The 27-year-old applied craftsman Amalia Ulman was conceived in Argentina and brought up in Spain; went to workmanship school in London; and now lives in L.A., in Koreatown, in an independently finished, scantily outfitted one-room. When I meet her there one morning in May, white bandage is hung over the trundle overnight boardinghouse tickers on the divider indicate five time zones (none of them L.A.). Mounted amidst the room is the metal shaft Ulman uses to hone post moving, regularly to Bulgarian choral music. Where the shaft meets the roof, splits spread through the mortar like a neural system.
Ulman has a pet pigeon named Bob and an old white Volvo named Alice; on a current uncommon excursion, she went to North Korea. She portrays herself as having the identity of a custodian, yet was before a “conditional prostitute,” as she puts it—after workmanship school, attempting to bolster herself, she burned through five months as an escort. However even as the truths of her life shape a progression of impossible juxtapositions, they additionally fit rather perfectly into the layout of a particular, if limit, figure of speech—that of the “eccentric” craftsman. Which is precisely the kind of polarity she’s attracted to: Theblurred lines between personality and performance, between life and lifestyle, are the frequent focus of her art, which in the last few years she has often delivered via @amaliaulman on Instagram.
“Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?” wondered a 2014 headline in London’s Telegraph, after Ulman appeared to shape-shift on social media from cute girly-girl to narcissistic sugar-baby to wellness-oriented green juicer—an is-she-or-isn’t-she arc that viewers later learned was in fact a performance entitled Excellences & Perfections. (The general gist of the article: Yes.) “Her genius is she can understand, dissect, and embrace extreme polarities,” says James Fuentes, the New York gallerist known for representing emerging artists on their way to becoming big names. “She does this in both her life and her art. The boundary between the two is porous.”
Four months after the panel, she posted on Instagram, in big block letters, “PART 1.” What followed, at first, wasn’t a huge departure. She was still a young artist prone to photographing herself, but now her selfies were filtered through the sunny, gauzy gloss of L.A. She posted shots of rose petals, latte art, and bunnies, hewing to a pink-and-white color scheme, along with loads of selfies: Ulman, a natural brunette, now blond, wearing a pink robe in a spa or making a pouty face in a video (“Haha so dumb didn kno i was recordin”).
Long before embarking upon Excellences & Perfections, Ulman says, she’d realized she’d been playing a role online. “I had been this cliché of an arty girl. Which is so fetishized by certain people. So I thought, What if I transform myself into something that is not allowed in the art world?”
At first her followers were enthusiastic, posting happy faces and requesting tips on platinum hair. But after about two months of near-daily posts, Ulman uploaded an image of herself with a guy, his face obscured, captioned “dont be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened.” After the “breakup,” her poses became more explicitly sexual, her captions more aggressive: “Reasons i wanna look good / for myself / for myself / to plant the seed of envy in other bitch’s hearts / for myself.”
Accordingly, the remarks got harsher. Supporters scrutinized her moving (on a video of Ulman undulating her hips to Iggy Azalea, whom she was, truth be told, coming to take after) and her developing vanity (“You’re excellent… however marginal exhausting. #kindawhiney!”). This raised as she indicated she was filling in as an escort, shot her swathes after an obvious bosom enlargement (“#frankenboob lol”), at that point had an all out Amanda Bynes laugh hysterically—eight posts one after another coming full circle with two recordings of herself red-confronted and crying. “Que coño puta mierda?” was the primary remark. What the hell is this poo? Which about wholes up the reaction of the craftsmanship world on the loose.
A gallery Ulman had worked with advised her to stop posting immediately, believing she was sabotaging her career. “I used to take you seriously as an artist until I found out via Instagram you had the mentality of a 15 year old hood rat,” wrote one follower. But on Ulman went, next documenting a Goop-esque recovery—shots of tea and avocado toast, a Thich Nhat Hanh quote, a meditation selfie (“#grateful #namaste #healthy”)—followed by a single white square, then silence.
By that point, five months had passed and she’d acquired some 90,000 followers, though many, it turned out, were fake accounts bought by the artist Constant Dullaart as part of a project meant to highlight the art world’s “superficial attention culture.” Even some of Ulman’s close friends didn’t know what to think.
Fast-forward to October 2014, when Ulman appeared on a panel at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and announced it had all been a performance intended, in part, to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate an audience through images. “How is a female artist supposed to look like?” Ulman asked the crowd. “How is she supposed to behave? How do we consume images, and how do they consume us? Are we judgmental? Maybe? Or not at all? Or absolutely yes.”
“I KNEW SOME PEOPLE WOULDN’T BELIEVE THAT IT WAS A PERFORMANCE,” SHE SAYS. “I HAVE ENOUGH EXPERIENCE AS A WOMAN IN THE ART WORLD.”
