Last week I opened a new exhibition. It’s been two years in the works, and to date is my biggest curatorial achievement. People seem to like it. They’re telling all their friends and sending me nice emails. It’s bringing people together. So I’m kind of proud of it.
A friend who came to visit was kind of proud of me too, and passed my catalog onto a friend of hers who happens to be a hugely influential collector of contemporary art. He flipped through the catalog, recognized two of the significant names, and then shared his one comment on the content…
“Oh wow! She’s really pretty!”
He was referencing my head shot.
I laughed when she told me. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.
If I were a man, would he have told her I was really handsome?
There really is nothing more demeaning to a woman in a professional setting than a reference to her attractiveness. Don’t tell me I’m pretty. That’s not going to convince an artist to work with me (well, it might if that artist were Jeff Koons) or a museum to hire me. “Pretty” isn’t something I’ve worked to achieve — it’s not a professional milestone. When it comes to my job, I’d rather a criticism on the quality of my work than a compliment on the quality of my face.
Art’s greatest power is that it gives a voice to the voiceless. There is no singular language through which we can express ourselves, and sometimes, we lose our words — art can give us back those words. It can give us a language to share our hurt, our triumph, our distress, our distrust, our glory. It can give us the power to connect on a raw, human level; to be seen for who we are and what we stand for when people previously refuse to look and listen. Images are powerful things.
The image of Emma Sulkowicz standing on stage at the Columbia Commencement with her mattress is a powerful image.
I had seen Ms. Sulkowicz on Columbia’s campus about 2 or 3 months ago at a public event. I was there as a supportive Columbia alumni, and looked around to see if her “weight” was with her. She was hard to miss with her blue hair (how very school spirit!) standing with a group of friends, laughing. I couldn’t see her mattress — I even looked in the stands, outside the doors and it wasn’t anywhere that was visible. I remember those awful twin XL monstrosities in their clinical navy blue plasticized cases. They’re hard to miss in public places. Perhaps if I had seen it, and perhaps it was there somewhere, I would have been more supportive of her decision to carry it at graduation.
I felt a tinge of hypocrisy and a need for personal attention. And I feel bad that I feel that way.
Ms. Sulkowicz chose to walk at her graduation from a University she feels mistreated her. That’s where I’m confused. To me, the more powerful act of protest would have been to NOT be there. To not walk and stand outside the campus with her mattress would have spoken volumes. That’s a snub to the administration — HER refusal to shake its hand and partake in its ceremonies. Instead, she’s walking away with an Ivy League degree and a photo opt. That seems like an all around win for Ms. Sulkowicz… but not necessarily a win for the cause.
The media all gravitated to President Bollinger’s “snub” — there was no handshake for Ms. Sulkowicz as she crossed the stage. There are those horrid “Pretty Little Liar” posters plastered around Morningside Heights. It’s all just sickening. Did Prez Bo snub her? Or was he advised not to shake her hand by lawyers because of the implication that he supported the “trial by media” her performance waged against her accused assailant?
I don’t know… and the problem is, I’m starting not to care.
Well, I mean, I’m starting not to care about Emma Sulkowicz.
Ms. Sulkowicz is becoming a distraction. Where once she was the rallying voice against a broken system, she has come to undermine the cause. It’s become an Emma vs. Paul, Emma vs. Columbia, Paul vs. Columbia tale. Somewhere along the way, we lost the real issue — that the rate of sexual and gender-based assaults on college campuses are painfully high and that administrations are handling them badly.
Can we please refocus on finding a solution for that, and stop talking about a mattress and student work of art?
When I was a freshman at Columbia, two men in my immediate circles were accused of sexually assaulting women. Both were told to leave for a semester. Neither graduated from Columbia. I don’t know how the proceedings went, but what I do know, is that both cases created major factions within the community. Most of the men’s friends, male and female, took their sides, while the victim was completely ostracized. Black-balled socially. How ridiculous, but also, I’m not unsympathetic.
But here’s the problem with “Carry That Weight,” now that Nessinger has had a chance to be interviewed and is filing a not unjustified lawsuit..
Ms. Sulkowicz has unintentionally erased any chance at true justice in her case.
Why? Ms. Sulkowitz felt violated, and the university and public justice systems failed her. What is justice now for her? Her performance targeted an individual while it raised awareness about a larger issue. In doing so, it vilified her alleged assailant, in what became an international venue. What is justice for him? A settlement, which is likely to happen, won’t absolve him of anything.
Emma Sulkowicz is one of the most interesting and problematic figures in the art world right now, though no one is really talking about her as an artist.
She’s a victim. She’s an attention seeker. She’s a martyr in short-shorts carrying a mattress. She’s the voice of the voiceless. She’s a privileged Ivy League art student with a gimmick for her senior project. She’s a symbol of a failed justice system. She’s the civilian at the State of the Union.
Of course, all of these statements are reductive, and as such, none are the whole truth or whole fallacy of Emma Sulkowicz.
From the beginning of her “Mattress Performance: Carry that Weight,” I’ve been uncomfortable with Ms. Sulkowicz. As an art historian (and fellow Columbia fencer — Roar, Lion, Roar) my first reaction was not to her story, but to the art work. “Carry that Weight” felt like a student art project: derivative and unoriginal. Performance Art is dead these days, thanks in large part to Performa and the medium’s increasing theatricalization (I just made a word there). “Carry That Weight” is not Orlan carving up her face, adding absurd implants to question definitions of beauty. Nor is it Carolee Schneemann’s “Internal Scroll.” It can be argued (as her adviser tried to do) that it’s an act of endurance art a la Marina Ambromovich, but the direct comparison doesn’t help it feel original.
The other problem is that in order for the piece to have any significance to the viewer, it needs the context of Emma’s biography. Having a broader sense of current affairs doesn’t really help. A student carrying a mattress is meaningless and non-specific. Maybe the piece is about immigrants, or the homeless in New York — a city of great economic disparity. Emma’s name suggests non-North American roots, while her own ethnicity is visually ambiguous. There is no auxiliary iconography to provide clues that will help us decipher the performance.
See what I’m getting at…
The piece needs the media to make it successful. And that should raise some alarms.
And what about Ms. Sulkowicz’s story? What was my reaction there? I was disturbed on many levels. First, I was appalled at the statistics her performance brought to light. Next, I was disturbed by how I reacted to her interviews.
“If she wants to be taken seriously, she shouldn’t be wearing short shorts and a tank top. The dye-dipped hair doesn’t help either,” I remember saying.
By seriously, I meant seriously as a professional artist, but what I was also implying, was seriously as a victim. It’s too easy for men as well as woman to look at someone in revealing clothes or with subculture accessories and make snap judgments about everything form their trustworthiness to their sexual preferences. But why is this the case? Appearances are not facts. Shouldn’t a girl be able to go out in a mini-skirt or low cut top and feel safe? Is she “asking for it?” No, she’s not.
On the other hand, what the campus rape revelations, the police brutality incidences, and the related media responses have proved is that we live under local justice systems that are inherently flawed — that tend to favor the accused perpetrator rather than the potential victim. Paul Nungesser has a right to share his story as publicly as Emma. The differing accounts are troubling, and a reminder that there is no absolute truth. The timeline of Emma’s interactions with Paul post-incident doesn’t mean she didn’t feel violated or that there wasn’t an incident of assault.
I just hope that the Daily Beast piece doesn’t become a rallying cry for those who want to go on pretending that victims of gender-based assault are just crying wolf.
I always remember my academic adviser warning me off writing a thesis because it was a waste of my final semester in college. “No one writes anything very important for an undergraduate thesis. There isn’t enough time. You’d be better taking another class.”
Is Sulkowicz’s performance piece an exception to that rule?
As a piece of performance art, the answer is no. But as an act of protest, or act to raise social consciousness about a flawed system, the answer is yes — it’s extremely important.
Okay, so I confess that I have yet to tune into Bravo’s latest reality TV confection and second foray into the contemporary art world known as “Gallery Girls.”
“Why do I need to watch a reality show about the New York art world? I lived it! I still live it every day! I eat girls like that for breakfast!”
Unpaid internships. Trying to woo notable collectors in the hopes they’d make my name. Throwing about the word “post-modern” like I actually know what it means. Dipping my feet into the “to-be-seen” crowd at openings. Contemplating ripping a page from a book a fellow grad student needed for their thesis. Crying the night before an opening.
When it comes to the “ugly” of a girl trying to make her way in a cutthroat job market, where the supply of the over-privileged with an “in” and bitchy, inadequate backstabbers outweighs the demand for jobs, I’ve done it all.
Luckily, I survived that stage of unpaid internships, underpaid assistant gigs, and digging for threadbare connections unscathed and with my dignity intact.
“I want to still be me one fine morning when I wake up and have breakfast at Gagosian.”
Okay, so that’s not exactly the way Holly Golightly said it, but you get my drift.
I decided I wanted a career in the art world when I was a sophomore in college.
By the time I finished my masters, I had already been an unpaid museum intern, an unpaid gallery intern, a curatorial assistant at a marquee institution, and a paid gallery researcher.
While I was getting that degree, the bottom fell out of the economy. The bustling, booming art market screeched to halt. And the academic world lost interest in the unsung stories of women artists.
I took at unpaid internship at MoMA — an amazing opportunity that I never would have gotten without a graduate degree. Go figure.
What I learned en route to becoming a Gallery Director was that, just like any industry, getting a foot in the proverbial door is as much about chance as it is about skill set, bravado, and connections.
The job I wanted opened at MoMA four months after my internship ended. I sent in my resume to HR but followed up with an email to the curator I had worked for. I would learn months later that the email went into her SPAM folder.
“If I had known you were applying, I would have stepped in with HR,” she told me when we crossed paths at the museum.
Sometimes your resume goes missing.
Sometimes, you piss-off the wrong professor and get black-balled from admissions to the grad-school program of your dreams (what happened to me).
Sometimes the collector that family friends puts you in touch with gets you an interview at a great gallery (not what happened to me).
