Between the first post stating, ‘Excellences and Perfections’, along with a picture of the words ‘PART I’, and the end post which read, ‘THE END’ with a picture of a black and white rose, Argentinian-born Central St Martins graduate Amalia Ulman amassed hundreds of unsuspecting Instagram followers and likes – all unaware that her online persona was a hoax. The feather-blonde, pretty-in-pink, LA it-girl was a carefully crafted act, part of a clever art piece that shows, undeniably, that “being a girl is not a natural thing,” at least on social media.
Social media can be a force for positivity, but it can equally be a vain, shallow, self-indulgent thing that encourages an obsessive-compulsive kind of voyeurism among others on the same platforms. Ulman constructed a plot to carry her Instagram posts along, whereby she gets breast enlargement surgery, breaks up with her boyfriend, begins partying too hard and ends up in rehab. Of course, all of this was documented via selfie posts with witty, #humblebrag captions, highlighting the culture of oversharing that has plagued and woven itself into the very fabric of online social behaviour.
Ulman says that eventually, people began hating her. She was disillusioning those who don’t buy into the somewhat pathetic online “look at me” attitude. She says that she was suddenly this “dumb bitch” on Instagram, because she was vacuously staring into the camera and “showing her ass in pictures”. A gallery even ironically warned her that if she didn’t stop, people wouldn’t take her seriously as an artist, unaware that it was her behaviour on Instagram, albeit faked, that would cause such a buzz within the art world. Glasses would be raised to her creative genius and ability to produce a powerful social commentary, by acting in a seemingly shallow way.
“I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny,’ ”says Ulman.
“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.”
Whilst she has never said that her spoof selfies meant to criticise the female behaviour she was imitating, Ulman’s work does suggest that. Her work, dubbed ‘the first Instagram Masterpiece’, forces viewers to come face to face with the materialistic, attention-begging nature of some people online.
Being in the midst of fifth wave feminism, the idea that wearing and showing whatever you want to whomever you like is more than acceptable – it’s empowering. By this logic, the female persona perfectly embodied in Ulman’s work is justified. But are these girls that ‘Excellences and Perfections’ exemplifies, confusing half-naked selfies that ask for other people’s validation for the empowerment that feminism speaks of?
Probably, because true feminism doesn’t need approval from others.
It also most definitely doesn’t encourage the pushing of perfection. Photo editing apps, overly filtered images and clever poses that hide “imperfections” may seem harmless, but emulating perfection on social media can cause insecurity in other girls. What about the viewer who feels she doesn’t measure up to that perfectly-sculpted bum in Calvin Klein underwear, paired with a Yeezy Season 2 hoodie and a near unobtainable waistline? It becomes a sinister cycle of feeding your insecurity to others.
Aside from the body loathing the bombardment of these type of images can cause, the materialism that is also woven into this type of aesthetic adds another layer to the induced feeling of inadequacy. How many of us can really afford Chanel, Balenciaga and Hermès at all, let alone enough of it to add variety to our Instagram feeds, keeping the interest of our just as shallow followers? Are we screaming for equality so we can reduce our own value to that of a Victoria Beckham half-moon handbag and a minimalist, Vogue-editorial esque snap of our side boob? I think not.
UCL art historian Dr Cadence Kinsey says that the web is not a ‘virtual’ realm, separate from the everyday world. Rather it has been developed within the context of “a society that is fundamentally discriminatory in many ways,” pointing out (somewhat unnecessarily) that women are grossly under-represented in the software and programming industries.
“There is every reason to believe therefore, that the divisions, exclusions and prejudices of the everyday world will be reflected and repeated through the web,” she says.
Interestingly, Cadence also explains that the drop-down menus used on social media platforms encourage “highly normative behaviour,” especially in relation to gender. Essentially, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are boxing us into one of two typical gender categories.
“What Amalia’s work starkly revealed was that the more you perform according to prescribed normative behaviours, the more ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ you will receive,” suggesting that social media platforms encourage women to behave in this way, almost punishing them in the form of less likes, shares and followers if they don’t. A girl’s popularity and social rating online appear directly linked to her ability to perform as the idealised woman.
Ulman embodies this within her work with the roles she plays: the ‘girl next door’, the ‘life goddess’ and the ‘sugar baby’. “Unlike the early web, which cyber-feminists used to explore alternative and non-binary forms of identity, the platforms that characterise the web we have today funnel our profiles through increasingly standardised templates,” says Cadence.
During her Instagram spoof, Ulman’s profile was dotted with images of “inspirational”, pseudo-profound quotes that are annoyingly popular among certain types of social media users. A group of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada published a study which found that those who buy into intellectual sounding statements – that are essentially a collection of buzzwords with no relevant point – are associated with lower levels of intelligence. Make of that what you will.
It has also been suggested that today’s teenage girls can be exposed to more images of perfection in one day than their parents saw across the whole span of their childhood and teenage years. It’s no wonder, therefore, that body dysmorphia and eating disorders continue to afflict more and more young women each year.
This is why Ulman’s Instagram spoof is more than just a quick laugh at the unnecessary effort that goes into being a girl online (while also exploring the idea of gender being a construct altogether), but something that forces us to confront the darker reasons behind the construction of the facile female social media persona.
You can see the full piece on the artist’s Instagram page: @amaliaulman.
Amalia Ulman’s ‘Excellences and Perfections’ is currently showing as part of the ‘Electronic Superhighway 2016-1966’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (London, E1, 020 7522 7888) and will be showing as part of the ‘Performing for the Camera’ exhibition at the Tate Modern from Feb 18th (London, SE1, 020 7887 8888)