The Problem with the Girl with the Mattress: Considering Emma Sulkowicz, Performance Art, and Gender-Based Misconduct

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.

Carolee Schneemann's "Interior Scroll" was an important work of feminist Performance Art
Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” was an important work of feminist Performance Art

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.

This week, her alleged rapist was finally granted a venue to share his side of the story in the media. This was long overdue. The media’s eagerness to turn Emma into a symbol should raise some cautionary flags, largely because the writings have been one-sided.

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.

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Yes, We can Play that Game, Too: Considering “Sex on Campus” and the “Plight” of the 20-Something Female

It’s all on us, isn’t it? The “us” being women under 35 and “it” being the fate of romantic relationships, and therefore, the modern family.

I'm so over it.
I’m so over it.

If you’re been keeping track of the New York Time’s Sunday Style section and the Atlantic Monthly of late, you’ve probably noticed a slew of pieces examining the current state of the dating world. The choices and mindsets of single women seem to garner the most attention. The verdict, it would appear, is that we’re the ones directing the dynamics of contemporary relationships based on how we decide to answer a handful of questions:

Do we engage in casual, no strings attached sex?

Do we purely practice monogamy?

Do we wed early?

Do we focus on careers first, family later?

Do we try to “have it all?”

Frankly, I’ve had enough… Leave me alone. The kids are alright, I tell you.

In this past Sunday’s NYTimes, in a piece entitled “She Can Play That Game Too,” writer Kate Taylor reported on the sex lives of college-aged woman enrolled in UPenn. Taylor seemed to give a fairly straight forward account of the mindset of the Ivy Leaguers who applied cost-benefit analysis to their romantic encounters and generally considered college a stepping-stone and vital life-directing period of resume-building. Surviving those 4 years with honors under their belts didn’t exclude also earning notches on their bedposts, but made seeking serious romantic relationships a low priority on the totem pole.

I flashed back to my own Ivy League college days.

My future was mine to mold... or make a total mess of
My future was mine to mold… or make a total mess of

I was an economics major — you bet I applied cost-benefit analysis to dating (and well, to everything else… and everything, including men, got rated in terms of its “utility.”) But more significantly, like the women Taylor interviewed, I realized the stakes were high. I had a very unique opportunity. I was a Division 1 college athlete and in 4 years, I would have a degree from one of the most lauded universities in the world. The molding clay that was future had been handed to me on a silver platter and I had all the power in the universe to turn it into a masterpiece.

I could also make a total muck of it.

And let me tell you, making a muck of it was far easier.

I’ll always remember that night during my final week as an undergraduate when one of my best male friends took my hand and said to me: “I’m so proud of you and happy for you for everything you’ve accomplished. But our relationship could have been very different if you’d been around more.”

Your first question is probably: Do I have any regrets?

My answer: Absolutely not.

I’m 19. I’ve Never Had a Job. Oh, But I’m Supposed to Know What I want in a Husband?

What irked me the most about this article was the seeming pressure it put on women to make-up their minds in their early 20s, or hell, even late teens about how their life was going to unfold.

And Susan Patton wonders why young women are cautious about getting married and pregnant young
And Susan Patton wonders why young women are cautious about getting married and pregnant young

Susan Patton, who was widely quoted as the “anti-feminist” in the article was disappointed when she asked a class of Princeton undergraduate females if they wanted kids and a family and met hesitation.

Susan Patton is absurd.

Today’s young women are the witnesses of an increasing divorce rate and pre-nups, and the beneficiaries of new job sectors. This is not the generation of my mother, who was married at 18, went through college a wife and left her country and family to follow her husband’s career.

Are you surprised a teenager or 20-something would proceed with caution when it comes to committed relationships?

What I learned in college, burning the midnight oil on papers, clocking my hours at practice, writing for the college newspaper, and making friends more important than lovers, was who I was and what was genuinely important to me.

At 21, no boyfriend was going to figure that out for me.

I wish I could say I went to Columbia to find a rich husband — of course if I did, my 6 years on campus would have been a complete and utter failure. But I went there to find me, Kathleen.

So, mission accomplished.

How do you like them apples, Susan Patton?

I’ll be Your Government Hooker

It's not easy being the Good Wife to a Bad Politician.

“How do you feel about being a politician’s wife?”

My eyes bugged out and my first instinct was to laugh. But when I saw his face and realized he was dead serious, I paused to consider the weight of what he was asking.

