Excellences & Perfections is a book you can hold in your hands. It chronicles an 2014 performance by Amalia Ulman, who’s been called “the first great Instagram artist.” How do you turn an online performance, which depends on context (or the lack thereof) for its impact, into a book? Excellences & Perfections shows one way, and if it’s not the best way, well, it’s only reasonable to allow for a little trial and error.
To be clear, Ulman isn’t the kind of artist who fills her feed with craft or calligraphy. She’s a performance artist, one of the first to use social media as a primary channel and attract the attention of major art-world institutions: Excellences & Perfections was featured at the Tate Modern in 2016.
Ulman’s project in Excellences & Perfections was to skate along and then outside the line between fact and fiction. Already established, though not to her current extent, as an artist, she began a four-month performance in which she adopted the online persona of a would-be influencer.
Using her own account and image, Ulman started posting photos and videos that fit a pattern commonly followed by “influencers”: people who attract a following of people whose clicks and eyeballs can ultimately be traded for potentially lucrative endorsements. Some influencers gain fame through extra-digital means, for example competing on reality TV — but others just become “Instagram famous.” Ulman started to look a lot like someone who was trying to get Instagram famous.
Between snaps of kittens and coffee, Ulman chronicled what came across as the perfectly plausible life of a beautiful young woman. She seemed to endure a breakup, and she Instagrammed the effects of what appeared to be a breast augmentation procedure. The “does she or doesn’t she?” ideal of baby boomers doesn’t fly on Instagram, where you’ll get far more engagement for “opening up” about cosmetic surgery than you will for just showing up with slightly bigger breasts one day.
The results were predictable, more or less. She attracted both supporters and haters, and her following seemed to explode. Lest you think that fact alone constitutes evidence regarding the social traction of an artist versus a basic Insta-babe, bear in mind that many of Ulman’s new “followers” were actually bots purchased by another artist who undertook a kind of counter-demonstration.
In the end, when everything was signed and sealed, Ulman could claim credit for making the biggest splash yet with a sort of online descendent of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, crossed with Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic. The fact that her online persona wasn’t a radical departure from her actual life added to the frisson. “I used to take you seriously as an artist until I found out via Instagram you had the mentality of a 15 year old hood rat,” read one particularly revealing comment.
As the new book demonstrates, however, the very nature of social-media art makes it difficult to adequately represent within the confines of traditional art spaces — including between hard covers.
Before we see a single image aside from the one embossed on the cover, we have to wade through elliptical essays by Rózsa Farkas, Natasha Stagg, Hito Steyerl, and Rob Horning — the latter, in a text derived from a live Google Doc chat with Ulman. Only having paid thusly paid obeisance to Benjamin and Foucault can we proceed to encounter images taken from Ulman’s performance.
On the pages, isolated from text, the images are pretty and mundane. Where provocative, they intentionally don’t exceed the confines of what you might reasonably expect to encounter daily on Instagram: a network that keeps a tighter rein on explicit content than do competitors like Snapchat or Tumblr. The posts that seem most unusual are collections of poses that look unresolved, as though Ulman never quite found the perfect selfie pose but decided to post her efforts anyway.
What the reader who hasn’t previously encountered the project might not realize is that many of the posts were actually videos, captured here in still frame. The loss of that animation, though, is much less consequential than the detachment of the images from their captions. Having just read sentences like, “What is real is what one can achieve with the tactics of postproduction, the overt sophistry,” we’re spared the jarring transition to “Omg i dieeeee so fucking cutee.”
You don’t need to be a member of the “mentality of a hood rat” school of belief regarding informal internet language to understand that captions like “I wish i cud stay home home” are critical to the effect of the images in Excellences & Perfections. The comments, too — so key to the perception of this performance — are exiled to the back of the book.
Smack dab in the middle of the book are bound a series of “Ananda Letters,” which chronicle Ulman’s experiences at a meditation retreat. At the time she decided not to include material from the retreat in her Excellences & Perfections project; here, the text adds context to some of the themes and experiences she was considering when creating this performance. Still, it underlines the challenges in translating this digital work to a bound, linear format.
Many of the posts are still archived on Ulman’s Instagram, and that’s the best way to dive into this project. Once you’ve clicked your way through the carefully filtered world of “Amalia” circa 2014, you can take a step back and revisit that world at the remove of the printed page. Whether online or on paper, Amalia gazes out at you with her languid doe eyes, daring you to define their influence.