Quantcast

'Mattress Girl' Emma Sulkowicz Is Back—And Channeling Her Rage Through BDSM

Linda Yang

Linda Yang

Two years after "Mattress Performance," Emma Sulkowicz continues to provoke. Her most recent piece, in which she was bound, berated, and hung from the ceiling, tackles the question of the value of art under the Trump administration.

Emma Sulkowicz is a performance artist living and working in New York City, though most recognize her as the Columbia University student who made headlines her senior year in 2014. Sulkowicz, then a visual arts undergraduate, focused her thesis Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) on hauling a dorm room twin-size mattress everywhere on campus to protest the university's mishandling of her sexual assault complaint against a fellow student. Sulkowicz and Mattress Performance sparked a national debate about sexual assault on campus. As coverage increased, Sulkowicz—wielding a 50-pound mattress and wearing blue hair, a somber expression, and absolute resolve—became the center of a larger culture war tearing through America.

During Sulkowicz's senior year, the community that we now know consists of the socially conservative, the alt-right, the Trump voter, and the many trolls that fall into the aforementioned categories, made Sulkowicz the symbol of what they believed to be political correctness gone berserk on campus and society at large. For many others, Sulkowicz became a hero. Here was a woman demanding accountability and justice from a society that allows and perpetrates sexual violence.

Since her graduation in May 2015—during which Columbia University president Lee Bollinger refused to shake her hand—Sulkowicz has furiously continued her work as an artist. Soon after, she released Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, a follow-up to Mattress Performance. Then, she had her first individual gallery show in Los Angeles. For the past year, Sulkowicz has been enrolled in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program (ISP) and on May 20th, graduated with a performance at the program's studio exhibition in midtown Manhattan.

'Mattress Performance.' Photo by Andrew Burton via Getty Images

At the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space, Sulkowicz's hair was a bright pink. In the second floor gallery, guests milled around looking at various projections, photographs and documents, and other works of art by Sulkowicz's peers. But what provoked the most intrigue was Sulkowicz's tableau: right by the open-bar wine table was a large rug; upon it, a single chair with a seated, bearded man wearing a suit and a tie emblazoned with the Whitney Museum's logo.

Sulkowicz, wearing a black coat and nude high heels, was looking out a nearby window, holding a hot pink Nalgene. Two beams hung from the ceiling. A crowd slowly formed around the artist and her set, including a college-aged girl wearing a handmade T-shirt the read "Team Emma." As the crowd milled about, I heard whispers as people tried to figure out what would happen, and when it might occur.

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

"What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?" Sulkowicz asks when we first meet three weeks before her performance. She's explaining a Bertolt Brecht essay she read for the Whitney program, wherein he compared the nation to a sinking ship.

"If our country is falling to pieces and you have artists running around saying they're political artists, but really their art is hanging on a sinking ship, the ship is still sinking," Sulkowicz explains. "I was thinking a lot about this—is it really possible for political artists to make work that makes the ship stop from sinking?"

Quickly and without pause, Sulkowicz continues, "The answer is: Whatever. I'm making work about that question."

As Sulkowicz explored that question in relation to performance art, she realized that by design, every sinking ship has a sinking woman on its masthead. "So, I told my classmates I was going to wear an American flag bikini and hang from the wall of the gallery in the shape of a figurehead of a ship, making a statement about the impotence of artwork during our given circumstances."

As she developed this idea, Sulkowicz began incorporating her thoughts on art as an institution. "[I chose] to have a white man tie me up while wearing a business suit with a Whitney necktie, while I wear a Whitney ISP thong bikini," Sulkowicz said. Her intense questioning of art and politics, the two worlds that surround her, resulted in The Ship is Sinking, 2017.

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

As the performance started, this man in a suit, named Master Avery, started to berate Sulkowicz. "Your boobs are too small," he spat. "You can't even stand up straight." He pulled a long, gnarled rope out of a black leather bag and started tying intricate knots around her upper thigh. Once the knots covered both of Sulkowicz's legs, Master Avery started around her waist, moving her body as he worked quickly. At one point, the rope almost hit Sulkowicz's eye. After a few shocked blinks, she looked up at the audience and laughed.

"We're acting out this sadistic-masochistic relationship between the institution with all of its financial power, and this program that wants to be political but can't be really because it's being tied up by this institution," Sulkowicz explained.

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

After what seemed like days—but was was really about 45 minutes—Master Avery had completely tied Sulkowicz up to a large wooden beam. Using a pulley system attached to the ceiling, he used his whole body to lift her from the ground, and after a few tries, Sulkowicz was suspended with her arms and legs wrapped around the beam, rendering her immobile. The rope visibly cut into her skin as Master Avery took off his belt and started hitting her with it.

Sulkowicz continued to smile at the audience.