“If you’re worried that I might take a naked picture of you while you sleep and post it on the internet, I can assure you, I have more tact than that…”

His “Phew!” was followed by the necessary tension breaking laugh.

“I promise, any naked pictures I take of you will be for personal use only.”

He stopped laughing.

I hate men that can’t take a joke.

It was our first real date but our third meeting — mutual friends had played matchmaker at a party and then tricked us into joining them at a group outing. Their theory was that you couldn’t fashion a better power couple than the girl who wanted to be Director of the Museum of Modern Art and the boy who wanted to be President of the United States. Indeed, we had comparable pedigrees — he was military turned Ivy League Lawyer — and comparable ambitions. We liked people. We both appreciated the necessity of networking at cocktail parties. Neither one of us could deny that, when together, there was enough Jack & Jackie + Barack & Michelle to make us a formidable pair.

And so we agreed to a solo dinner.

Yet, while the idea of walking in Michelle Obama’s shoes certainly wasn’t unappealing, the truth was, why would I want to be a First Lady when I could be president?

More importantly, I don’t have the stomach for an American political life. I hate the way American politics is played out in the popular media. In particular, I hate election years. I hate watching mud-slinging and dick measuring on television. I hate the way feminism is revived, racism is reevaluated and then both are forgotten come December. I hate the way rhetoric and ignorance put words in the mouths of our founding fathers.

At the end of the evening, it wasn’t because I wasn’t willing to be his government hooker that Mr. Future Councilman and I weren’t going to make it, though I can’t say I have plans to be any politician’s Good Wife…

The True Confessions of a Young Gallerist

The front page of this weekend’s NY Time’s Sunday Styles featured an article called “The Young Gallerists.” The piece by Laura M. Holson highlighted a handful of young, ambitious go-getters who are making waves in the contemporary art world as they run their own galleries and curate shows of marked significance.

Clearly, I was out of town when she called.

Behind every gallery opening is a mess a young gallery director needs to clean up

Ms. Holson’s article points to the economic uncertainty of ventures in the art world, but focuses on the glamor of exhibition openings. Behind the glamor is a gritty story of a gallery director, a drill, and a large bottle of advil.

“ADAM! HELP!” I screamed as the 8 foot ladder under my feet began to tip.

Before my assistant could swoop to my rescue, I made a Lara Croft style dive for the lighting track, letting the freed can and blub crash to the ground.

I was in the midst of installing my gallery’s fall exhibition – a show of large-scale contemporary sculptures – and my near death experience while adjusting the gallery lights was just another almost catastrophe in a week ripe with artwork-induced calamities.

Before my assistant could rescue me, I made a Lara Croft-style dive for the lighting track. I sense a new cult video game: The Young Gallerists

In the wee hours of the previous night, I offered to serve as the human vice for an artist while she sawed the head off a bolt. The saw only slipped twice, and unfazed, I watched the corner of my recently manicured index-fingernail shoot off. Luckily, the artist stopped before we had a chance to see if my new health insurance covered partial amputations.

“How thick is the plywood behind the plaster?” another artist asked as we tapped on one of the gallery walls, trying to decide if there was enough internal support for his work.

I shrugged and hoped for the best.

I inherited the gallery walls... I found out some of them were concrete the hard way.

After all, I inherited my gallery walls, I didn’t build them. I have no idea what they’re made of. As far as I was concerned, there was only one to find out: Drill, baby, drill.

When the anchor for his florescent resin tree branch began to tear a stripe through the plaster, we figured the plywood wasn’t the ¾” thick we had hoped for.

I pulled out the patching putty and we resumed tapping.

“Do you have a stud-finder?”

“I assume you don’t mean my Friday-night wingwoman?”

Apparently, a stud-finder is a small contraption that you run over a wall to find an upright post in the framework of a wall.

The exhibition will open. The wine will pour. The charm will ooze. And then... the gallerist collapses.

I count the number of causalities amassed during the installation – my fingernail, my olive-toned crepe silk pants, half an artwork, one intern – and consider what still needs to be done. Wall labels need to be mounted. Price-lists need to be finalized. Exhibition brochures need to be picked up from the printer. Wine needs to be purchased.

There are only 2 days left till the opening. The clock is ticking.

On opening night, I’ll be made-up and bedazzled in vintage couture. The wine will pour. The charm will ooze. And then, like I’ve done every day since the loan agreements came in, I’ll collapse into bed, hoping my eyeliner will still look fresh when I go back into work the next morning to start all over again.

