In one of her recent domestic installations, waggishly titled International House of Cozy (2015), Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Amalia Ulman transforms Rotterdam institution MAMA into a Starbucks-inspired lounge crowned with a proprietary café logo. Inside, the gallery’s ecru walls are accented with glass containers, glowing candles and other brand-name tchotchkes, between which are hung heart-shaped filigree and personal empowerment slogans. To one side of the space a collection of fold-up chairs sits beneath a flat-screen television, which plays a soft-focused short film of an art industry couple encircled by the same glass decor and wheaten colour scheme. Choreographed in the manner of an Airbnb or Zara YouTube campaign, the film’s attractive pair, clothed in high-end casual, discuss organic coffee, Los Angeles hotspots and artisan jam while thumbing through worn copies of Artforum. When the couple shuttles into a bedroom to perform the film’s unanticipated sexual climax – sequenced in various positions to emulate a gonzo porn short – the sense of quotidian detachment and designer branding proves both uncomfortably titillating and playfully mocking.
The morphologies of the virtual and material in International House of Cozy typify the wide citational and conceptual filters at work in Ulman’s ‘post-Internet’ oeuvre, which alternates between the millennial’s social-media platform and more conventional object-accumulative environments, in whose displays of cultural curiosities are portrayed complex semiologies of class stratification, lifestyle trends and adolescent sexualities. A twenty-six year old graduate of Central Saint Martins in London, Ulman is often associated with feminist social media artists like Jesse Darling, Kate Durbin and Ann Hirsch and is perhaps best known outside of the artworld as the proprietor (or ‘prankster’ according to more disapproving critics) of the Instagram series Excellences and Perfections (2014). Ulman’s performance, which lasted a period of five months, employed the popular photo- and video-based social network to invent a fictional persona based on tropes of the ‘young girl’. The resultant Bildungsroman narrative, of a beautiful innocent who moves to the city to pursue a career in modelling; aspires to wealth and luxury; dabbles provocatively in drugs and plastic surgery; suffers severe emotional setbacks; and ultimately retreats to her homeland to mend and rediscover her ‘true’ self, was catalogued in frequent posts and accompanied by simulated, selfie photographs of the artist in character. Such promises of voyeuristic spectacle and salacious confession ignited her account’s real-time fan base and drew mainstream coverage from pop culture glossies like New York Magazine, i-D and Dazed and Confused.
Despite its very public staging, viewing the archive of Excellences and Perfections retrospectively reveals the kinds of complexities and intimacies of Sophie Calle’s most arresting, and controversial, performances. The feminine visage of Ulman was the cynosure of the series’ online viewership, but much of its compositional efficacy is due to the artist’s acuity for design – graphics, costumes, props and setting – which trades on popular tropes of ‘girlhood’ and ‘taste’ as they circulate on platforms like Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. Ulman presents herself as a protean assemblage of designer clothing, gilded bibelots and decorative tableaux, seeking out the fantasy of erasure through what she calls “the cosmetic gaze” – one aspect of the trending ‘new normal’, or ‘normcore’, the fashion-inspired celebration of the ‘flattening’ homogeneity of middle-class aesthetics. Similarly the motifs repeated throughout many of Ulman’s exhibitions, such as butterflies, pearls, hearts and motivational slogans, suggest a Nabokovian boutiquification of youth and beauty, one in which the ‘precious’, personal symbology of girlhood is extruded at a gendered (and market) premium.
Aspirations for such cultural capital do not, however, emanate exclusively from the domain of the middle-classes, as Ulman perceptively highlights in the less glamorous Used & New (2014). An antithesis of sorts to International House of Cozy, Used & New was presented at Los Angeles’s threadbare LTD. gallery, wherein a series of glass cabinets and cheap Perspex shelves are stocked with heart-shaped mirrors, key-chains, decals, money boxes and lace panties, all ostensibly downmarket goods vended as gifts. However, upon closer inspection, these objects are interspersed with blood stains and images of war zones and fetishised female bodies, all of which disturb the initial presentation of whiteness, softness and femininity and hint at the underlying precarity and violence that ensure their production. Similarly, Been There (2010–12), a contemporary cabinet of curiosities from Ulman’s show Moist Forever (2013), mixes aspirational tourist trinkets like Goldman Sachs golf balls, international currencies and premium cosmetics with lipstick-smeared shot glasses, handmade bracelets and melted candles. Placed side-by-side as gifts or curated artifacts, the resultant bricolaging effect interrupts the stratified exchange values once impregnated in such objects.
