Continuing the Conversation About Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight”


About three months ago, art critic Roberta Smith published an article for the New York Times about Emma Sulkowicz and her performance art piece that she started as a way to address the rape she endured as a sophomore at Columbia University in 2012 and to protest sexual assault on campus in general.  Sulkowicz named this work Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) wherein she carries a mattress with her whenever she is on the Columbia University campus.  Smith’s article provides a comprehensive story about Sulkowicz’s sexual assault and how her performance piece came to be, as well as reactions to the performance space.

This past Sunday, Smith and Sulkowicz continued their conversation about Carry That Weight at Brooklyn Museum, which was presented by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  They started by catching up a bit and then focused on what has happened and changed since the NYT article was published.  Sulkowicz shared that since then she has started a mattress diary that she uses to record things that an outside observer would’t notice.  She also noted changes with and without the mattress – if she’s on a campus elevator without the mattress she’s treated as any other student but with the mattress she receives smiles and people are more likely to engage with her.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation was how boundaries played a role in the performance.  When some see her carrying the mattress and they help out by grabbing one end it throws her off balance and in turn makes it harder on her.  While she mentioned that their motives to help are sincere, they don’t communicate their intentions with her.  She followed that by saying, “And this is the language of consent, right?”, to which the audience clapped.  Others who see her with a mattress have been hesitant to help or think that they shouldn’t because they see it as an art piece that shouldn’t be interrupted.  Sulkowicz actually welcomes the help and is able to accept it, though cannot solicit it, as defined by her “Rules of Engagement”.  Other types of interactions she receives are strangers touching her as if she’s a saint and thanking her for what she’s doing, which again goes back to those who mean well but don’t communicate or take into consideration consent.  One of the most honest interactions she had was with a homeless man who offered and insisted on helping her because he had no knowledge of why she was carrying her mattress.

In this same vein, Sulkowicz talked about how being treated like a hero can be stressful.  While what she’s doing with her art is brave, she admitted to feeling powerless and powerful at the same time.  That paradox was encapsulated by Columbia University’s campus shuttle not stopping for her while carrying her mattress and the driver being told he had to do so, otherwise he’d risk being fired.

Something that was edited out of the NYT article was Sulkowicz stating that this is the piece that made her an artist. Before Carry That Weight she was making art on assignment.  At the very end of the talk, Sulkowicz had a question for Smith, which was about how she determined the performance piece was indeed art.  Smith replied that it had clarity and economy because nothing can be taken away from it – it was all needed – and that it was art of assertion and self-denigration.

The Body as a Canvas, Process, and What is Art?

The human body has been used as art many times before; sometimes in the form of performances, prints, or installations.  In the TED Talk above, Alexa Meade discusses how she came to use the body as her canvas.  After painting on food objects, such as fried eggs and toast, she eventually moved on to her own body and then the bodies of friends and strangers.  Meade paints live human bodies and the areas around them so that they look like paintings.  She captures her works in the form of photographs and videos, transforming a 3D work into a 2D one.  There are hardly any traces of any 3-dimensionality in the photos of her work, mainly because of the nature of the medium and because the intention of the final product is for it to look like a painting.


Photos via Alexa Meade

My initial response to Meade’s work was that it was impressive but after reflecting on it further, I thought of some questions.  Unless the audience of her work sees or understands some of the details of how the work came to be, what they see is a flattened version of what was a live 3D painting or a photograph of one.  Then process comes in.  Is it important for the viewer to know about the process of the work?  Is it only important for the artist on a personal level?  There is a school of thought that believes everything a viewer needs to know about a piece of art lies in the artwork itself.  These questions and issues can also be applied to hyperrealistic works of art, such as paintings that appear to be photographs. [Read more…]

Somebody’s Strange Blackout Poetry Story


Photos by Jessie Roth

Read Part I – Blackout Poetry: A Case Study in Artistry, Originality, and Creative Genius

A few days ago, I watched a great Netflix documentary about the National Film Registry called These Amazing Shadows. One of the librarians of Congress quoted in the film said something very simple, and very powerful, that stayed with me: “Stories unite people, theories divide them.” I often struggle to articulate what it is that interests me most, both academically and otherwise, but I think what it all boils down to is stories. You know, the sweeping and unclassifiable compilation of human experiences and the many ways it can be recounted. In other words, I’m fascinated by how and why we tell stories, as well as what can be salvaged, repaired, or gained in the process. Stories are universal and the desire to share them is among the most primitive, archetypal human instincts.

