Amalia Ulman interviewed by Luca Massaro
Photographer: Luca Massaro
Stylist: Sofia Prandoni
Make-Up: Marika Zanella
Hair: Paolo Crepaldi
Interview: Luca Massaro
Special Thanks: Giovani Spera, Giorgia Caboni
Photography Assistants & Location: Giorgia Caboni, Giovanni Spera, Roberta Netto
Amalia Ulman (b. 1989) is an artist with an of ce in downtown L.A. Born in Argentina but raised in Spain, she studied Fine Arts at Central Saint Martins in London. Ulman’s performance Excellences & Perfections was archived by Rhizome and the New Museum (New York) and exhibited at the Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery (London). Her most recent works are the video essay Annals of Private History (Frieze live, 2015), and Privilege (online performance, 2016) and its subsequent solo shows: Labour Dance at Arcadia Missa (London), Reputation at New Galerie (Paris), Dignity at James Fuentes (New York), Intolerance at Barro (Buenos Aires), Monday Cartoons at Deborah Schamoni (Munich), Atchoum! at Galerie Sympa (Figeac) and New World 1717 at Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai). www.amaliaulman.eu
Luca Massaro (Reggio Emilia, 1991) is an artist, photographer and founder of Gluqbar in Milano. His rst book about the intersection of Image and Word was published by Danilo Montanari Editore. The new work Vietnik has been published by Gluqbar Editions: the series has been selected for Cosmos Award Arles, Portfo- lio Review Düsseldorf, Aperture Ideal Bookshelf, GiovaniArtistiItaliani, and exhibited at Metronom, Museo MAR, Energie Diffuse, Fotogra a Europea Festival.. Commissioned works includes Alla Carta, Max Mara, Purple Magazine, Rivista Studio, Rolling Stone. www.lucamassaro.net
Sofia Prandoni (Milano,1993) is a freelance stylist living and working in Milano. Recent works include Valentino, Marella, Dondup, Bottega Veneta, Vogue.it www.sofiaprandoni.com
“My first Venice, a one-hour Venice, is a rainy, non-autumnal, summer Venice. And also, so in memory, a Venice abroad. (..) The road gave me the indefinable melancholy of a museum of orgies at dawn or, if you want, of a film seen «twenty years later»”
I reread Due Venezie by Sandro Penna from my phone as a guide to this Venetian weekend, while the night vaporetto takes me to Giardini, where I meet Amalia Ulman, lying on a bench, upside down. She tastes her first Spritz and guides me around the city that she already knows better than me. The next day I find myself asking for information in English. An hard rain surprises us and we miss the chance to take some photos as I had thought; but the photographic studio set up in a room, perhaps separates us from the Venice of Biennale, of pigeons, of San Marco, and allows us to speak only of Amalia’s new films. She talks to me about theater and cinema and how she looks up to Kay Francis and Buster Keaton today, even when she shoots her films with a selfie stick or iPhone default filters (There Then, 2019 is on view at Ordet Milano until September 14th). She tells me she “recently discovered” Leonard Cohen. I am reminded of Carmelo Bene, his “depensamento”, to “make one’s own language stutter”. I’m going back to Milano and Amalia is going to Yoga now, and I ask her if she’s aware of Neti Neti practices. Her answer “I don’t but I do”.
Hi Amalia, we’re in Venice, home of Commedia dell’Arte, and you’re coming from Los Angeles, another kind of “fictional city”: a modern Venice, where biopics, reality tv and identity politics converge, making fiction a big part of reality. What are you doing here and how do you like Italy so far?
I’ve been in Italy before but never to Venice. I really love reading on the Vaporetto at sunset. I like it so much I’ve read three books already: Oval by Elvia Wilk, Imaginary Museums by Nicolette Polek and The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde.
I’m in Venice for a residency. I will be conducting an actor’s workshop at the University of Venice. The workshop is a modernized version of traditional method acting techniques that incorporates web-surfing and the use of social media “in character” for character development.
I’m currently working on a film, so I will be simultaneously guiding the workshop’s participants throughout the exercises while also preparing my own role.
You told me the city you grew up in (Gijón, Spain) looks like a kind of Spanish Venice. Tell us about your next project there, El Planeta.
I was born in a place that was officially founded in 1944, a small coastal town in South America. But I grew up in a place that predates the Roman Empire, Cimadevilla, a small neighborhood in Asturias, the North of Spain. Like Venice, its history is long and heavy, the streets are labyrinth like, old ladies look out the windows and cats meow for fish. Unlike Venice though, Asturias is not mediterranean but celtic, cold and miserable.
It’s more working class and provincial too, and packed with Almodovar-like bizarre stories. One of them, of two women, mother and daughter scammers that got away with petty crimes by claiming they were rich, is the main inspiration behind El Planeta, which is a film I’m working on with my mother.
But you’re always having the “stranger”/immigrant perspective: you’re Argentinian in Spain, Spanish in London and US, American in Korea, China and Italy. How’s that affecting your practice?
I’m very mixed so there’s an ambiguity to the way I look and depending on where I am people project different nationalities depending on how they feel about me. If they like me they’d go for a nationality they feel comfortable with, if not they’d go for a place that has a bad reputation. When I’m told I look Russian I know it is an insult or a compliment depending on where I’m at the time. This has always informed my practice, since very early works most of my works have dealt with appearances, class and empathy.
