In an ever-expanding sea of selfies, it can be hard to distinguish vanity from Internet art. Fiona Duncan talks to the woman behind the myth: Amalia Ulman.
Amalia Ulman and I were supposed to conduct our interview in her 1987 white Volvo Sedan on our way to the Paramount Ranch art fair in the Santa Monica mountains but we were too hungover. The night before, James Michael Schaeffer Jr., the director of James Fuentes Gallery which represents Ulman in America, raised a wine glass, by then many times refilled, to the artist.We were at a phenomenally Lynchian 24-hour restaurant seated in plush brocade chairs; white roses, white tablecloths. It was the dinner afterparty of the closing night of Ulman’s solo show Stock Images of War, a series of wire-wound war vehicles framed by funereal curtains and aroma diffusers, first exhibited in New York a year before. To mark the end of her show’s Los Angeles reprise, Ulman hired a pianist named Yuriko off Craigslist, who played, at the artist’s request, U.S. military pre-mission songs such as “Rock the Casbah” in a blue ballgown of uncanny material semblance to the chairs we would soon rest in.
Aesthetic synchronicity is common in the realm of Amalia Ulman. It is both performed, intentional, and authentic, magnetic. Or so it seems from my near-sight. I see Ulman manifest. Receptive and directive, she shapes herself to the world and it to her, and this interplay, her influence, resonates. The 27-year-old Argentinian-Spanish artist is now famed — a Forbes magazine “30-under-30,” a new video at the New Museum, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, 107K Instagram followers. There’s plenty to cheers “to Amalia!” And we did. What I was toasting, though, wasn’t this list of accomplishments, so much as her love, taste, and drive — the magic that makes for meaningful hangovers.
It was driving with Ulman that I came to comprehend what an artist she is. Artists alter reality. Los Angeles looks different through her windshield. Dice decorate her car door locks. She hand-cranks her window down to smoke borrowed cigarettes. A soundtrack of unknown perfection plays through her phone. Ulman named her Volvo “Alice.” She found her on the 4th of July, “while suffering from the worst panic attack of 2015.” Alice was parked outside of a Russian Kindergarten, under white flowers in full bloom,“with a big FOR SALE sign, which felt like an omen.” Six months and three weeks later, the car would be driven by a handsome Russian-American, Ilia, Ulman’s new love (they’re so in love!), who sweetly self-designated to transport a cohort from Yuriko and beer to red wine and plush seats to an open-bar-warehouse affair.
“Flop,” Ulman texted me the morning after. Los Angeles was unusually weathered — blustering wind and faint rain. Cold. No one wanted to drive the planned hour to Paramount Ranch, so Alice stayed in her Koreatown parking spot, we stayed in bed, and I emailed Amalia questions instead.
Amalia Ulman is currently reading two books of poetry, Spring and All by William Carlos Williams and The City In Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee, alongside Jackie Wang’s Against Innocence, a pamphlet on race, and a feminist journal called LIES. She just started collecting sterling silver cutlery, is considering having a baby, and practices pole dancing twice a week. Her favourite thing to do in LA is, “watch Ilia drive Alice… the sun reflecting on his hair, my hand underneath his thigh.” At home, she subscribes to two magazines, The Economist and The New Yorker, “the latter for research — I’m interested in the cartoons, because of the drawings I’m making based on Bob’s and [my] office-art adventures.”
Bob is Ulman’s pet pigeon, a lustrously-coated “grumpy old man” she purchased at a Polleria in Vernon, California for $10. He’s the star of her latest “performance.” In addition to making sculptures, videos, and installations, @amaliaulman performs lifestyles via social media. Her grandest act, Excellences & Perfection, the piece on view at the Tate, captured contemporary performances of femininity and the interest of many. After Excellences & Perfections, Ulman’s avatar tripped to New York as a cartoon, a collaboration with artist Ed Fornieles, then she voyaged humanoid to North Korea, where she shot guns and selfies. Now, she’s broadcasting from an office building in downtown Los Angeles performing something like corporate American Boomer liberalism with a pigeon as her sidekick.
It’s absurd and serious. Ulman sketches Bob like Picasso did doves. She scripts him into gags on mansplaining, invoicing, art history, and morning after contraceptive pills. He shat all over her apartment until she bought him diapers. She researched, found, and ordered, and now changes bird diapers daily. “No one does anything with pigeons,” I remember Ulman saying on her way to buy Bob. We were in Alice, and I thought, that’s what you do — you do. Amalia Ulman makes shit up, makes it happen, and has it seem spirit-driven, and that’s an intoxicant to cheers.