***TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of rape and sexual assault***
“When I make artwork, I’m saying: I’m still here. Nothing you’ve said has stopped me,” explained Emma Sulkowicz on April 17th at the AUSG Women’s Initiative Panel: Art and Activism, Body Politics, and the Power of Performance. It has been 4 years since Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) the viral art piece that launched Sulkowicz into stardom or infamy, depending on who you ask.
Emma Sulkowicz was raped in 2012 on the first day of their sophomore year at Columbia University. Through asking around, Emma soon found out they weren’t the only victim of attacker: Paul Nungesser. However, when Sulkowicz decided to report, Columbia University dragged the case out for over a year, only to rule that Paul was not responsible. When Sulkowicz attempted to get their case retried, the dean denied them the opportunity. Sulkawicz later went to the police, only to receive similar treatment: officers implying that the sex was consensual and victim-blaming every step of the way.
From these dismissals, Sulkowicz conceived Mattress Performance: a protest performance art piece in which they carried a twin mattress with them wherever they went for their entire senior academic year at Columbia to comment on the mishandling of rape cases within institutions. Sulkowicz made rules to keep them accountable. They could not ask for help carrying the mattress, but if someone offered to help them, they could accept. The performance went viral on the first day, garnering plenty of media attention and mixed opinions.
Photo Credit: businessinsider.com
Standing before us today, Sulkowicz appears older, smiling wryly as they recount their story. Their choice to carry the mattress for the entire academic year, they clarified was strategic because an academic year is nine months: the length of a pregnancy. Sulkowicz expressed interest in being a feminist counterpoint to Tehching Hsieh, a noted Taiwanese performance artist who spent a year in a cage, punched a time clock on the hour, every hour for a year, among other famous works.
The comment sections that preceded each article on Mattress Performance were upsetting and emotionally taxing to Emma. They recalled hearing over and over “If Emma were a real rape survivor,” invalidating and questioning their experience. Sulkowicz laughed at the irony that “people were suddenly experts on something that was between me and another person… I wanted to show people that real rape survivors are capable of endless possibilities because we are human.”
Conversation then turned to Emma’s more recent works since the Mattress Performance phenomenon. Contrary to popular belief, Sulkowicz's self-exploration of rape is ongoing. It is a “lived thing” and not just one photo on Getty images.
In June of 2015, not long after the mattress performance, Emma released “Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol" or "This is not a rape," a video of consensual sex between Emma and a friend that is staged exactly like the night of their rape. They clarified that the idea came to them while they were reading Foucault. They had become obsessed with the idea of tangible proof as a claim to power, speculating about how things would be different if they had a video of that night. The piece received mixed reactions, some calling it pornographic or simply inconceivable. However, others appreciated the outlandish and radical nature of Sulkowicz's work.
In 2016, Emma took their art to a more traditional space: debuting “Self Portrait” in Coagula Curatorial, a contemporary art gallery in L.A. This installation was inspired by the emotional labor of answering the same questions continually about their rape. Sulkowicz created an exact replica robot of themself, using a rubber mold and equipped it with speaking capabilities and recordings of them answering all the questions they were tired of responding to. In the exhibit, Sulkowicz stood next to the robot, dubbed “Emmatron” and people could ask them questions. However, if any questions were things they did not want to answer, they would direct the visitor to Emmatron for a response.
Photo Credit: https://www.kcet.org/
Their most recent piece in 2018, or as they prefer to categorize it: “performative action” was in protest of famous artists who have been accused of sexual harassment, such as Chuck Close and Pablo Picasso. Following these artists’ problematic histories surfacing, there was debate within the art community over whether these artists’ work should be taken down. Sulkowicz said they agreed that they wouldn’t want the work completely removed from galleries, but another idea proposed was for an asterisk to be placed on the placards of artists who were alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct. However, many art museums still were averse to the idea. In response and retaliation, Sulkowicz drew asterisks on their bare skin, covering their whole body and went to galleries like The Met and the MoMa to stand in front of paintings by these artists with arms outstretched to raise awareness and open a dialogue.
Photo Credit: https://news.artnet.com
In the Q&A portion of event, Sulkowicz explored questions about healing, progress, and personal inspiration. When monitor: Steff Woods inquired about their healing process, Sulkowicz interjected that they have had to redefine healing to mean “going deeper, exploring further, and often feeling worse” because that is where the change comes. Emma admitted that they will always be angry, but they can dig deeper into that feeling and create art.
As for how they come up with their pieces? Sulkowicz said “inspiration is always attacking” them in a way that is incessant and burdensome, but they “won’t rest easy” if they don’t create the works that they envision.
Tangentially, Sulkowicz mused that “maybe there is good and bad work, but artists are just trying to live” and express themselves. Therefore, even in producing bad artwork, people are exploring something in themselves that helps them keep living and for that, Sulkowicz said she is grateful.
In the closing comments, monitor: Steff Woods mused: “How can performance art serve as a unique form of activism in this political climate?” Sulkowicz paused for a second and admitted, “I never thought of this as a tool. It’s more about the question: how do you speak? This is how I speak.”