Every William Needs a Kate, So Yes, I’m Waking up at 4AM on Friday to Watch the Royal Wedding

In case you haven't noticed, there's only one story in the news these days -- the British Family's Royal Wedding

In case you haven’t noticed, the presses have all stopped. Rising gas prices, NCAA Title IX infringements, and pending government shut-downs are no longer news. There is but one story to cover in the broad sheets and on the television: the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton.

I can’t say that I’ve been following the pre-wedding press — I’m content to wait till the big day to see the dress. But as a girl who religiously reads the New York Times wedding announcements because she’d rather pass her Sunday morning indulging in happy people than tearing-up over explosions and tsunamis, it’s no surprise I’m somewhat thrilled that a wedding has become the focal point of World News Tonight.

Friday is a workday and the prospect of waking long, long before sunrise to watch the wedding ceremony live on television, when I could easily watch it repeated later, is not at all sensible. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to set my alarm for 4:00AM so I can watch the royal wedding unfold in real time. Why? Because, as my mother pointed out, it’s not every summer a future king gets married. It’s as much a historical event as it is an opulent party. 1 billion apparently tuned in to watch Prince Charles marry Diana. That many people don’t join together to watch something unless they feel there’s something important going on — not even the Olympics, the sporting event meant to unite the world in competition gets that kind of viewership.

Everyone is getting geared up for the Royal Wedding, in whatever way they know how

Weddings never fail to captivate. Between April and July, the air rings with the joy of nuptials. Besides the magazine stands buckling under the weight of 700-page wedding-themed publications (thank you Modern Bride and Martha Stewart Weddings), movie theaters are stocked with films telling terrible tales of bridezillas or “always the bride’s maid” woes.  Every so often, we’re lucky to have a real wedding worth tracking (last year, it was Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky).

And if ever there was a love story worth tracking, it’s the one between the future King of England and his Princess. Every William needs a Catherine, and at 4AM on Friday morning, with my scones, clotted cream, poached egg and breakfast tea, I’ll be rooting for their happily ever after.

Educated, Unemployed, Frustrated, but Looking on the Brightside

We're more than fodder for a cartoon. We're young adults stuttering at the start of our lives, but we have a voice.

I don’t know who Matthew C. Klein is, but I like him. I like Matthew because he wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “Educated, Unemployed, and Frustrated” for the New York Times on March 21st, and in doing so, is one of the few of us early 20-somethings attempting to tell the world how we feel. We’ve been mocked on the cover of The New Yorker, labeled boomerang kids by those who need catch phrases, and attacked in the New York Times Magazine. But we’re not just fodder for a cartoon. We’re young adults stalemated, stuttering in our attempt to get going. But we have a voice.

“The millions of young people who cannot get jobs or who take work that does not require a college education are in danger of losing their faith in the future…Even if the job market becomes as robust as it was in 2007… my generation will have lost years of career-building experience.”

Right On, Matthew, right on.

Us educated 20-somethings trying to find work in saturated job markets, where entry level positions are going to applicants technically at a “mid-career” stage, are living in a constant state of uncertainty. It’s a Catch-22. The process is frustrating, and we’re forced to be victims — you can’t say to a potential employer, who may take weeks to get back to you, “Please, Sir/Madam, could you make your decision on me a little faster — I’d like to get my life together now.”

There are many times over the last few months when I wanted to bash my head against a wall — like when I learned an email I sent to an old boss about a job opening at her museum went into her spam folder. She liked me for the position, and would have gone to bat for me, but didn’t get my email until after the position had been filled with another applicant. Lesson learned? Pick up the phone.

Someone told me landing that first job is all about luck. And while luck hasn’t necessarily been on my side, I’ve managed to stay cheery. Remember, if all else fails, there’s always my back-up career as a wingwoman.

It's been 3 weeks since I've heard on those 3 interviews, there must be an outbreak of wastepaper basket fires

I try to be practical. Interviewers do have jobs after all, and they have work to do: “There was just an opening in their gallery — I’m sure they’re busy.”

Then another week passes. No one has said “No” yet, so I’m still inclined to give the company the benefit of the doubt:

“There must have been a fire in the building and they’re not allowed back into their offices this week.”

Yea, that explains it. I’ve only heard back on a handful of  job applications because of an unannounced outbreak of wastepaper basket fires raging across the tri-state area. And apparently, Mercury just entered retrograde.

Okay, it’s not me or my resume — it’s Mercury and office fires. I feel better now.