Technology

Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?

In April 2014, a young Argentinian-born artist called Amalia Ulman uploaded an image on her Instagram feed. It consisted of the phrase "Part I", in black letters against white, accompanied by an enigmatic caption that read "Excellences & Perfections".

A post from Ulman's Instagram account.
A post from Ulman's Instagram account. Photo: www.instagram.com/amaliaulman

Although 28 of Ulman's followers quickly "liked" the post, few of them realised that it signalled the beginning of one of the most original and outstanding artworks of the digital era.

Before long Ulman was uploading a series of images – mostly preening selfies taken on her iPhone – that seemed to document her attempt to make it as an "It girl" in Los Angeles.

Health and wellness - or the appearance of - remain strong themes for many popular social media stars.
Health and wellness - or the appearance of - remain strong themes for many popular social media stars. Photo: www.instagram.com/amaliaulman

In some of them she posed in lingerie on rumpled bed sheets in boutique hotel rooms. In others she offered cutesy close-ups of kittens, rose petals, and strawberries and pancakes captioned "brunch".

So far, so banal: Ulman, who studied fine art at Central Saint Martins in London from 2008 to 2011, had apparently succumbed to the narcissism of social media.

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She was mindlessly bragging about her supposedly enviable lifestyle in LA, as she attended pole-dancing classes and underwent breast-enlargement surgery.

"People started hating me," Ulman, 26, told me recently, speaking via Skype from her studio in downtown LA.

Ulman claims to have faked a boob job for the project.
Ulman claims to have faked a boob job for the project. Photo: www.instagram.com/amaliaulman

"Some gallery I was showing with freaked out and was like, 'You have to stop doing this, because people don't take you seriously anymore.' Suddenly I was this dumb b---- because I was showing my ass in pictures."

A promising young artist – selected a year earlier by talent-spotting curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, as one of the leading lights of the YouTube generation – was swiftly wrecking her career.

Ulman showing off her natural hair colour after going blonde.
Ulman showing off her natural hair colour after going blonde. Photo: www.instagram.com/amaliaulman

Except that, unbeknown to the tens of thousands of people who started following her, she wasn't.

Almost five months later, Ulman posted a black-and-white image of a rose, which she captioned "The End". Soon afterwards she announced that she had been staging an elaborate performance called Excellences & Perfections via her Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Art, or just another preening social media selfie?
Art, or just another preening social media selfie? Photo: www.instagram.com/amaliaulman

All those "dumb" pictures of Ulman, half-naked, staring vapidly into the lens of her smartphone camera? They were a joke. The shot of her bandaged breasts, after her operation to have them enlarged? It was faked.

Ulman, it turned out, had been playing a role – or, indeed, several roles. And almost all of the 89,244 followers she had amassed by the end of the performance had been fooled.

"Everything was scripted," explains Ulman, who grew up in Asturias in north-west Spain. "I spent a month researching the whole thing. There was a beginning, a climax and an end. I dyed my hair. I changed my wardrobe. I was acting: it wasn't me."

Now, a year and a half on, several of the 175 photographs that Ulman created for Excellences & Perfections will be shown in two new exhibitions: Electronic Superhighway, at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, which will trace the impact of computerised technology on artists from the Sixties to today; and Tate Modern's Performing for the Camera, which will examine the relationship between artistic performance and photography.

Ulman first had the idea for Excellences & Perfections while she was at college, but she "never had the budget to do it properly, because I was on the dole when I was living in London, which is a very elitist place".

Towards the end of her time in the city, she tells me, she earned money as a "sugar baby" – an escort.

"I'd rather not talk about it," she says.

"It's too dark. It was out of necessity: I wasn't playing around. But being an escort is how most of my female peers are paying for their student fees. It's very common during these s----- times of recession."

The experiences of her escort friends, she says, informed the narrative of Excellences & Perfections, which Ulman finessed while recovering in hospital after her legs were "destroyed" in a coach crash in 2013.

"I still can't run, and suffer from chronic pain," she says.

Planning her comeback on Instagram, she decided to divide her performance into three distinct "episodes", inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online.

To begin with, in the finished piece, Ulman plays the part of an artsy, provincial girl who has moved to Los Angeles for the first time. This fictional version of herself breaks up with her boyfriend and becomes a "sugar baby" to make ends meet.

This marks the start of the second episode, which offers a pastiche of the "ghetto aesthetic" popularised by American celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. At this point, Ulman says, her anti-heroine self "starts acting crazy and posting bad photos online". She "gets a boob job, takes drugs, has a breakdown, and goes to rehab".

This initiates the denouement of Ulman's social-media satire, as she devotes herself to "recovery", and uploads pictures inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow's blog Goop: "Kind of girl next door," Ulman explains. "I liked yoga and juices. That was the end."

When I first heard about Excellences & Perfections, I assumed that it was a spoof lampooning the self-regarding way we all behave on social media. It seemed like a modern-day, digital version of Hogarth's Rake's Progress: a sharp diatribe against vacuity.

Not so, says Ulman, who had something more specific in her sights.

"It's more than a satire," she explains.

"I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men.

"They were like, 'We get it – and it's very funny.'"

What was the joke?

"The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It's something you learn," she says.

In this respect, Ulman was following in the footsteps of important older artists who have explored the fluid nature of female identity, from the 20th-century French photographer Claude Cahun to the American Cindy Sherman.

Yet, from the beginning, Ulman knew that she should stage her performance online. She wanted to play with the conventions of Instagram, such as labelling images with hashtags.

This was her masterstroke: the fact that Excellences & Perfections exists in the very form that it simultaneously deconstructs is a sleek, sophisticated, intelligent move.

It also explains why the performance created such a buzz. As a result of Excellences & Perfections, Ulman is now feted as one of the sensations of contemporary art.

"The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet," she explains, "rather than trying to adapt old media to the internet, as has been done with mini-series on YouTube. The cadence and rhythm were totally different."

Is this why the work was so successful?

"Yes," she says, before laughing.

"But I also know that photos of half-naked girls get a lot of 'likes'."

Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888), from January 29. Performing for the Camera is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888), from February 18.

Telegraph, London

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