BY Travis Diehl in Opinion | 05 FEB 21

In Amalia Ulman’s ‘El Planeta’, Even the Scammers are Being Scammed

The artist’s first feature film depicts a mother-daughter pair of grifters trying to stay afloat through financial recession 

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BY Travis Diehl in Opinion | 05 FEB 21

Amalia Ulman has honed the act of disappointment. At several points during the artist’s first feature-length film, El Planeta (The Planet), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 30 January, her face flickers through shock, chagrin and disgust, before hardening into resignation. This upon finding out, over coffee in a cafe, what sex work actually pays; learning as the sun rises that her date has a wife and son; and rifling through bare cupboards in the apartment she squats with her flighty, superstitious mother. The film’s romantic setting feels downcast, too: the seaside town of Gijón, Spain, where Ulman grew up, still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession. Brown paper and ‘se vende’ (for sale) signs block many windows. All is black and white, drained and gorgeous; the camera holds while characters talk and pans as they walk the streets, as if expecting catharsis that never comes.

The saline texture of El Planeta suggests the raw confessions of cinema verité as much as the staged and premeditated oversharing of social media. It also satirizes the way contemporary culture, not least visual art, rewards exposure with more exposure. In one scene, Ulman’s character, Leonor Jimenez, shows her mother a shirt with a transparent vinyl window stitched over one breast, complete with a wholesome curtain. (‘What’s with this shirt?’ her mother says. ‘I don’t know. Feminism.’) In another, a magazine editor wants Jimenez, an aspiring couturier, to style a shoot in New York – they’ll even cover a night in a hotel – but, of course, the job doesn’t pay and an overseas flight is out of the question. 

Fake it ’til you make it, as they say. But making it isn’t any more real. While her mother buys furs on the credit of a politician she doesn’t know, Jimenez the daughter makes clothes, looks for love, scrapes for odd jobs – all hustles analogous to the dismal glamour of making it as an artist or filmmaker. As for the conventional alternative – pulling yourself up through hard work and thriftiness – there have been few greater scams. ‘We all live a fiction of our own choosing, within the stage provided by the state,’ said Ulman in Sordid Scandal (2020), a PowerPoint lecture/performance. Welcome to the neoliberal bind. 

Amalia Ulman El Planta
 Amalia Ulman, El Planta, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Holga Meow Pictures

El Planeta describes the static, banal side of a globetrotting, expatriate life that Ulman has both probed and embodied throughout her career. In Buyer Walker Rover (2019), an elegant short video structured around a phone call, Ulman’s character is alone in Yiwu, China, trying to gain a foothold by teaching English classes. Subtitles sprinkled around the frame in Ikea blue and gold translate their conversation into 12 languages. The lingua franca, though, is shopping: alone in a strange city, she says, the only things you can rely on for comfort are the markets and shops, where the products look the same the world over.

With El Planeta, Ulman elevates the themes of performative sex and class that suffuse her Instagram and video work to arthouse heights. The film also has a companion text in the artist’s life. Ulman and her mother, Alejandra Ulman, play a mother and daughter based to a degree on themselves and, to another degree, on a pair of real-life grifters from Gijón who, as the world crashed, succeeded in running up more than €5,000 in credit for clothes and food simply because they looked rich. 

Sordid Scandal, commissioned by Tate and streamed online in September last year after El Planeta wrapped, blends the backstory of the film’s production with Ulman’s biography. At age 10, she says in a voice-over, her elderly landlords appeared to give her their apartment. Years later, though, Ulman’s father disputed this in court. He showed the judge a copy of Forbes’s ‘30 Under 30’ list from 2016 on which Ulman appeared and cited her 2014 Instagram performance, Excellences & Perfections, as evidence of her character – in particular, the fact that many articles about the work lazily use the word ‘hoax’. Ulman says that, to the judge, this was proof she was not only a millionaire but an infamous scammer, too. She lost the suit and the flat.

Amalia Ulman El Planta
Main image: Amalia Ulman, El Planta, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Holga Meow Pictures

Ulman opens the lecture, delivered mostly in English, with a line in Spanish: ‘Hello, my name is Amalia, and I am an Iberia stewardess.’ As far as I know, she isn’t: the line is a tip of the beret to both the itinerancy of the art circuit and the thigh-high emotional labour of contemporary art, wherein artists produce not only work but the illusion of availability. The artist, in other words, creates a real-life character that you can meet, even know, through their work. The work also breaks the ice with a stewardess joke, reminding you that it’s all burlesque. 

Whether heralding a faux pregnancy in Privilege (2015–16) or feigning a boob job in Excellences & Perfections, Ulman has amply demonstrated that fakeness is fake and appearances are real, insofar as images conjure real characters. The outrage expressed by her followers when these Instagram ‘lies’ were revealed is just as performative, like fanning Edwardians in their fascinators decrying the deceptions of theatre. As Ulman’s character says in El Planeta, while gamely scheduling watersports with a strange man: ‘Whatever turns you on, turns me on.’ With auteurs and their oeuvres, it’s often the reverse: whatever turns them on, turns us on, or else we walk away.

In Spanish, ‘el planeta’ is a masculine noun. In Ulman’s film, the family patriarch is dead and the money is gone; the ruses of Jimenez and her mother are less a reckless social freeclimb than desperate gambits to keep up the appearances of their old life. The mother’s fur coat does the trick until, inevitably, it doesn’t. As for Jimenez, the men she meets on her more honest hustles all promise the world yet all disappoint. Ulman says in Sordid Scandal that she took up the most vulgar artform (film) to objectify her most vulgar trouble (her father). If women can use their appearances to manipulate men, as the cliché goes, it doesn’t seem to be working in the Gijón of the film. But Ulman makes objects of men and women alike. El Planeta is a damning picture of the gap between what we’re promised – the whole world, nothing less – and what we get.
 

Main image: Amalia Ulman, El Planta, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Holga Meow Pictures

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. 

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