Ulman’s purview as an expatriate artist originates in a childhood spent in the industrial north of Spain, where she witnessed the country’s transition from Franco-era isolationism to EU hypercapitalism and then bankruptcy. The region’s mercurial, object-driven markets expanded exponentially during the 2000s, and the influx of speculative debt and consumer trends that followed are no doubt reflected in Ulman’s fascination with capital’s alternating desires for territorial circulation and accumulative interiorisation. For Ulman, the new psychogeographies produced therein contract and obscure traditional divisions between city/town, capital/purlieu and market/home.
‘The fear of provinciality…makes me avoid nationalism, makes me…walk towards imports like a moth flies towards the light,’ she intones in her visual essay Buyer, Walker, Rover (2013), echoing the language of flanerie in Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (1883) or Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (1927–40) for a new global plexus of pedestrian malls, corporate hotels and transnational sweatshop labour. ‘In the midst of solitude, in the midst of isolation I receive messages from the metropolis through imported goods… Visiting these stores I can widen my mental map. I’m closer to everything and very quickly, I don’t feel lonely anymore. The sharable qualities of these items make them something intimate, cosy. I’ve seen you before, yes.’
To relegate this sensibility of ‘cosiness’ she extols (a domestic correlate to her other, somatic themes of ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’) to an ironic, Marxist ploy of false consciousness would be an oversimplification of Ulman’s work. Rather, in exhibits like Moist Forever and the cloud-based iOS photostream Seeking Arrangements (2013), whose titles play on sly double entendre, the serialised placement of flower arrangements and willow stalks in corporate and resort settings evokes the temptations of what she calls the ‘democratic judge’ of rootlessness, one that leads to the ecstatic freedoms of the world experienced as dromological commodity. ‘From my delimited physical interior I dream of freedom,’ she continues in Buyer, Walker, Rover. ‘All streets lead to nowhere and all streets take me home… Drink your coffee in the morning and walk to work. Pretty. The world is yours!’ Despite the institutional displacement of global capital, or perhaps because of it, the pleasures of commodity still trade on intimate fantasies of ownership, immanence and self-invention.
But in an increasingly multimedia marketplace, where both image and object are valuated and traded at sublime speeds, what distinguishes the physical boundaries of the consumer and the commodity, the rational life of the capitalist and the secret life of the object? And how do our bodies negotiate between antagonistic fetishes of both intimacy and novelty?
Much of Ulman’s recent interest in these questions of somatic displacement has focused on the increasing technologisation of the human. In late 2013, Ulman herself was involved in a severe automobile accident that injured her legs and left her permanently disabled, a condition requiring long-term physical therapy. The experience, which stripped her of the comforting assets of her previous life and transformed her body into an object/specimen of mutation and medical intervention, contributes to her most disturbing works, The Destruction of Experience (2014) and Stock Images of War (2014). These installations utilise signifiers of hygiene and domestication (eg clocks, calendars, motivational posters, room deodorisers, food) within threatening and disorienting tableaux – a doctor’s office and a war zone, respectively – to explore how fragile and perishable is the clinical body. The installations’ integrations of anxiety and mundanity offer a startling indictment of the ‘soft’ violences capital can inflict upon the human under the aegis of acquisition.
What continues to fascinate most about Ulman’s progressing oeuvre is not only the vast conceptual net under which she interrogates theories of identity, domesticity and fantasy, but the challenging heterogeneity of disciplines and templates that she engages from exhibition to exhibition – from poetry to design to online performance. In the era of social media’s generic ‘new normal’, Ulman’s quiet ambitions for difference qualify her as a vital, feminist voice.
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue.