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Life After Mattress Girl: Emma Sulkowicz Reclaims Her Identity

 Emma Sulkowicz, "Self-Portrait" at Coagula
Emma Sulkowicz, "Self-Portrait (Performance with Object)" at Coagula Curatorial. | Photo: Rouzanna Berberian.

“Hi, how are you? I’m Emma, what’s your name?” the artist cheerfully asked me as I stepped onto the pedestal to face her. It was a welcoming greeting, but she needed no introduction. Of course I knew who she was. This was Emma Sulkowicz, the artist known to many, for better or for worse, only as Mattress Girl. With her first solo show, "Self-Portrait," currently on view at Coagula Curatorial in L.A.’s Chinatown, she hopes to challenge that narrow perception, and take control of her artistic identity.

Sulkowicz made headlines in the fall of 2014 with her visual arts senior thesis at Columbia University, a durational work titled “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).” The origin of the piece dates back to 2012, when Sulkowicz alleges that she was raped by a fellow student in her dorm room. She filed a complaint with the university and after they conducted an inquiry, the student was cleared of responsibility, and allowed to remain on campus. In response to what she sees as the school’s mishandling of her claims, Sulkowicz created “Mattress Performance,” the terms of which were simple yet arduous. She would carry a 50-pound mattress -- similar to the one she claims she was raped on -- everywhere she went on campus, until her accused attacker was expelled or left the university. This never happened, so she continued the piece every day until her graduation ceremony the following May, during which she carried the mattress onstage with the help of four friends.

“Mattress Performance” caused an immediate sensation in both the art world and mainstream press. Reactions were polarized to say the least. Some praised her for bringing attention to the issue of sexual assault on campus, while others accused her of fabricating the rape to get attention, or to punish a onetime lover after he rejected her. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz put the work on his 2014 year-end best of list, lauding its “pure radical vulnerability.” In a Salon interview cultural critic and controversial feminist icon Camille Paglia called it “a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism.” The Internet commentariat was unsurprisingly vicious. During Columbia’s Commencement Week, posters went up around campus featuring a photo of Sulkowicz and the words “Pretty Little Liar,” and a twitter account, @FakeRape, was set up in connection with the posters. (It has since been suspended.) Coagula director Mat Gleason echoed Saltz, telling me that it was “the most important artwork of the century so far. It absolutely crystalized the psychological burden that many women silently carry.”

Emma Sulkowicz, "Mattress Performance"
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on September 5, 2014 in New York City. Sulkowicz has said she is committed to carrying the mattress everywhere she goes until the university expels the rapist or he leaves. The protest is also doubling as her senior thesis project. | Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

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After such a groundbreaking and controversial debut, critics and supporters alike had their eyes on Sulkowicz, eagerly awaiting her follow up. Would she be able to establish herself as an artist beyond her breakthrough piece, or would she be pegged as a one-hit wonder, henceforth known as “Mattress Girl”? The central work in her new show, "Self-Portrait (Performance with Object)," addresses this conundrum head on, as she aims to reclaim and reframe her own narrative. 

When I visited Coagula recently, the gallery was empty except for four white platforms. On one stood Sulkowicz in stocking feet, wearing an understated grey shirt and black pants. On the pedestal next to her stood the Emmatron, her unnervingly realistic doppelganger complete with bright purple hair and painted nails, just like the artist. The only thing setting it apart was the subtle shift in its wardrobe with grey on bottom and black on top. Who exactly the “object” referred to seemed intentionally ambiguous. For the first three weeks of the exhibition, Sulkowicz occupied the pedestal during gallery hours, talking with visitors, provided they step onto the platform facing her. Instead of allowing the words of others to represent her, Sulkowicz is telling her own story, face to face, one person at a time.

Certain topics are off limits however. Try to ask her about “Mattress Performance” or other subjects that she feels “objectify or fetishize her,” as the press release states, and she’ll politely refer you to the Emmatron. Step onto the platform opposite the sculpture and you can select from a series of questions on an iPad, ranging from the mundane (“For how long did you carry the mattress?”) to the deeply personal (“Tell me about the night you were assaulted.”). Answers recorded by Sulkowicz play from Emmatron’s unmoving lips. On the afternoon I visited, these responses were barely audible, unintentionally highlighting the primacy of the interaction with the living, breathing artist in the room. There was one Emmatron question, however, that struck me as being especially relevant her current work. Q: What is the Difference between Politics and Art? A: All Art is Political.

