Instagram Sensation Amalia Ulman on the Difference Between Fact and Fiction

A pigeon is part of the equation.

Amalia Ulman and Bob the Pigeon. Image Courtesy @amaliaulman Instagram.

Young Los Angeles-based artist Amalia Ulman is having a very good year. As one of the 9th Berlin Biennale’s participating artists, Ulman’s artistic practice could not be placed in a more appropriate context.

Heavily performance-based, the artist’s work is not just centered on the Internet’s warped social structures and artificiality, but also uses this medium for its distribution, rendering it accessible to her more than 100,000 Instagram followers, and essentially anyone with an internet connection. Ulman’s practice fluctuates between existing digitally and in real life, as much of her commentary is congruent with the relationship between digital and personal realms.

Amalia Ulman, <i>Prvilege</i> (detail) (2016). Courtesy of Hili Perlson

Amalia Ulman, Prvilege (detail) (2016). Courtesy of Hili Perlson

As for Ulman’s work included in the 9th Berlin Biennale (bb9), the piece rejects traditional notions of medium specificity. Under the single title of Privilege, (2016) Ulman’s installation is a concoction of performance, video work, sound, and animatronics, presented in a darkened room outfitted with carpet, drapes, and a dancing pole.

Coinciding with bb9, Ulman is also participating in a design project initiated by Paloma Powers, which commissioned floral arrangements from a handful of artists, including GCC’s Monira Al-Qadiri, Asger Carlsen, Rachel de Joode, and Sara Ludy, which go for between $70-80 each and launching in Berlin tonight.

Ulman’s bouquet takes the form of a bird’s nest and comes complete with cigarette butts and metal bottle caps. There’s even an egg tucked between the twigs.

Despite the chaos of setting up her piece for bb9—which also opens to the public tonight—we were able to catch up with Ulman to ask about her practice, her (symbolic) pregnancy, and her pet pigeon Bob.

Arrangement by Amalia Ulman. Photo: Alexander Coggin, florist: Buketai, location courtesy of Hotel Nhow Berlin. Project by Paloma Powers.

Arrangement by Amalia Ulman. Photo: Alexander Coggin, florist: Buketai, location courtesy of Hotel Nhow Berlin. Project by Paloma Powers.

We couldn’t help but notice the central presence of Bob the pigeon both in your Paloma Powers floral arrangement as well as in multiple cartoons and photographs that appear on your Instagram. Is Bob a pet or companion? A concept? An alternate identity?
I’m currently working on a narrative where I developed a character for myself, based on people’s projections and preconceptions about me, and I also developed the role of a sidekick and counselor, a pigeon that sneaked into my office in Downtown LA and who stayed until becoming a very important character in the story. Bob is God, Bob is whatever I want him to be… Bob is an act of faith.

Your social media-based performance work in the past has been heavily based on deception. While this is central to the ideas you focus on in your artwork, where do you draw the line?
It is very easy for me to distinguish fact and fiction. Generally, the fiction requires a level of effort in its acting, so it doesn’t feel the same as  the self-masturbatory ritual of self-love selfies. It responds more to a discipline that follows a script. But that’s one kind of production. I also love indulgence and poetry, which I think of as moments of magic and which I think feeds all of my practice on a general level, like a blanket that covers it all.

Whether you are playing a character, posting memes, or speaking from your heart, the reality is that the identity of Amalia Ulman in the public eye is fabricated from reactions to the content you share on the internet. How does this digital persona interfere with Amalia Ulman IRL? Do the two intertwine?
That’s not true that my work largely exists online, at least not for me: I’m almost never online. My practice combines some performative works with a lot of immersive installations, sculptures, video essays, soundscapes and smell compositions. My idea of self is fluid and forever changing, but with very strong constants. People that have access to my day-to-day know this, also I’m tidy when it comes to performing, I do it in private, to myself, so it doesn’t affect the people I love. I like drama as in performing, but not drama as in dramatic. My life is peaceful.

Your recent pregnancy announcement has been met with varying reactions. From a sea of congratulatory comments on your Instagram post showing a positive pregnancy stick, to distasteful jokes about child support and even speculations that Bob the pigeon might be the father. With all this media attention, how is your pregnancy proceeding?
Morning sickness doesn’t leave time to really think about this kind of comments, I can only find them interesting at most. I feel exhausted everyday, like a big balloon, so I’m just focusing on my work to be able to meet deadlines.

After the revelation of Excellences and Perfections as a performance piece, people began to catch on to your style of social critique via artful role-playing. Without the element of total credence from your audience, do you think your characters remain as powerful?
Sounds like you are equating powerful to a kind of shock-element… that “I got you” element of Excellences & Perfections. I’m really not looking for that reaction anymore, but to making things that I aesthetically enjoy and have done with creative freedom, instead of having to replicate carefully other things to make things credible. I’m not trying to make things credible.

Do you have something radically different in store ready to confuse and surprise your audience?
Haha, this is something I’d never say in an interview, no?

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics