The first time we speak over Skype, it’s 11p.m. in Gijon, Spain, and Amalia Ulman is sitting with her laptop outside a street cafe, shivering. Home has no wifi, so this is her office: a rock bench and the sea as a backdrop. The next time we speak, the scene is very different—she is alone, in a hotel room. Dressed in a silky beige robe, she sits on a chair, one arm dangled out the window to flick her cigarette. It’s hard not to notice the purple scars that run down her legs; the last visible reminder of a severe Greyhound bus crash last October that left the 25-year-old artist hospitalized for months. “I’m turning into myself again, which is good,” she says. “Now I have limitations and have to take care of my body more than ever before, physically and emotionally.”
For Ulman, an artist whose works are so closely tied to her personal identity, art is a way to feel useful. Argentine born, Spanish raised, and London educated, Ulman now resides in Los Angeles, where she plans to spend her summer isolated in her practice. Her work—which spans poetry, graphic design, video, iOS mobile uploads, and installation—is equal parts pretty and political. Immediately recognizable for its clean, Hallmark stationery-like aesthetic, her aim is to playfully scrutinize class and power relations. In conversation, bursts of childlike enthusiasm punctuate heavier undertones. In every revelation, Ulman suggests hidden reserves. “I’ve always been silly to protect myself from all the darkness,” she says in a hybrid Spanish accent. “I don’t think anyone understands anything I do unless they have had a pillow conversation with me. And I love pillow talk.”
Art by women—even the most successful women—sells for far less than art made by men. What type of sexism have you encountered in the art world? How do you address it?
There’s a machismo similar to that in every other business. Therefore, even if you find some individuals (I happen to know young successful male artists with beautiful gender politics) that are not sexist, they probably happen to be an exception to the rule. The system is still a little chauvinistic, and the art world is especially misogynistic. I’ve always had immense respect for any female artist even if I disliked their work, just because I know how rough it is. I know of so many deals that have been closed in an all male petit-comité, randomly and after a few beers and some coke. The problem is that in an atmosphere like this, women become some sort of entertainment, and if the female artist happens to be attractive, then the purchases are symbolic, as if someone was buying her arms, or her lips, or one toe. I’m very proud of the increasing numbers of women in the art world; not as receptionists, but as directors of their own projects. Also, it’s great to work with them: women are such an easy target for criticism and so scared of failing that they work like machines. In this case, Rozsa Farkas (from Arcadia Missa) is worth being mentioned; it’s incredible what she has been able to build from scratch.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing?
I’d be a librarian. Or maybe not, maybe I’d be a hit-woman or have a career in politics.
In a short poem, describe your childhood.
Junkies are always sorry
And the streets are always wet
Clip from “The Immigrant” (2014)
You’ve said you grew up poor. What did poverty look like for your family?
Poverty is relative. I never felt poor; I had only realized that I had been unprivileged through the eyes of others, when I moved out of town, out of comparison. In relation to my neighbors I was a princess: My mother loved me. In any case, it looked like mashed potatoes, rain, concrete, and junkies. And I remember heating my jeans with a hairdryer in the morning, before going to school. And couples matching tracksuits on Sundays. I have vivid memories of my first boyfriend, too. I mean, the main one, because I was polygamous as a child.
Describe your relationship with divinity in song. Your vocal proficiency is unimportant.
Draw a scenario/symbol/picture/place/object etc. that defines the last 4 cities you have lived.
I’ve travelled worldwide from bed to bed.
Receiving flowers has become
An obscene joke and nurses
Laugh at the distressful
Quantities which make my
Room smell like a…
– Promise A Future, 2013
Clip from “Jane B. by Agnes V.” (1987)
How has the crash impacted your work?
I don’t know if it has impacted my work; but it has definitely changed my modus operandi: I don’t take shit from people no more. If it hurts, I complain, I scream. Also, I had to learn to ask for help. I always used to find it embarrassing but now that I’ve learned, I’ve gotten to know so many people much better this way. Now, I’m applying that to the way I produce things; not only asking people to grab things for me, but getting involved in larger projects because I now know how to do collaborative work.
Scene from “No Such Thing” (2001)
You currently have two shows in L.A., Used and New and Delicious Works. What were some recurring ideas/themes you had in mind when creating work for these shows?
I focused on my research up until the moment of the crash. For many years I’ve been interested in the idea of the unprivileged woman and the subsequent cliché: Stories of prostitutes, abuse, poverty, servants, concubines, slaves. The portrait of a peasant with a handkerchief and a dirty face. The dutiful nurse. One of my favourite sources right now are South Korean movies about housemaids or poor girls who make their way up because of their beauty: Beauty saves them. Wealthy man wants to fuck the sweet innocent maid and suddenly she is the lady of the house. The story begins again, maybe in another movie, with the husband and the nanny of the former-servant now turned mother.
Scene from “The Servant” (2010)
One of my favorite things is to sit at the sauna in WiSpa and stare at these dramas. They all share the same structure and explain very well how in many places, beauty (and therefore plastic surgery) is an asset that can transcend class structures.
Clip from a Seeking Arrangement ad
I believe in scholarships, education and independence, and always had a weird sense of what is beautiful and what is not. In terms of mainstream beauty I consider myself a total voyeur; I’m fascinated by people’s obsession with their bodies and the quest for self-improvement. Things like not having a forehead that is round enough, for example. Especially because I think that all gaze can be re-educated. When in love, your gaze changes. When working in the sex industry, your gaze changes too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about your recent tweet “I love men but I like women better: they’ll get my nudes now.” Is this a refocusing, or re-educating of that male gaze?