 Emma Sulkowicz, "Self-Portrait" at Coagula
Emma Sulkowicz, "Self-Portrait (Performance with Object)" at Coagula Curatorial. | Photo: Matt Stromberg.

In order to interview Sulkowicz, I had to abide by the rules of the piece and step on the platform like everyone else. As a writer -- generally the observer, rarely the observed -- I felt especially awkward putting myself on display. It did give me an insight however, into Sulkowicz’s daily experience as part of this durational work. I was surprised that someone who had received so much hostility online would want to invite similar confrontations in the real world. “All the vitriol I've ever received has been through the Internet,” she told me. “I’ve gotten death threats over email but never to my face, because those people are just much more comfortable behind their computer screens.” On the contrary, Gleason told me that a few visitors had become so emotional during their interactions with Sulkowicz that they had been moved to tears.

Some visitors are intimidated by the interaction that the work encourages, more comfortable as spectator than as participant. “They apprehend the whole room, get really anxious that I'm here and not talking to them because they're not on the platform,” Sulkowicz said. “Then they immediately go over there [to the Emmatron], push a few buttons, look skittish and leave.” Others have come prepared for a kind of interrogation. “A lot of people come with the preconceived notion that they're supposed to have a lot of questions. That already sets up a power dynamic between the two of us, when what I’m trying to convey is that we should meet each other on equal footing.”

"Self-Portrait (Performance with Object)" fits distinctly within the conceptual framework of “Relational Aesthetics.” Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s, this term describes a trend in contemporary art characterized by situations and relationships between people instead of discrete objects. “Relational aesthetics takes as its subject the entirety of life as it is lived, or the dynamic social environment, rather than attempting mimetic representation of object removed from daily life,” summarized writer Kyle Chayka in a Hyperallergic article. One of the most well known artists to be associated with the term is Rirkrit Tiravanija, who famously cooked Thai meals for gallery goers, thereby creating conditions for interaction instead of tangible artworks. Significantly, Sulkowicz quotes Tiravanija in the press release: "You can't make a sculpture for a pedestal unless you've sat on the pedestal yourself." It could be said that she has been on the pedestal since she first picked up the mattress, only now she’s making it explicit.

More than Tiravanija however, Sulkowicz’s piece recalls the endurance-based work of veteran performance artist Marina Abramovic. As part of her 2010 MoMA retrospective, Abramovic sat entirely still and silent as thousands of museum visitors took turns sitting across from her, gazing into her eyes. Abramovic’s work had the feel of a mystical, otherworldly experience -- akin to consulting an oracle -- whereas speaking with Sulkowicz was direct and down to earth: revealing as opposed to mystifying. 

“It’s about stripping away every objectified layer you could put on me,” she told me. “It's a way of expunging that from my system so I can be fully myself and not even have to deal with any of those questions, so we can cut to the chase and talk about something personal."

Sulkowicz stepped down off the pedestal for the last time on March 18, although her show doesn’t close until April 3. The relics of her performance will be on view until then, and viewers will still be able to hear parts of her story told through her own voice, albeit from the mouth of the lifelike sculpture. Aside from the performance-based parts of her practice, Gleason remarked on these sculptural aspects, which will be highlighted by her absence. “Its interesting that Hauser Wirth + Schimmel just opened a new gallery and their first show is women sculptors,” he said, referencing the new mega-gallery that debuted recently. “I'm looking at it going, ‘I have the most important living woman sculptor at my gallery just a mile away.’”

Emma Sulkowicz, "Mattress Performance"
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Emma Sulkowicz (L), a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress, with the help of three strangers who met her moments before, in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on September 5, 2014 in New York City. Sulkowicz has said she is committed to carrying the mattress everywhere she goes until the university expels the rapist or he leaves. The protest is also doubling as her senior thesis project. | Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
Emma Sulkowicz, "Mattress Performance"
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Emma Sulkowicz (L), a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress, with the help of three strangers who met her moments before, in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year on September 5, 2014 in New York City. Sulkowicz has said she is committed to carrying the mattress everywhere she goes until the university expels the rapist or he leaves. The protest is also doubling as her senior thesis project. | Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

 

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