Sometimes that collector wants you to hand out napkins at their dinner party — but at least they’ll pay you $15/hour (what happened to me.)
Sometimes you land a paid internship that turns into a full-time job (not what happened to me).
Sometimes you land a paid internship — a $10/day lunch stipend in a neighborhood where the average lunch price is $15 and there is no public transport node near the gallery because it’s practically on the West Side Highway (what happened to me).
Sometimes you read an article about a person in a magazine and think, hey I want to work for her. And then you become an unpaid intern in her company, but never meet her until 3 years later when she’s interviewing you for a job. She lets you in. (what happened to me.)
The door’s open. All that’s left is you and your experience, your eye, and your bravado to make something of yourself .
Without fail, every season on the Amazing Race, there’s a challenge in which teams have to carry heavy, awkward things over long distances. I’ve always wanted to be on the Amazing Race and so I watch each episode with half a mind focused on how to prepare for when it’s my turn. But carrying heavy awkward thing over long distances is not the kind of thing you can easily train for.
Standing in the storage area of my gallery Tuesday morning were two 6-foot canvases. They were awaiting transport to an off-site location where my team was installing an affiliated exhibition. Given that I have a compact SUV with moving blankets in the back, I was the designated transport.
“Are you going to bring your car around?” my assistant asked.
My car was parked half a mile away. Down a hill.
“No. I’ll just carry them to the car.”
I ignored her doubtful/cautionary expression as she handed me the white gloves.
I had only walked five feet from the gallery when a gust of wind and a traffic light made me realize that this might have been one of those lapse of judgement moments. The canvas under each arm had transformed me into an urban sailboat, with only forearms for rudders. My floaty skirt that was keen to pull a Marilyn Monroe over the subway at any moment had to be ignored.
The old man who sits with his walker on the street corner and calls me “Cupcake” was, thankfully, enjoying the early bird special at the Legion.
With each block the canvases grew heavier. The wind, wilder. And all I could think is: Why, oh why did I insist on the extra set of bicep curls!?! The half mile to my car was the longest half mile of my life.
People paused to gawk. Others dove out of my way. A few got bashed with the frames of the canvases’ stretcher. A beautiful man in a Mercedes convertible pulled over to ask if I needed a ride. He was wearing a Rolex… and a wedding band. I artfully (haha!) declined.
When I finally arrived at my car, I folded the seats down. Laid out the moving blankets. And proceed to attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Neither canvas fit.
I sat down on the parking lot asphalt. My arms were shaking — there was no way I was carrying these back to the gallery.
Eventually, thanks to a “phone a friend” lifeline, I found a solution. The paintings did not have to be abandoned in the parking lot — a threat I had thrown at them as they leaned against the side of my car, mocking me.
When I arrived at the satellite site, I expected to find a world map welcome mat and Phil Keoghan waiting for me. Instead, it was just a series of white walls and another Road Block — a very large picture puzzle.
I stood in the gallery, bent over backwards staring up blankly into my 50-foot ceiling, trying to assess the durability of my lighting tracks.
“How the hell am I going to suspend an 8-foot winged sculpture from up there?! Fairy dust?”
If that had been my only concern with this exhibition, my nerves would have been easily quelled with one stiff drink and a reassuring “no problem, boss” from my assistant. But no, the weighty sculpture flying 30 feet over the heads of visitors from uncertain supports was, believe it or not, the least of my worries.
I looked down at my floor plan. Up at my ceiling. Back at my floor plan. I spun around the gallery, mentally measuring the walls and open space, counting the number of works I had selected. I had 5 installation days ahead of me and at this point, all I could do is hope that it would all come neatly and elegantly together.
It’s a rare moment when life hands you the opportunity you’ve always wanted. Rarer when you’re young and relatively new to the big leagues. It’s your moment to turn into your greatest success or to fall, face first, into the pile of shit you’ve dug-up along the way.
When I was handed the curatorial reins of our gallery’s biggest exhibition of the season, I realized this was that opportunity for me. And it was giving me heart palpitations.
Our PR department had confirmed an interview with and a feature in the New York Times. No. Pressure.
Being 26 and standing at the helm of what was already being heralded as a landmark exhibition is daunting. Youth grants me energy. Passion mandates confidence. But youth, energy, passion and confidence doesn’t guarantee success — just sleepless nights and aching muscles.
“I don’t understand why I’m talking to you,” the writer from the Time said to me as I sat down with her the hour before the opening. “I was expecting to speak with the curators.”
“I am the curator.”
My youth belied my position of authority. An hour later, my boss popped in to see how things were going on our walk through of the show.
“This is a fabulous exhibition! I’m having a great time!”
Could it be that I had just won over the New York Times?
At 6PM, only minutes after the final wall label had gone up on the wall, the doors swung open, a crowd poured in and the champagne bottles were popped. I can’t exactly tell you what happened over the next two hours — it was a whirlwind of hellos, of press interviews, of congratulations.
I imagine the way I felt is very much how a bride feels on her wedding day: exhausted from all the planning and preparations, unsure of the durability of her lipstick and full-body-ness of her hair, but excited because she knows she’s just launched herself happily head-long into a brand new life.