• Amalia Ulman snaps a butt selfie in the name of art. (Source: Amalia Ulman | Instagram) (Instagram)Source: Instagram
Thousands follow Amalia Ulman's Instagram butt selfies and boob job snaps - but is it art?
By
Genevieve Dwyer

25 Jan 2016 - 3:14 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2016 - 4:59 PM

Amalia Ulman has a history of sharing selfies of her butt and boobs, snaps of her brunch, luxury holidays, workout vids, cosmetics and designer clothing purchases that have netted her over 98,000 followers eager for a glimpse her luxurious LA lifestyle.

The apparently indifferent boasting might not seem like anything unusual in the self-involved age of Instagram - except that it was all a cleverly-constructed sham.

Ulman was not indifferent at all, but had in fact planned the exercise from the outset as four-month-long performance art installation housed on the social media platform.

Ulman, 26, is an Argentinian born Spanish artist who graduated from the prestigious Central St Martins College in London in 2011 and says that she created the piece, titled 'Excellences & Perfections' as a critique of authenticity in the internet age – particularly in regard to representations of femininity.

"The idea was to bring fiction to a platform that has been designed for supposedly “authentic” behavior, interactions and content,” Ulman told Kaleidoscope magazine last year. 

“The intention was to prove how easy [sic] an audience can be manipulated through the use of mainstream archetypes and characters they’ve seen before."

Ulman even went as far as to fake a boob job and post snaps of her apparently newly enhanced breasts painfully bound in bandages.

She announced the beginning of the exercise with an image upload bearing the phrase ‘PART I’ in early 2014, and marked its conclusion months later with a second placeholder denoting the end.

“Everything was scripted,” Ulman explained to the UK’s Telegraph. “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.”

Ulman’s work is set to feature in a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, 'Performing for the Camera', which explores this idea of performance vs reality in photography.

It's a concept not lost on female audiences, who’ve been made to feel insecure for the profit of beauty and fashion industries for decades. Now suddenly they also have to contend with braggadocious posts from celebrities and ordinary friends alike, continually flooding their feeds thanks to a new age of narcissism.

“Women understood the performance much faster than men,” Ulman told the Telegraph.

“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.”

“I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman.”
Not everyone was in on the joke though, and many thought that the artist had become just another LA air-head as a result of her time in the States.

“People started hating me,” Ulman told the Telegraph. 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.”

So can an Instagram post actually be art?

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE, the Director of Australia’s Museum of Contemporary Art says there’s no question.

“Artists have a wonderful way of adapting all kids of media for their work. Instagram is no exception.”

In fact social media is fast becoming a more and more essential tool for artists to build their profile.

“Social media is a very positive way for artists to connect directly with audiences,” Macgregor told SBS.

“We can see this for instance, in the way acclaimed British artist Grayson Perry – whose work we’re currently showing at the MCA as part of the Sydney International Art Series – connects with audiences around the world (over 57,000 fans follow him on Twitter).”

Macgregor was careful to point out though that just because art can be shown on social media, doesn’t mean it should be.

“Curators and collectors need to avoid the idea that all art is Instagrammable,” she explained. “Some simply isn’t.”

Indeed many critics claim that the new age of Instagram art is simply narcissistic and lazy. Professor Ross Harley, the Dean of UNSW Art & Design disagrees, telling SBS that “When you look at the work of Ulman, it’s more complex than that. She carefully scripted the piece – it was knowing and calculated.”

Indeed, Professor Harley explains that the “lazy” criticism in the art world is not new. “The perfect example of this was Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. [People said] ‘Anyone can do that!’”

Another artist who caused a furore recently was American artist Richard Prince whose controversial exhibition ‘New Portraits’ at the New York’s Gagosian gallery in May last year was made up of 37 “artworks,” all of which were simply inkjet printouts of other people’s Instagram snaps. The picture below reportedly even sold for $US90,000 with none of the proceeds going to the original Instagrammer.

While the Richard Prince “appropriation” controversy related to bigger picture issues of copyright infringement, the anger that the exhibition drew from many critics does raise questions about the validity of appropriating Instagram or social media as an artistic medium.

Harley says though it’s “completely logical” that Instagram would be used as an artistic platform. In the case of Prince, he explained “he has had a long career, of taking images that are circulating freely in the public realm and recontextualising them.”

“His work is about the centrality of image and the images that we construct of ourselves.”

Harley says this makes Prince especially relevant “now we are more narcissistic than ever.”

“This is the same with Ulman and a lot of artists working on the internet as they question the value of images.”

So perhaps it would therefore seem that it’s not Ulman’s use of images that we should be questioning – but our own.