Later, she's taken down from the ceiling but hung back up. The second time around, Master Avery's beatings became more intense. At one point, he called out to the crowd, asking if anyone else wanted to partake. To everyone's surprise, one man in the audience volunteered, walking up to Sulkowicz and slapping her hard across the face.

"Everyone in the audience was shocked," she told me after the performance.

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

Weeks before, she had disclosed to me that Master Avery was her close friend and a trained professional dominatrix. No one else in the room seemed to know this. While Sulkowicz was tied up during the performance, a distraught audience member walked over to her to ask if she wanted to be untied. Master Avery, noticing this, leaned over to say something to the concerned viewer, and they walked away.

Later, I ran into the concerned viewer in line for the bathroom. They told me that they had just come from a workshop on combating gender violence, and added that there should have been a trigger warning before Sulkowicz's performance. But the viewer was left perturbed and questioning what it meant to be an unsuspecting spectator to such violence against women, taking their time to enunciate and practically spit out the word "violence."

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

"All of a sudden, all these news reporters and comments sections were experts on rape," Sulkowicz said, describing the initial wave of reactions to Mattress Performance. "They would write things like, if she were a real rape survivor, she would cry more. They had all these conditions for what a real survivor would do."

"Real rape survivors are capable of doing anything," Sulkowicz continued. "Rape survivors are infinitely different people and each one has a different way to handle situations."

"While numerically one in four women are raped," Sulkowicz explained, "that means that three in four are not. Even fewer people are rapists. Most of this world has not ever seen or been involved with rape, but there were so many supposed experts. I thought, why don't I just show you [what rape looks like]."

Released shortly after her 2015, Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol—which translates from French to "this is not a rape"—is a website that displays a trigger warning ("The following text contains allusions to rape") then questions the viewer's reasons for visiting ("Are you searching for proof? Proof of what?") and their predisposed biases ("Do you hate me? If so, how does it feel to hate me?") before playing an eight-minute video. In it, Sulkowicz and an anonymous actor are in a Columbia University dorm room, and engage in consensual kissing, oral, and vaginal sex, before what appears to be non-consensual anal sex. The video stills are jarring and for many, the video is disturbing. Many viewers were left asking: Why? Why did Sulkowicz make this? What is the point?

Screenshot from 'Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol' (2015)

In Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, Sulkowicz included what prompted the piece's creation in the first place: a comment section. Today, there are more than 5,000 comments underneath the video; an occasional positive one surfacing between the many more disgusting, often ridiculing comments. Sulkowicz consciously made the video a piece of participatory art by providing a forum to incorporate public opinion. What she didn't know while constructing the website was that it would also become an endurance performance: For almost two years now, Sulkowicz has been reading every single comment.

"Historically, performance art has been a very important medium for women of color and queer people," said Sulkowicz. "There's an accessibility to it, it's the only art form that doesn't cost money. Then there's also that women, people of color, queer people, we live embodied histories."

"My body already carries material in it just because of the way I look, it's embedded in my skin," Sulkowicz explained. "White men have the privilege of entire institutions built for their paintings... These paintings are very often abstract. You have people like Pollock splattering a bunch of shit and then saying it's art. It doesn't say anything political and in fact, that actual political statement it does say is: 'I'm a white man and I can do whatever the fuck I want and make a ton of money off of it.'"

'The Ship Is Sinking.' Photo by Leila Ettachfini

Only two years ago, Sulkowicz had accompanied New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to the State of the Union Address given by then-President Barack Obama. Gillibrand was working on legislation to combat on-campus sexual assault, and had invited Sulkowicz to the event as her guest. Sulkowicz's mere presence was seen as a triumph for anti-sexual assault advocates.

Today, it's nearly impossible to imagine her being invited to President Trump's State of the Union Address, and when I bring up that scenario, Sulkowicz responds by laughing very hard.

"The fuss we were making back then [about Mattress Performance]," Sulkowicz said. "I would not say it paved the way, but I do think it helped create space for women to come forward with allegations against Trump when he was being elected." The painful reality that more than a dozen sexual assault allegations against Trump had little to no bearing on his ultimate election shows that we "still have so much work to do," Sulkowicz explained. "Our words still don't have political effect or ramifications."

"When I give talks, sometimes I get the question, 'Do you get tired of being a feminist?' People ask me how I can be angry all the time, but I think there is a way that you can find joy in this dissatisfaction with the way things are." Sulkowicz said. "I think that right now, it's more important than ever. Back when I made Mattress Performance, I didn't know it was feminist, I didn't know what it was. Was I just making this art piece? But now, I know how important it is to set an example of [being] outspokenly feminist and angry, and also visibly having a personal life and having fun about it. It's the only way that we can continue to make feminism contagious."

Correction: This story originally gendered a concerned viewer at Emma Sulkowicz's 'The Ship Is Sinking' performance as "she." They use pronouns "they/them." We regret the error.