The Instagram Hoax That Became an Art-World Sensation

How one savvy artist found a new format for an age-old line of feminist critique.

It’s a story you’ve heard before: Fresh-faced twentysomething moves to Los Angeles hoping to break into the modeling world; loses herself in the hedonistic dazzle; develops body dysmorphia and a drug habit; breaks up with her boyfriend and takes a job as an escort; hits rock bottom and goes to rehab; and eventually moves back home to rebuild with the help of her family and her renewed appreciation for life.

That’s the arc that Argentina-born artist Amalia Ulman seemed to be traversing in 2014. Her Instagram account amassed thousands of followers (100,037 as of this writing), many of whom were clearly there for the vicarious thrill of watching an attractive girl crash and burn. Then, in September of 2014, Ulman revealed that, for the last five months, her social media accounts had been an extended performance project, which she named “Excellences & Perfections.” Now, the Tate Modern has announced that it will include parts of Ulman’s project in its upcoming show, “Performing for the Camera”; London’s prestigious Whitechapel Gallery will exhibit pieces of the work as well. “It’s more than a satire,” Ulman, now 26, told the Telegraph recently. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman.”

That’s not a new insight, but Ulman’s approach is impressively novel. She describes her project as a “triptych,” with each act representing one of the narrow personas that govern the self-presentation of women online. The first was a dewy ingénue who posted photos of kittens and brunch and appeared almost exclusively in frilly whites and pinks. Ulman faked a boob job and a breakdown for her second storyline, which was inspired by Kim Kardashian and what Ulman regrettably calls the American “ghetto aesthetic.” The third character, an aficionado of meditation and avocados who used hashtags like #healthy and #namaste, owed a debt to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. Ulman says she had time to think about these three versions of femininity—and about how to weave them together into a single, tabloid-worthy redemption narrative—after her legs were severely damaged in a bus crash in 2013. 

Enthusiasts are comparing Ulman’s work to that of artist Cindy Sherman, who has been photographing herself inhabiting other identities—often with the aim of highlighting society’s narrow expectations of women—since the 1970s. “Excellences & Perfections” also has an obvious resonance with this fall’s public service announcement from Essena O’Neill, an 18-year-old model who annotated her Instagram account to show how she’d painstakingly orchestrated the effortless-looking shots. The thing that sets Ulman apart is that she presented her account as real, albeit while hinting—with her over-the-top transformation and her clearly demarcated plot points, such as the breakup that ends Part I—that it was art. The reactions of Sherman’s audience members are tempered by their awareness that what they’re seeing is art; the reactions of O’Neill’s followers were shaped by her efforts to please. Ulman’s pictures are highbrow provocation in a lowbrow milieu where viewers feel free to rate her performance in the crassest, and most representative, of terms.

The comments on Ulman’s photos provide a clear view into the mess of envy, disdain, and enthusiastic schadenfreude that the construction of femininity evokes in its audience. As Ulman starts hinting that she’s working as an escort (something that she claims she really did to make ends meet in art school), her followers seem more interested in figuring out where she goes to get her hair done, and, most importantly, “Have you experienced any breakage with your hair since bleaching?” Further along her downward slide, a post about her “self destructive” behavior and her desire to lose weight inspires a follower to pronounce, “You’re beautiful,…but borderline boring. #kindawhiney!” At rock bottom, a pixelated video of a bruised-looking Ulman weeping bears the comment, “Cry me a river.”

But the Instagram hordes are even less complimentary about Ulman’s celebrity-style renewal. “Whatever Bich u boring now,” complains one. “You’re an idiot with way too much money and no real interests,” gripes another. Ulman told the Telegraph that the antipathy extended beyond the Internet to her real life. “People started hating me,” she says. “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.”

Of course, Ulman gets the last laugh now that “Excellences & Perfections” has turned her into an art-world darling. No matter how many museums decide to exhibit her images, though, Instagram will likely remain the best place to see them. Ulman herself says she was drawn to Instagram because of its unique “cadence and rhythm”: “The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet.” Her critique of femininity may be familiar, but the characters she uses to advance it—and her platform for telling their stories—are acutely contemporary.