Amalia Ulman: self-made woman

By Annabel Brady-Brown

The Argentinian-born artist plays with personas in her debut feature film ‘El Planeta’

Amalia Ulman stars as Leo in El Planeta. Image courtesy of Melbourne International Film Festival.

In 2016, the artist and filmmaker Amalia Ulman posted to Instagram an image taken in her Los Angeles office, showing a positive home pregnancy test. The caption read: “BOOM haha”. To a journalist who asked the then-27-year-old about the online reaction to her announcement, Ulman said, “Morning sickness doesn’t leave time to really think about this kind of comments … I feel exhausted everyday, like a big balloon, so I’m just focusing on my work to be able to meet deadlines.” Over the following months, she posted selfies charting her bulging belly and a baby shower with her Argentinian grandmother, before eventually confessing that the “pregnancy” was just part of her latest multi-platform performance, Privilege (2015–16) – an arch corporate self-caricature, in which Ulman also posed for mock and real high-end fashion endorsements and transformed her pet pigeon into an art-world franchise.

The denouement riled some of Ulman’s followers, but it was merely the latest in her long-running series of role-play games. Her breakthrough, the four-month scripted Instagram ruse Excellences and Perfections (2014), saw her tap the fantasy worlds of social media, mounting the doom spiral of an LA hopeful in three notoriously convincing acts, while Ulman’s video art, sculpture, installations and PowerPoint lectures have made her a fixture of the millennial net-art scene, with exhibitions at Tate Modern and the New Museum. Her most recent staged production – El Planeta, her directorial feature debut, which makes its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival – is tantalisingly on theme. The sly comedy stars Ulman and her mother as two petty scam artists facing eviction.

Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Gijón, Spain, Ulman left in 2009 to enrol in a fine arts degree, “because I just couldn’t even imagine directing a film myself,” she says, speaking over Zoom. “I only knew what I could do on my own, which was taking photographs and performing for the camera, by myself. And that snowballed.” The idea for El Planeta was also born from a photograph. Four years ago, her mother sent her a tabloid snap of Justina and Ana Belén, a mother-daughter duo who amassed unpaid bills totalling nearly 6000 euros by passing as wealthy. They spun tales to fruit vendors and hoteliers about their chalet being renovated, and invented a relationship with a local councillor. As one newspaper reported, “They accumulated that debt by eating, drinking and buying shoes.”

“I thought it was fascinating,” said Ulman. “It’s not about them specifically, it’s more about how they represent my city. They got away with such a weird lie … I also thought it was funny that they could go around saying that, as that would never be the case for either my mother or I because we’re immigrants, we’re foreigners.”

A traditionally working-class city in Spain’s north-west, Gijón is depicted in El Planeta’s mannered black-and-white lensing as a sleepy seaside enclave where the elderly are outnumbered only by the “for sale” signs plastered across empty buildings – symptoms of the 2008 global financial crisis from which the country still hasn’t recovered. Ulman describes it as “a small town where there were no other immigrants”, and her love-hate relationship with the place is palpable in the film. “When you’ve spent your whole life trying to be part of something and still not being welcome in the club, you have this tension with it. I do love Spain … but at the end of the day, I’ve never been treated well by Spain.”

Dressed in a Moschino zebra-print suit, Ulman plays Leo, an under-employed stylist who is back living with María (Ale Ulman), her never-employed mother. The result lands somewhere between bourgeois cosplay and wry social critique. With no income between them, and about to lose their apartment, the women are left trading on their appearances to survive. The pair manage to net designer dresses and boxes of pastries because they are “traditionally Spanish, conservative characters”, Ulman explains.