Sophomore (last) year, I concentrated my final project for a photo class around the theme of storytelling, using blackout poetry and photographs. I always wondered: what would happen if a group of people were given the same exact materials – a page of a book and a black sharpie marker – then asked to make a poem? This idea stewed in my brain for years before I finally decided to manifest my curiosity in the creative experiment that came to be called “Somebody’s Strange Blackout Poetry Story.” Over the course of three months, I distributed a randomly-selected spread from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to several people I met on the streets of New York City and asked them to make poems for me, taking pictures of each person as I progressed. What ensued was a simultaneous examination of human perception and expression.

[Read more…]

Blackout Poetry: A Case Study in Artistry, Originality, and Creative Genius


Photo by Jessie Roth

I was a junior in high school when I made my first blackout poem. The piece was taken from “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” a book I’m pretty sure I never actually finished, and the poem was about what my sixteen-year-old self called “insomnia.” Honestly, I just liked staying up really late and assigning a name to the antics of enjoying the early morning. Blackout poetry was trending across the Internet and after finding an example on some user’s deviant art page, I decided to try my hand at it. Of course, at the time, I thought my own painfully mediocre finished product was something of a groundbreaking masterpiece. It wasn’t. I took a black marker to the first page of a short book about teen life and crossed out a few lines, and I was hardly the first person to do it. I knew that. But I was shortsighted and sixteen, so I considered my efforts inspired. What I didn’t know was that a surprisingly long and rather remarkable history lay behind the “hip” medium of blackout poetry, or that my interest in the craft would sustain beyond eleventh grade.

Now I’m a junior in college and I still make blackout poems sometimes. I’ve been doing this for upwards of four years, which is more than I can say about the rest of the long list of activities I’ve “dabbled in” while attempting to “find myself” as a “meandering young adult.” I like it because it’s both fun and fascinating to pull words out of another human’s word bank and reconstitute meaning in my context. I don’t claim to own any of the words on the pages of novels, newspapers, or magazines I have repurposed any more than the initial author can. Language is a communal experience, varied among cultures but always, always belonging to all. These ideas can be traced back to Gertrude Stein’s experimental language-based writing in the 1960s. Language writing seeks to subvert traditional poetic expectations in terms of form, content, and meaning. In a radical literary uprising, Stein and her fellow Language poets tore down a literary patriarchy preaching linearity, coherence, and feeling and replaced the preexisting ideals with nonlinearity, open-ended interpretation, and a heightened appreciation for the nonsensical. In short, Stein carved out an alternative niche for forward-thinking, curious writers so as to reinvigorate the literary tradition and encourage a new kind of creativity.

[Read more…]

A Romanticization of Mexico

I have a very Mexican mother in Texas who almost choked on her mid-afternoon pan dulce when I told her I was traveling to Mexico this past summer. The border violence and drug war circumstances–beheadings, sequestrations and drug cartel violence– are what most media outlets cover in regard to Mexico. Oh, and of course immigration, the other hot topic. If a news story on Mexico isn’t about human bodies being hung from bridges, it’s some xenophobic diatribe about how undocumented immigrants are destroying the pristine United States of ‘Merica. The word ‘Mexico’ can sometimes feel like a bad word, highly charged and controversial. This is particularly problematic for me and many people I know because to many Mexican-Americans and Mexicans in the U.S., Mexico is the Motherland. There are untold histories about the ancient civilizations, cultural relics destroyed or hidden during colonization and a sinkhole of untapped art history.


