. They really got it. They saw the amount of work it took to build up the body while men were like, ‘What? I don’t get it, she just looks hot!’” – Amalia Ulman
But why did Ulman choose for her replica to embody those specific female tropes? After analysing Instagram’s most popular profiles, she concluded that it was these three curated personas that amassed the most followers. Today, these personas are still ubiquitous – the wellness goddess, in particular, has a firm grip on Instagram’s 800 million active monthly users. “Excellences & Perfections” predicted the way in which so many now adopt a one-size-fits-all personality in order to appeal to a greater number. It demonstrated that there was a formula for racking up followers, it’s just that the formula meant a very selective representation of reality.
Ulman also demonstrated that a large social media following meant power, and, arguably, her work wouldn’t have made such an impact in the art world if it weren’t for the number of Ks trailing her username. The performance foreshadowed the immense value that we place on Instagram celebrities today. In 2014, the term influencer barely existed, but over the past two years, influencer marketing has exploded. It now comprises a vital part of many companies’ marketing budgets and poses a lucrative career choice for those with a high tolerance for cringe.
Ulman’s coming-of-age in a tattoo parlour – “I was secretly mesmerised by body modification when I was little,” she recalled – perhaps explains the crescendo of her performance; the fake boob job. But, it’s also likely that it was the symptom of the sugar baby’s feelings of inadequacy in an image-obsessed culture and a need to “better” oneself.
Whilst a boob job might be a financial impossibility for most, today apps like FaceTune provide an accessible alternative. For anyone who missed it, Facetune allows users to apply Photoshop-like edits to selfies and is predictably popular – its first version sold over ten million copies. Experts have even suggested that the app is a reason for the falling number of women opting for surgeries like facelifts, which are reportedly down by 44 per cent from last year.
Ulman’s boob job was ultimately a critique of unattainable body ideals and gendered expectations. Historically, these expectations have been proliferated by the mass media, which made them somewhat easier to ignore – there was a gulf between models and ‘normal’ women, an ‘us and them’ mentality. But now, thanks to apps like FaceTune, our Instagram feeds tell us that ‘normal’ people look perfect too. And it’s difficult to decipher whether someone has been editing their photos (unless they do so with the reckless abandon of Lindsay Lohan). Ulman predicted an online culture where alterations to our appearance are undertaken flippantly, temporarily, and shamelessly.
The most remarkable part of Ulman’s performance was how easily she had us all fooled. She wasn’t the first to become a media sensation for being a fake (remember lonelygirl15?), but she did make a powerful point about Instagram and its potentially deceptive nature. Last year, a survey conducted of 1500 young people (aged 14-24) revealed that Instagram was the worst social media platform for mental health. Heavy use was associated with high levels of anxiety, depression and FOMO. It’s hard to determine the exact reasons why Instagram is so much worse than platforms like YouTube, but it's arguably the focus on image and perfection that deplete users’ self-worth. The highlights reel engenders jealousy and comparison, and images are often shared without a wider context. “A friend of mine told me about this girl she knows who goes to luxury hotels to take selfies... that’s the new capital,” Ulman once said. “Better to have her selfie in an environment like that than just in her shitty bedroom.”
Lastly, it also seems that Ulman’s piece predicted a recent phenomenon that extends beyond Instagram – fake news. Thanks to a certain megalomaniac, the term ‘fake news’ has almost lost all meaning. But, it is a real issue, and as unregulated content is easily created, sensationalist stories are more likely to go viral, with platforms like Facebook using algorithms that perpetuate cultural echo chambers. “Excellences & Perfections” was a demonstration of the internet’s ability to manipulate and an early premonition of today’s culture of misinformation.
Excellences & Perfections by Amalia Ulman is available now in hardback now, published by Prestel