“That’s why sometimes I’m surprised by people trying to make the film more autobiographical than it actually is. Some facts might be taken from my life but the characters themselves are purely fictional, or based on other people … I don’t even like saying, ‘Oh, it has some truth to it,’” she says, though Ulman and her El Planeta alter ego share biographical details both formative and Lilliputian – from her character’s references to the bus crash that left Ulman with a chronic disability, and the eviction that Ulman and her mother really did experience after her father sued and won ownership of the property, to her beloved cat Holga, whose face is printed on calendars and cushions inside the apartment. Such echoes sporadically peel back the fiction to “expose” the artist at work.

In Ulman’s mind, the response says more about the coded ways people read certain artforms. “Because the film has touches of cinéma-vérité, in the sense that it’s black-and-white or something, they think the film is real. It’s not a documentary … That is a set; that is not the house where I grew up, those are not our clothes … but people have a hard time believing it’s fiction … It tells you a lot about the aesthetics of the genuine and the real.”

Recalling the mirroring strategies used by the chameleon photographer Cindy Sherman (who shares Ulman’s fondness for prosthetics) or, more recently, the pop idol Lana Del Rey, Ulman takes on personas and manipulates archetypes and clichés, abstracting herself into glittering billboards of female fantasy that often reveal more about our desires than her own. In El Planeta, these include the genre of the bildungsroman and the trope of the impoverished antihero. “I work a lot with ready-mades and templates. I like playing with formats in ways that maybe haven’t been played with before, or doing it intentionally, instead of just taking it for granted because of the aesthetics,” she says. “Part of that was shooting a film as a typically European film, because it’s set in a European town, it’s about Europe in decline etc. etc. So the fact that it looks like a nouvelle vague film, it’s not a coincidence.”

Rather than just reflecting an image-obsessed society, Ulman believes her approach is “very specific”: “I’m autistic and I grew up learning to be a human by watching other people. I think that has informed a lot of my practice, like taking on characters, developing stories. Because that’s the way I relate to the world … I mean, life is easier for me now because I’m thirty-something, but 10 years ago I didn’t have the experience that I have today. I rely on sort of databases of emotions and situations and things like that to pull up from – the younger I was, the less I had. I grew up looking, like really trying to understand why people do certain things; cinema was always an escape, cinema saved my life many times.

“There’s so many references to film [in El Planeta] because I love film,” she continues, noting the shadow cast by the grifters who populate not only the French New Wave but also the New York No Wave and, further back, pre-Code crime capers like Trouble in Paradise (1932). “I find [them] fascinating because they have the humour that current class films do not have … They’re usually darker, they’re usually about killing someone or committing suicide,” she laughs.

Seizing upon its chatty minimalism and self-reflexive psychic drift, many have also likened El Planeta to the work of Éric Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo (whose Introduction screens at MIFF). “The Hong Sang-soo reference I like because he is always analysing himself,” says Ulman. “All the films are about, like, [silly female voice] ‘Dear film director, I love you so much, let’s have an affair,’” she laughs. And I love the way he plays with format. One of my favourites is Right Now, Wrong Then [2015], which basically makes you watch the same movie twice but with minor alterations; I think that’s brilliant.” In particular, there’s an echo of Hong’s signature zooms in the gimcrack beauty of Ulman’s PowerPoint-style transitions between scenes, which Ulman says were important for her to retain a reference to her video art, “to not lose it completely”.

“I’m attracted to lower forms of art, to certain things other people consider vulgar or ugly, but I’m genuinely into them, it’s not a parody. For example, when I do things with PowerPoint it’s because I actually really love the PowerPoint aesthetics; I collect them, I have folders and folders of them on my computer … that’s one of the reasons I like [cinema] because it’s such an open art form, it reaches so many people. Coming from fine arts, anything that is narrative is always looked down upon – which is something I struggle with because I’m a very narrative person, I love creating fiction.”


El Planeta will screen in the Melbourne International Film Festival (August 12–22) and the Sydney Film Festival (November 3–14, full program announced soon).

Annabel Brady-Brown

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies magazine and film editor at The Big Issue. @annnabelbb

Amalia Ulman stars as Leo in El Planeta. Image courtesy of Melbourne International Film Festival.

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