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.