Portrait by Amalia Ulman, courtesy of the artist
I agree to meet the 25-year-old Amalia Ulman at a ramshackle cafe in the heart of London’s Dalston, the societal sibling of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and New York City’s Williamsburg. It’s the kind of place that serves their almond-milk cappuccinos in cheap water glasses, and also the kind of place that the Buenos Aires-born, Spain-bred artist would like to conjure scenes of conflict in. “I’ve started making a lot of work about war, in general,” she tells me, in her lilting Spanish accent. “But especially, [what] war would look like in a first world environment. In a gentrified area—in a hipster cafe, in a cupcake store—how violence and destruction would look there.”
Ulman has never shied from the provocative. On top of conventional outputs such as video, painting, poetry, and sculpture, her recent five-month project “Excellences & Perfections”—for which she created an online persona that channelled the language, hashtags, and selfies of the most popular trends on Instagram—was an acerbic critique of those that measure life’s value through Instagramability. Ulman would save up money to stay in hotels, buy and rapidly return haute couture clothing, and even had several cosmetic procedures (facial fillers, a non-surgical nose job, and a staged breast enhancement) to embody the role.
Installation images courtesy of James Fuentes Gallery and the artist
But, in a sense, the work was too successful. The bitter irony was that many people perceived these images to be true—when the very point of the project was to subvert the assumed veracity of photographs—and they responded vitriolically. At the private view of her debut New York solo show “Stock Images of War” at James Fuentes Gallery, a stranger approached Ulman and questioned her authority on the experience of confinement, citing irrelevant images of her he’d seen online. “Why do I have to explain myself?,” the artist contends quizzically. “It’s not about me. It doesn’t have to be.”
The ongoing exhibition features a series of spotlit wire-sculpture skeletons, surrounded by an ominous wall of black drapery, while the aroma of baked apple strudel and catchy rock hits surreally suffuse the space. “It’s not a personal show,” Ulman again emphasizes, critiquing the belief that authenticity necessitates first-hand accounts. “I find it frustrating that you have to validate everything through your own lived experience; it seems like you’re not allowed to express concern with certain issues if you’re not intrinsically a part of it, with some sort of certificate of genuinity.”
Images courtesy of the artist
That being said, Ulman concedes that the show was partly influenced by a traumatic incident. A traffic accident led to two months of hospital bed-ridden, morphine-induced haze. Even on the day we meet, Ulman is a little late due to lingering leg pain. In the aftermath, she was largely incapacitated, so the wire sculptures offered a simple, lo-fi medium. “I didn’t have much access to materials, so I managed to get some wire, and started making loads of little wheelchairs,” she explains. Ulman first began making these metallic models as an impoverished London art student, consciously appropriating the techniques that Latino immigrants, ex-convicts, and junkies would employ for the fabrication of figurative crafts on sidewalks of Spain.
Do limited means necessitate creativity, I hazard. “I wouldn’t agree with that because scarcity leads to stress, and stress makes people risk-averse, which is not very good for creativity. It’s good to have some limitations, but in a capitalist system, if you are at the end of the line, there’s no time left to think,” argues Ulman, whose working-class upbringing and ensuing education in the realms of the English class system have clearly carved strong opinions. “Some limitations are fine, but people tend to romanticize poverty.”
Image courtesy of the artist
Ulman’s parents—her father an owner of a skateboard factory, her mother “a sort of Russian nihilist”—left Argentina when she was just one, planting the seeds for a nomadic lifestyle. Their destination was the windswept city of Gijón in northern Spain, until she won a scholarship to study at London’s Central Saint Martins at the age of 17. “I was an outsider,” she explains frankly. Ulman has felt like an outsider her entire life. That is, until she visited Los Angeles. “Everyone is an outsider [there] anyway: everyone has a weird story, everyone is an immigrant.”
Life is different now. “It’s not about how my legs look—it’s about having legs,” she opines. With more time focused on research, and with lectures lined up everywhere from Vienna to Helsinki, I wonder if Ulman has shifted away from her earlier interests in beauty and sexuality. “Everything is a continuation of the same body of work. My interests in the body and plastic surgery, for example, are about class and empathy. People in Korea get plastic surgery to be treated better,” she points out, revealing new depths to this compelling young artist’s work. “Everything comes on to the same hierarchy of class structure: it’s about the same kind of capitalistic violence.”
Images courtesy of the artist