Amalia Ulman has had (art) work done. Over the past couple weeks, the artist has chronicled her boob job—450cc of high profile anatomical silicon gel implants—in detail on social media. Last month, she discussed her facial-filler surgery and non-surgical nose job with Art in America and live at the Swiss Institute. What Ulman’s doing is hardly exceptional—nearly 300,000 breast augmentation surgeries were performed in the U.S. in 2012—and that’s exactly the point. She’s taking normcore to its logical conclusion, literally embodying blandness through surgical modification.
Being radical (or at the very least being relevant) by being the least radical possible is a #trending idea that’s been manifesting itself for a while now, from fast-food logos on gallery walls to Nike sneakers on gallery girls. Ulman’s is a slightly different variation of the same. She is self-consciously middle-class aspirational, preferring the beige tones of a latte (which the New York Times recently declared “no longer an upper-class drink”) and mass-produced objects of interior decor like the wavy willows that you’d find in any hotel lobby, hair salon, or office front desk. And now, she has the botox or augmented breasts you might find on any receptionist in any of those spaces. Talking with Art In America, she notes the “blandness” with which she approaches plastic surgery in contrast to the “very kitsch, bloody and extreme” approach that artists like Orlan have had. Her aspirations echo trend forecasters K-Hole’s explanations of normcore and acting basic as desires for “sameness,” “non-exclusivity,” and “being nothing special.”
There’s obviously a gendered to aspect to Ulman’s work too. Her post boob-job seflies aren’t just normcore, they’re also girlcore, what artist Mary Bond defined as a coven of artists exploring gendered stereotypes “in a very intensely girlsh way that ends up infuriating a lot of people because girlish things are considered inferior.” The comments on Ulman’s social media smack of the typical prejudices. The relevance of selfie artists of my generation is proven by the disproportionate amount of shade they still receive. But it’s worth noting that they’re mostly white, mostly skinny, mostly conventionally attractive young women. While their intentional attention-whoring works to undo our knee-jerk reactions to slut-shame women, they tend to reinforce and capitalize on the rest of our cultural bullshit. To fault them for it, though, is probably to hold them to standards we rarely hold male artists to. Still, it’s worth it to bringing up their relative privilege into this conversation because it’s what Ulman’s work simultaneously replicates and complicates.
Plastic surgery promises to make possible for all (or at least more) the thinness, whiteness, and symmetrical features that most of these selfie artists naturally possess. But possible is different from accessible. Plastic surgery is the opposite of the great equalizer. Tyra Banks predicts that in the future, “plastic surgery will be as easy and quick as going to the drugstore for Tylenol” but “because beauty will be so readily accessible and skin color and features will be similar, prejudices based on physical features will be nearly eradicated. Prejudice will be socioeconomically based.”
The most interesting implications of Ulman’s pursuit of blandness might be its relationship to the increasing presence of Big Brother. Kate Crawford has put the fashion trend of normcore in the context of big data and surveillance. “I think it captures precisely this moment of mass surveillance meeting mass consumerism,” she explains. “It reflects the dispersed anxiety of a populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity.” To follow this line of thought, aspirationally bland plastic surgery and facial reconstruction is perhaps most provocative to consider in tandem with the increasingly sophisticated facial recognition software. Is a nose job what can save us from drone-automated minority report profiling? But, ultimately, the question is who will be able to afford that nose job?
Ulman’s journey into plastic surgery seems to be the latest art world foray into critiquing capitalism by taking it to its extreme. I’m beginning to feel disheartened by this being the only (or at least the most popular) way we seem to know to respond to our commercialism, commodification, and an increasingly corporate enterprise-dominated world, especially when the art world itself is becoming increasingly accessed only through expensive MFAs and accessible to those who can afford them. When artists critique middle-class capitalism by performing things normal people do normally, it seems to only draw attention to the privilege of the artist. (Even if we don’t have material wealth we, Ulman and I, and probably anyone reading this article, have cultural capital not everyone is afforded.) I just wonder if capitalism is so inescapable that there is no radical alternative left to us other than performing it? I hope that’s not the case.
UPDATE: There is now speculation that Ulman’s plastic surgery is now an elaborate hoax. See below.