I like nudes. I like receiving nudes as much as sending them. Female nudes are beautiful and so is male nudity. My favorite nude is the friendly nude; it’s just a petit momento mori to share with others: This is how my body looks like at this very moment. My best friend sent me a dick pic for my birthday and I thought it was the most beautiful present I ever received. I’ve always been very open about sharing nudes with people, not as a flirtatious thing but more in a friendly way, as I’ve said. This has obviously led to much disappointment. Men seem to be looking for a hidden value behind these images. For example, I had a friend to whom I used to send nudes. I’d do so while simultaneously sending the same images to female peers, but differently from them, he’d gather them to make value out of them: he started a collection to trade with other men. That’s why I started sharing my nakedness with women only. Not every man is ready to confront female bodies.
Scene from “The Taste Of Tea”
In hashtags, what is America?
What was your experience being a student at Central Saint Martins?
Teachers were frustrated. I really believe that practicing artists shouldn’t be allowed to teach arts. Art theorists, art critics, people with degrees in art history: yes. Even psychologists, or philosophers—but not artists. These people do ruin people’s lives, using inexperienced students as vessels for their frustration. Artists in art schools should just give lectures once in a while, and that’s about it.
How’s life in LA?
Los Angeles is the city of outsiders and as such I feel at home there. It just feels like the end of the world everyday. There’s no sense of time because there are no seasons. I love the sun too. And it seems that I like earthquakes. Los Angeles is like a dream, but like every dream there’s a moment you have to wake up, get up and move—that’s why I like coming back to Europe once in a while, for a reality check and to inform my practice. If I didn’t do that, I feel I would end up drowning in glitter and flowers before I even realized.
Clip from “Jane B. by Agnes V.” (1987)
What’s inspiring you now?
Right now I’m starting a period of isolation/research for a project involving a full immersion in screen reality, by, let’s say, acting in my own social-media movie. A sequel of Buyer, Walker, Rover, which was a video essay about experiencing the city by walking and finding hidden stories/value in the objects from dollar stores. The new film is going to be about driving (in Los Angeles) and the body as object, as investment, interpreting the culture of makeover, the appeal of beauty as a promise of happiness and the face as a mirror for the soul—or Kalokagatheia.
So, right now, I’m doing lots of research on plastic surgery and the body as a screen where culture sees itself reflected. One of my favorite websites is realself.com, where people keep track of all the pre- and post- surgery processes, with all their insecurities and expectations; something in the line of the fasting diaries that were focus of my practice two years ago. They are narratives in the shape of journals that are deeply influenced by the physical estate of the writers — almost like the poetry I wrote at the hospital under the influence of morphine injections. The world of the aesthetic clinics is only a part of the project; I will also be focusing on the inner side of beauty, like nutrition, meditation, exercise and breathing techniques–and clichés on what is expected of women in terms of character and presence. Doing a critique on physiognomy and eugenics.
I’ve been working with Nina Cristante for a while. I follow the menus she has tailored for me based on my blood tests, to maximize cognitive labor (by avoiding migraine triggers). We keep track of the feelings associated with the food ingested too; which again, is related to the narratives I mentioned before.
But going back to the physical and spiritual conventions attributed to women, these ideals, of softness, of blandness, are related to previous works I’ve done on the idea of cute; with a recurring imagery of pearls, hearts, coffee art, wavy willows and motivational slogans. So in the end, my interests now, are a further analysis on the aesthetics of the normal — and how that applies to human bodies. I’m a great fan of the work made by artists such as Orlan, Eduardo Kac and Stelarc, but would like to approach the same matters from another perspective, avoiding the typical “grotesque” generally attributed to consumerism and plastic surgery.
Scene from “The Concubine” (2012)
You’re a feminist with an interest in sex work. What’s your position towards prostitution?
My research in sex work comes first from an interest in informal economies (because it is criminal, because it is service work and because it is mostly gendered as female) and secondly from an interest in the concept of the other. If women are the second sex then prostitutes are the ultimate other, or the other’s other. For a long while, prostitutes were considered the counterpart to the male criminal, for example.
I’m all for a further analysis of the sex industry, trying to go one step beyond the “empowering” side of it and the idea of the prostitute as victim. Destroying the virgin/whore hierarchy. Previous artworks of mine have had the middle-brow as main protagonist and I would like to bring such analysis to this terrain. Most of the thing’s I’ve seen are either mystifying or demonizing and I’d like to change that. I’m more interested in its commercial side and its relation to the leisure and service economies, and how it could overlap with travel, beauty, dining, and entertainment.
Furthermore, because there is an electronic economy of looking good, nowadays, people’s online presence almost turns all work into sex-work, and even artists have been taking advantage of this, commoditizing their self-image (selfies) in support of their art practices –for good and bad because this obviously generates many “blurred lines.”
Scene from “The Concubine” (2012)
What advice would you give to those interested in sex work?
1. Trust no one.
2. Meet up in places where you could escape running.
3. It doesn’t matter if you are a hooker: if it isn’t consensual, it is rape.
4. Perform and enjoy.
Your poetry is dark yet hopeful. What does the writing process look like?
Almost always involves a bed, or a floor. I like lying on the floor. I’m a very horizontal person. I like beds. I also prefer hotel rooms. I LOVE hotels.
When you cry do you use a tissue?
Tears are precious. I love crying because I don’t cry often. When I do, I want to believe it is special. Although, truthfully, I only mean it one percent of the time. I think I fake cry out of social conventions, like a child. I’d like to keep my tears in a jar in case I never cry again.