A Character Study With Amalia Ulman
Originally shown in 2017 at James Fuentes in New York, Ulman’s reinterpretation of “Dignity” for Frieze brings back her characteristic elements of a cloud-print ceiling made of styrofoam office tiles and a metallic stripper pole with a curved top, nodding to an accident that left her disabled and reliant on the use of a cane. This edition however, sees her room bedecked in blue instead of her signature red color, and the inclusion of a branded photo booth leans into the obligatory photo-opp that art has become a vehicle for. A commentary on “the art world as entertainment” (and Instagram fodder), the photo booth invites fairgoers to participate in Ulman’s work, becoming part of the performance that she has set up.
Known for outfitting everyone from bohemian comfort-seekers to celebrities in functional footwear, Birkenstock debuted its first foray into luxury fashion with the new Birkenstock 1774 collection in partnership with MATCHESFASHION at Frieze. A collaboration with the legendary sandal company links Ulman’s recurring exploration and fashion’s ability to create imaginary characters. After all, all the world’s a stage, and Dignity sits smack dab in the middle of one the world’s greatest—Hollywood itself.
We caught up with Amalia below for her commentary:
What was the inspiration behind the project and what references did you look at when beginning the piece?
This work comes from the Privilege series which, like other works of mine, looks at spaces that are categorized as neutral or "normal" (instead of feminine or ethnic, etc.) by the ruling classes.
The element of performance is quite prevalent in your work. How does the photobooth play into this?
This part of the installation was determined before I even started working on the installation. It wasn't my idea originally but I like the idea of a Photo Booth especially when it gives a printed photograph. I like the lives this piece of paper can have. I still print a lot of photographs myself and like finding them unexpectedly.
How does a work such as "Dignity" play out in the context of an art fair versus a gallery space, where many of the themes such as power structures, privilege, and celebrity are literally at play?
I don't think art happens at the gallery, or the fair, or the museum. Art happens somewhere else. I don't prioritize one exhibition sphere over another, I don't think there's any difference, in the end, they all respond to the same capitalist needs. There are few exceptions but they always seem too pure to survive.
What do the elements of the blue walls, the stripper pole, and the clouded sky symbolize in the work?
The whole idea behind the Privilege series was to generate content based on a character that was an exaggeration of myself and the strange period of time the performance took place (the 2016 US presidential election). The blue sky was taken from the office ceiling where the content was filmed in Downtown Los Angeles, the stripper pole is a reference to Excellences & Perfections, the cane is a reference to... well, my own cane (I have a disability). Things just work or not. I just saw this room in my head and thought it worked. Deconstructing it won't really go anywhere. Art shouldn't be explained.
How has your work evolved with the changing landscape of social media?
I was never interested in social media but on the internet at large. My background is in internet art. I care about social media insofar as that it says something new about the economy and human relations.
Your “Dignity” installation incorporates red carpet images of yourself photoshopped with semen superimposed onto your face. Was this inspired by an interest in celebrity culture?
I don't care that much about celebrity culture. When I worked on the images that are also titled Dignity, I was more interested in the sexuality of the men photoshopping these red carpet images. The amount of care and attention to detail given to something others might consider degrading fascinates me.
What do you think of the fact that the Frieze art fair is located on a Hollywood studio backlot? Does this say anything about the relationship between celebrity and the art world to you?
When I think of the Hollywood studio backlot I don't think of celebrity but of films and fiction. I love movies but I also lived in LA for long enough to know that the representation of Los Angeles in films is nothing like Los Angeles itself. I'm very interested in propaganda and I can happily say that I lived in the biggest propaganda factory there is. To me, the relationship between the art world and celebrity is a distraction. There are way too many young talented artists not getting the recognition they deserve because their parents aren't famous, it's sad.
How does your work lend itself to a collaboration with a fashion footwear brand such as Birkenstock? Were you thinking about the brand at all while being commissioned or did you create the project independently?
I was approached by Frieze because of my site-specific immersive installations, so I worked with Frieze and Birkenstock to bring back some of these works with complete creative freedom. The only thing I had in mind was that there would be a frontal photograph being taken, which is very specific. Sometimes amazing installations don't work well in their photographic documentation and vice versa, I was trying to find a balance between what felt good in person and looked good on paper.
Do you wear Birkenstocks? If so, in what situations?
I do. I have a pair for the swimming pool and another to walk around during the summertime. I have a disability so they are lifesavers.
In the past, you’ve personified different characters and identities for your work. Do you occupy these personas in real life as well?
No. When I act, it is for a specific work, as if it were a play. There are rehearsals and stage work. Offstage, I don't do that. I just finished shooting a feature film where I did perform a character. Now, I'm only dealing with post-production as a director. If that's a persona, I guess I'm playing the character of a stressed filmmaker looking for post-production funding [laughs].
What are you working on next? Where will your next project take you?
I'm currently writing the script to a new video essay and finishing my first feature film, which is one of the biggest projects I worked on, a dark comedy about eviction.
What was the last thing you lied about?
I'm autistic so I can't lie. It is a problem.