Amalia Ulman’s ‘Excellences and Perfections’ Performance Art Piece Tells a Familiar and Unsettling Story Through Instagram
When Argentina-born artist Amalia Ulman posted an image to her Instagram account in the spring reading only “PART I” in black capital letters on a white background, no one but Ulman herself knew what it signaled. But by the fall, the veil had been lifted on Ulman’s strange Instagram activity over the previous several months: On April 19, 2014, she began a performance art piece entitled Excellences and Perfections. An exploration into the phenomenon of the “Hot Babe” — the person most media, whether social or otherwise, demands that women be — Excellences and Perfections built up and tore down a fictional person not too dissimilar from scores of other social media users. Thousands, even.
Ulman’s artistic work takes place in a huge array of arenas, from poetry to video and from graphic design to installation. Like most of us, she wasn’t new to social media at the beginning of this project; her Instagram account, for example, has been active since 2012. But after that seemingly simple post in April, her social media accounts took a strange turn: The girl depicted in them no longer seemed like her, because for all intents and purposes, she was no longer her. For the purposes of the art piece, Ulman had adopted a persona; in the months that followed, she would tell that persona’s story solely through pictures, selfies, and captions.
“It’s the story of a provincial girl with the dream of becoming a model,” Ulman explained to i-D, “who’s scouted by a photographer and ends up doing just that and living in LA. She’s running out of money and splitting up with her boyfriend and falls into this loophole of becoming a sugar baby but feeling OK because she has money. Then things turn darker and she starts taking drugs, she goes to rehab, and eventually she goes back to her family.” As Emilie Friedlander describe it at FADER, “We get to know the character she is playing only via the things that she’s choosing to surround herself with, and the things that she chooses to surround herself with, for the most part, are all clichéd signifiers of class, and wealth (with a dash of fashionable ‘low culture’ references mixed in, like twerking).” The story — and the girl at its center — is at once strange and familiar, and the trip is an easily recognizable one.
In the beginning, the images are all bright and airy, featuring a smiling blond girl in love with life:
By this image, she has moved to LA:
And gradually, some oddities begin to sneak in. This image, for example, reveals the effect the modeling world has had on her body image:
Whereas in this one, it’s unclear whether the “I want” is referring to the necklace, the lingerie, or the boobs:
Here? The plot, as they say, thickens:
Ulman did undergo a non-surgical nose job during the course of the project — and in the context in which she’s deliberately placed it, it becomes something sinister.
The breakup with the boyfriend happens here:
And after that, the wash of pink which has painted the images up til this point begins to vanish:
Here, another controversy, and an answer to the question surrounding the bustier-necklace photo: A boob job. Unlike the nose job, this one was purely fictional, created via some fancy digital wizardry — but no one but Ulman knew that at the time:
She returns to her natural dark hair color:
And continues to get metaphorically darker, as well:
Her point of no return happens here:
After which point the feed becomes full not of selfies, but of the things she once loved. She leaves LA and returns home to collect herself:
And the healing begins:
Finally, on September 14, Ulman posted the following image:
Thus bringing the project to an end. It’s worth noting that Excellences and Perfections comes in the aftermath of a Greyhound bus crash in 2013 that left Ulman hospitalized for month; in that respect, I think the literal and metaphorical deconstruction and reassembling of the self is far from an accident. But the fact that the art piece’s story was taken as real by so many speaks volumes not only to how simple it is to cultivate outward images of ourselves, but also — and perhaps more importantly — to what we so easily accept as truth.
To explore the whole of Excellences and Perfections, head on over to @amaliaulman on Instagram.