Carry that Weight

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Sep 21 2014

Location: 

Columbia University

In a Mattress, A Lever for Art and Political Protest
by Roberta Smith

You can, for the moment, call Emma Sulkowicz a typically messianic artist, and she won’t object. I used the phrase, sitting in her tiny studio at Columbia University on Thursday, as we discussed “Carry That Weight.” This is the succinct and powerful performance piece that is her senior art thesis as well as her protest against sexual assault on campus, especially the one she says she endured. “Carry that Weight,” which is beginning its fourth week, involves Ms. Sulkowicz carrying a 50¬pound mattress wherever she goes on campus (but not off campus). Analogies to the Stations of the Cross may come to mind, especially when friends or strangers spontaneously step forward and help her carry her burden, which is both actual and symbolic. Of course another analogy is to Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, albeit an extra heavy version that Ms. Sulkowicz has taken up by choice, to call attention to her plight and the plight of other women who feel university officials have failed to deter or adequately punish such assaults. The carried mattress also implies disruption and uprootedness, which call to mind refugees or homeless people. The subject of sexual assault on campuses surfaced on the national stage on Friday, when President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced the formation of It’s On Us, a national campaign on this issue. They addressed it in blunt and unequivocal terms. “Society still does not sufficiently value women,” the president said. Ms. Sulkowicz spoke of her interest in the kind of art that elicits a powerful response, whether negative or positive. Freshly painted on the walls around us loomed big black letters spelling out the “rules of engagement,” the guidelines to her performance: One states that she will continue the piece until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates, as she also will next spring. (If need be, she plans to attend commencement carrying the mattress.) She said the performance is giving her new muscles and an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is attracting many different kinds of attention, some of it hard to take. “Carry That Weight” is both singular and representative of a time of strongly held opinions and objections and righteous anger on all sides, a time when, not surprisingly, political protest and performance art are intersecting in increasingly adamant ways. You can see this merging in the Guy Fawkes masks worn by members of Anonymous, a loose international network of hactivists, at protests against, for example, the Church of Scientology or the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. You can also see it in some of the performance¬like protests that greeted the opening this month of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or those that were carried out last spring in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum to call attention to the general plight of laborers in the United Arab Emirates who are expected to build its latest outpost there. There are numerous other instances: Protests in London in 2011 against the Tate’s accepting sponsorship from BP included a performer splashed with oil, lying naked on the floor of the great hall of Tate Britain like a bird caught in an oil spill. Ms. Sulkowicz’s effort is somewhere near this intersection, but not at its center. Combining aspects of endurance, body and protest art and participatory relational aesthetics, it is a highly specific work of art in its own right, carefully conceived and carried out by one person expending considerable thought, time and energy for a very long time (up to eight months). It comes from a history that includes the relatively solitary ordeals of Vito Acconci, Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovic, but also relates tangentially to more extreme physical acts of political resistance — the fasts of jailed suffragists in early¬20th¬century Britain come to mind. “Carry That Weight” might be called an artwork of last resort. It is the culmination of two years of pain, humiliation, frustration and righteous anger that began in 2012. On the evening of the first day of classes of her sophomore year, Ms. Sulkowicz said, she was anally raped in her dorm room by a fellow student with whom she had had consensual sex twice before, according to the police report. In the aftermath, Ms. Sulkowicz suffered in silence, then filed a complaint with the university. This led to a hearing before a panel that found him not responsible, according to a campus newspaper report in The Columbia Spectator, a decision that was upheld upon appeal. After that disappointment, she said, a trip last May to file a report with the police was so upsetting she didn’t follow through, although she secretly recorded it on her cellphone. The performance piece began to take shape in Ms. Sulkowicz’s mind during a residency at Yale Summer School of Art and Music in Norfolk, Conn., this past summer. First she made a short video that showed her dismantling a bed, with the police station tape as audio. But soon she focused on the mattress alone and using it on campus, with the simplest, most public action being to carry it. The foam mattress and its dark blue cover are identical to the standard issue one on which she said the rape occurred and were not easy to track down and purchase; the rules of engagement similarly took a lot of refinement and every day still present her with new logistical problems to work out. (For example, going to the subway requires walking a few extra blocks since she can’t cut across campus without the mattress.) One of the most effective aspects of the piece is the way it fluctuates between private and public, and solitary and participatory. She said she rarely walks very far without someone lending a hand and entering into what she calls “the space of performance.” Indeed, shortly after leaving her studio on Thursday afternoon, she ran into her best friend, Gabriela Pelsinger, who took over one end of the mattress, in effect becoming one of the performers. (One of the rules is that Ms. Sulkowicz cannot ask for help, but she can accept it.) Ms. Pelsinger, like Ms. Sulkowicz, is among a group of more than 20 men and women who have joined in a Title IX complaint with the federal government’s Department of Education against Columbia, charging that it mishandled their individual gender based misconduct or sexual assault cases. Suzanne B. Goldberg, special adviser to the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, on sexual assault assault prevention and response, and director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, said in a statement, “As the university has made clear in many different ways during the past month, major steps have been taken to enhance the gender¬based misconduct policy and resources available to all Columbia University students.” Ms. Goldberg said the university does not comment on individual cases. She added, “The university embraces the attention that students and others have brought to the issue.” As Ms. Sulkowicz and Ms. Pelsinger proceeded across campus, some people smiled while others looked puzzled. There were comments. “There she goes again,” one woman said to her companion as they walked past me. Midway through the journey, a young man joined the task, keeping a cellphone cradled to his ear until he left, at the front door of Ms. Sulkowicz’s dorm. It is hard to fathom the effect “Carry That Weight” will have as it proceeds — on Columbia, on Ms. Sulkowicz, on the consciousness of sexual assault on campus, or on the thinking of people who encounter her performance. But it seems certain that the piece has set a very high standard for any future work she’ll do as an artist and will also earn her a niche in the history of intensely personal yet aggressively political performance art. It is so simple: A woman with a mattress, refusing to keep her violation private, carrying with her a stark reminder of where it took place. The work Ms. Sulkowicz is making is strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical. All of this determines its striking quality as art, which in turn contributes substantially to its effectiveness as protest.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/arts/design/in-a-mattress-a-fulcrum-of...

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