In your new video, There Then, 2019, there’s a cacophony of languages, translation apps, English and Spanish voiceovers and a selfie-stick-held camera. The learning of a new language can produce new meanings?
Learning and teaching languages is very revealing. Because I study Chinese I’ve done a lot of language exchanges with people trying to learn Spanish. It is very interesting having to explain things one takes for granted. It is humbling in a way, to realize how one’s own culture is always other-worldly to others.
Globalism and the promises of capitalism make us feel always connected, but in the new short film Shanghai Fire you tell a story of a young woman in China who cannot communicate with her Los Angeles home.
Yes, Shanghai Fire was my first cinematographic short and it is about a woman finding out her house was affected and that her cat died during the recent California fires while being away in China. The film is about the gap between interconnectedness and the void that occurs when real tragedies happen. In this case a lot of the miscommunications were not only due to language differences but about California being in the collective imaginary as a fantasy place.
I was in Shanghai when the actual fires happen and all my friends were posting palm trees on fire, there was constant international news coverage etc. but it was hard to communicate the tragedy to those physically around me. Outside California it was experienced like another reality tv-like form of entertainment. There were plenty low and middle-income Californians who became homeless after the fires, but in peoples minds California, Los Angeles, Malibu equals the Kardashians and other celebrities. This idea of propaganda and myth has always fascinated me.
Tell us about your “best friend” Holga.
The idea behind the short film was a big “what if”. What if the fires had taken place where I live and something happens to Holga. Holga is my cat. She’s never been depicted in my works but she’s always been a very important part of them because we work together since the very beginning, around 14 years ago.
People think I’m being quirky when I say she’s the most important part of my studio practice, and it often gets edited out from all my interviews, but it is true and I do believe there are great human-animal friendships. I always say we are the inter-species Fishli and Weiss (*laughin* ed.).
It reminded me of Guillaume-en-Egypte, Chris Marker’s beloved cat: you can still find him on Marker’s Youtube channel. Was Marker an influence for the new work?
I know Chris Marker’s work but I wouldn’t say I look at him for inspiration. Maybe it is because we are already too similar in a way. I always look at things in an aspirational way. I’m naturally a dork so I look at Olivier Assayas, Bernadette Corporation, Claire Denis when I have to remind myself to be sexy. Otherwise I easily end up like a contemporary Robert Walser with Julie Delpy’s sense of humor and a cat obsession.
Speaking of cats listening to music on Youtube, there’s the famous “Cory Arcangel – Arnold Schoenberg” video. Can you recommend a video on Youtube? And can you name some visual artists of our generation you like and that I probably don’t know?
I spent a lot of time looking at cats with disabilities on Instagram. My favorite account is able_maew. It is run by a woman from Thailand who takes care of three cats: Able, Finn and Ginny, two of them with paralyzed back legs and another without front legs.
Visual artists, I can’t think of one right now, but Yang Mingming is for me the most talented young female director there is right now.
I loved your singing for Chicken in “Piensa En Mi” (also the soundtrack for Maison Margiela SS18). Then during the shooting, we listened to “Death of a Ladies Man” by Leonard Cohen. Tell us more about your music interests and new listenings?
I’m fascinated by musicians. If only god had granted me with some more musical talent…! I enjoy singing and drumming and I’ve sometimes incorporated it in my practice, but only as a little side note. I like music but I’m very sensitive to sounds and get bothered by most. I mostly enjoy warm wooden sounds so I listen to a lot of spiritual jazz and folk music.
We’re doing this interview for Vogue.it, and in your work, you have an interest in fashion, mainstream media or more in general with pop culture, sometimes also in its most wack popular languages. Brecht said “Don’t start with the good old things, but the bad new ones”.
I’ve always been interested in taste and how subjective it is. My favorite thing to do, because of its difficulty, is to challenge my taste whenever I prepare a new role. Why do I find something repulsive and boring is what pushes me to try to fall in love with it and record the process. Both performances Excellences & Perfections and Privilege dealt with these issues. Right now my hair has red streaks and I hate it. But it is important for me to go through this and finds out why this character I’m working on would like doing this to her hair.
Theatre & Cinema are somehow encyclopedic arts, mixing all these forms: writings, images, sounds and performances. Also you’re director & interpreter of your own films. Is “Acting” the fil rouge of all of your works?
Acting was always a means to an end but recently I’ve been paying attention to it more seriously instead of dealing with it as something I just do, as a coping mechanism. I’m trying to give as much attention to acting as a craft as I’ve paid attention to the aesthetics of my works and the writing. It is like a new frontier for me, which I’m enjoying a lot.
Your film Shangai Fire starts with a poem by William Carlos Williams: can you recommend a poem or a book in general to finish our conversation?
Ah yes. Most of the Chinese movies I love start with a proverb or a poem by a Chinese author so I thought I’d be funny to translate a William Carlos Williams poem. I’m currently reading a new book by Ray Loriga called Sábado, Domingo. I haven’t finished it yet but I truly recommend his previous one, Rendición. I loved it because it is a great book but also because it is nice to see an author whose earlier (more immature and Gen X works I enjoyed as a teenager) is capable of evolving and becoming richer with age.
Yes, I’m looking forward to see where our generation’s work is going in twenty years.