She’d stuffed her bra with socks to fake the boob work; gotten transitory fillers in her face that vanished inside six months; purchased garments that she couldn’t manage the cost of for photographs, at that point returned them. She’d likewise disconnected herself, enlightening just a couple people concerning the piece, alongside a few galleries she’d already associated with, for the most part to secure herself. “I knew a few people wouldn’t trust that it was an execution,” she says. “I have enough understanding as a lady in the craftsmanship world.”
Also, it was valid. Some didn’t. Ulman says now that one male craftsman she’d told about the idea at an opportune time reached her midperformance mourning the impact L.A. was having on her. Why didn’t she get away from that lethal life, he stated, and turn into his dream? A while later, some still accepted that the entire thing had been a ploy to get sexual consideration she was excessively shy, making it impossible to recognize she needed. Others recommended she couldn’t have truly comprehended what she was doing—that it was excessively available, excessively cliché, making it impossible, making it impossible to be workmanship.
OTHERS SUGGESTED SHE COULDN’T HAVE REALLY UNDERSTOOD WHAT SHE WAS DOING—THAT IT WAS TOO ACCESSIBLE, TOO BANAL TO BE ART.
Her supporters reject these contentions insane. “It resembles how individuals initially said dynamic expressionism wasn’t workmanship,” says Fiontán Moran, a partner keeper at Tate Modern. “Her work is proceeding with the examination others, particularly female craftsmen, have done into how ladies are spoken to in broad communications. What’s new is that now, in light of online networking, broad communications incorporates regular individuals making their dream selves.”
Be that as it may, what is maybe most interesting about Excellences and Perfections is that the persona is not by any means fake. Ulman had been an escort. She enjoys spas and design and shopping at Whole Foods. “Her work could be viewed as sarcastic, however she’s occupying something she comprehends to some degree,” Moran says. Or, then again, as Ulman puts it, “Whatever I do needs to do with my own weaknesses. I’m embroiled. A lot of that piece needed to do with needing to be a sort of lady I didn’t feel I was truly permitted to be.”
Ulman grew up regular workers, the main offspring of guardians in an unstable relationship, and never had the advantage of “playing around as a craftsman and afterward going home,” she says. Her folks separated when she was 16; she now bolsters her mother, whom she portrays as “a Portlandia character,” and has no association with her father, a tattoo craftsman.
The thoughts communicated in Excellences and Perfections started permeating when, as a forlorn, exhausted youngster, Ulman agreed to accept a record on Fotolog (a Myspace-like site then prominent in Spain) and found that semisuggestive shots of herself not just helped her interface with individuals in different urban communities additionally pulled in “fans” who sent her real shows. The consideration was fun at in the first place, yet then it cracked her out. “So I ceased,” she says. “I wasn’t hoping to do anything with my picture until the end of time.”
IN A 2013 TALK, SHE CALLED THE CORRELATION BETWEEN SHOWING HER FACE AND MAKING PROFESSIONAL PROGRESS “Destroying.”
In any case, at Central Saint Martins (a specialist proposed she move quite far from her family; it was the main Google hit for “workmanship school London”), she understood that an online profile may enable propel her to profession. She transferred pictures of herself to Facebook, and soon, notwithstanding got notification from arbitrary men from her past, she was additionally handling more show offers. In a 2013 talk, she called the connection between’s demonstrating her face and gaining proficient ground “destroying.”
The offers didn’t take care of her cash issues, nonetheless. Subsequent to graduating, she went on the dole and attempted to create work. (“It’s difficult to make craftsmanship with no material, no anything,” she says.) Finally she posted a promotion on a sex-work site and got 200 reactions. Sitting in a bistro after our yoga class, she puts her head in her grasp. “It was so discouraging,” she says. “I’d searched for work for a long time.”
As the mid year advanced, the arrangement got progressively dreamlike—Ulman’s reaction to a world that felt more fierce and precarious by the day. In one video, she shows up in a frilly comedian shirt, an American banner superimposed all over, unleashing a forceful tirade about the citizenship of her unborn child—roused, she said later, by the vocal showy behavior of genuine Twitter client @rjoyour joy1919, a vigorous Donald Trump supporter.
On the off chance that everything sounds somewhat interesting, it is. Also, according to the remarks, in any event some of her 121,000 devotees still trust the fiction she’s making. One wrote in July, “What number of more months??? Can hardly wait to see the infant!” As with anything via web-based networking media, however, it’s difficult to know whether they’re any more sincere than she is.
In May, after Ulman and I said farewell, I went to Café Gratitude, an upscale natural bistro where servers welcome you by asking, “What are you thankful for now?” After my time with Ulman, I felt distinctly mindful of the eatery as the sort of place I incline toward—entering it resembled sinking into a waterway at the correct temperature as my body. It was, indeed, so customized for individuals like me that I kept running into an old companion. I advised her I’d gone through the day with Ulman; she said she knew about her, sort of. “She’s that pretty craftsman, right?” she said. “She’s so youthful,” said the associate she was with. “She’s so adorable,” said my companion. I felt, in a word, uneasy.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of ELLE.