Amalia Ulman, born in 1989, is an artist who persistently tackles the contemporary phenomenology of beauty ideals, social expectations and voyeurism, which are most noticeably promoted in the advertising industry and on social media networks. She initially devoted her attention to the direct manipulation of media images, entering the world of art on a greater scale with the performative action Excellences & Perfections, when she emerged among instant stars, revealing her eager lifestyle. The results of the five-month campaign, when it assumed an imaginary identity and events from her lives, were posted online on Instagram, were expectedly effective.
Dominant popular culture defines and regulates the limits of its followers, making it unavoidably uniform and predictable. Instagram, an image distribution network, perhaps serves as an ideal platform for the rapid acquisition of followers and marketing one’s own label. Its algorithms are created in a way that allows the analytical user’s profile to gain popularity at a very fast pace. What was once followed by audiences in “lifestyle” magazines or TV reality shows, can today be posted onto social media networks at considerably lower production costs. Contemporary consumerist culture reacts very positively to visual manifestations of wealth, popularity and enviable lifestyles, something which Instagram enables and promotes. It is because of this that this particular network has become the logical choice of a channel of expression for many artists who question the nature of the image and the legitimacy of its distribution. It is done in a similar manner to the way artists have reacted to the appearance of new communication means and media throughout past decades.
In 2014, Amalia Ulman carried out a priceless sociological study on the activities performed within the framework of social media networks (her primary focus being on Instagram, but Facebook was also included). The Excellences & Perfections performance showed her in various roles and identities, which attracted masses of users and considerably boosts popularity. Her formula was simple. She offered her audience a story of personal transformations of a young woman, who changes from an innocent teenager, surrounded by plush animals and pop-cultural icons, into a naughty girl, who loves wild parties, money and violence, and then continues her transformation into a spiritual activist of healthy lifestyles, spiced up with ecological food products, meditation and sport.
Her profile attracted streams of followers, who liked her fabricated images and left meaningful comments (be it those of admiration or insults). In this way, Ulman successfully used the medium of photography and video to study the process of adopting an entirely fictional identity by intentional distribution of images. After five months of obsessive role-playing, the artist announced that the campaign was complete, and began using the collected material in classical gallery-style contexts. Despite this, her work primarily took place in the virtual domain of the World Wide Web – the largest archive of digital images, and that is also where it remained. In the style of relational aesthetics, which creates situations and actively involves the interested public, she succeeded in establishing a platform, within which the audience (mostly unknowingly) participated in her artistic endeavour.
The artist’s approach may not be anything new, since the concept of adopting identities derived from the clichés of popular culture, and mass media has in the past been tested by a number of visual artists such as Sanja Iveković (The Tragedy of One Venus [Tragedija jedne venere], 1976) and Cindy Sherman (Untitled, Film Stills, 1979). Unlike the aforementioned, Ulman managed to create this kind of situation in a completely “do-it-yourself” manner and also included an audience that may otherwise not consist of typical visitors to cultural institutions. In her next project, Privilege (2015-2018), she plays around with the clichés of a dominant society and popular culture, but her anonymous and daring campaign on social media networks still remains the work that best captured the spirit of our rapidly changing times.