I flew over the golden-sparkled cityscape of Mexico D.F. to land in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for a day of solitude before my friends’ arrival. The margins of the capital Oaxaca city are lined with mountains where many Oaxacans live. About 48% of the population in Oaxaca is indigenous and speaks an assortment of native languages– the most of any other Mexican state. Streets are made from round stones and the walls that border the avenues are an amalgam of bright colors. My first morning in Oaxaca began at my hostel Casa Angel where ladies from the mountains cooked fried eggs with fresh salsa and bread for the guests.

[Read more…]

Robert Montgomery and the Postmodern Tradition


Photo via Robert Montgomery

Last week, I paid a visit to the C24 gallery in Chelsea to catch the final days of an installation by London-based artist Robert Montgomery. The show, which ran from September 10 through October 19, marked Montgomery’s first solo exhibition in New York City.

Robert Montgomery’s artist statement asserts that he works “in a poetic and melancholic post-structuralist tradition.” He follows in the wake of early experimental postmodern artists such as Jenny Holzer, who were attracted to the reemerging power of text in an image-saturated society in the 1980s. Montgomery crafts pieces of prose, usually referential critiques of capitalism and world politics, and plasters them over advertisements. His poetic installations are usually quite minimalist and feature simple, stripped down assertions in stark black-and-white text. Larger-scale pieces illuminate Montgomery’s haunting words using recycled sunlight, or are literally lit on fire. These massive works are installed in empty, open places to emphasize the public paranoia and universal isolation imposed by unrealistic renderings of human potential in advertising and the media.

[Read more…]

What Do Banksy and Arcade Fire Have in Common?


Photo via Banksy

Earlier this month, enigmatic street artist Banksy arrived in New York City for what he’s calling “an artist’s residency on the streets of New York.” Banksy has revealed a new artwork each day of October, amassing a collection of funny, thought-provoking pieces that entertain and also force the viewer to confront uncomfortable realities. So far, he has painted an homage to the fallen twin towers in Tribeca, arranged a slaughterhouse delivery truck carting stuffed animals to tour the meatpacking district, and sculpted a traveling fiberglass replica of Ronald McDonald having his shoes shined by a real boy. Halfway through his stint in the city, there is no telling what his next work will be. For Banksy, no territory is too offensive to target.

While Banksy is touring and tagging around the five boroughs, Arcade Fire is also in New York (for a couple of surprise concerts in Brooklyn this weekend) and also tagging. Last month, colorful chalk patterns in the shape of a diamond started showing up in major cities around the world, New York City included. When the band’s new title-track single “Reflektor” dropped in September, the letters in the diamonds suddenly made sense and promotion for Arcade Fire’s highly anticipated, fourth studio album (due out October 29) had begun.

[Read more…]

The Myth Came Before the Hunt


Photo by April I. Siqueiros

In a critique against paleontology and the science field in general, Barnett Newman, an abstract expressionist artist and writer, quarreled with the invasion of sciences in other fields, such as culture and philosophy, and their attempt to claim and “resolve metaphysical mysteries.”  Newman argues that paleontology deviates from the original scientific “What?” and asks “Who?” instead.  In, The First Man Was an Artist, first published in 1947, he writes:

“Who cares who he was?  What was the first man, was he a hunter, a toolmaker, a farmer, a worker, a priest, or a politician?  Undoubtedly the first man was an artist.”

He continues,

“Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one.  Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.  Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void.

The human in language is literature, not communication.  Man’s first cry was a song.  Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water.  Even the animal makes a futile attempt at poetry.  Ornithologists explain the cock’s crow as an ecstatic outburst of his power.  The loon gliding lonesome over the lake, with whom is he communicating?  The dog, alone, howls at the moon.  Are we to say that the first man called the sun and the stars God as an act of communication and only after he had finished his day’s labor?  The myth came before the hunt.  The purpose of man’s first speech was an address to the unknowable.  His behavior had its origin in his artistic nature.

The Fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as a fall from Utopia to struggle, as the sociologicians would have it, nor, as the religionists would have us believe, as a fall from Grace to Sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life to be, like God, ‘a creator of worlds,’ to use Rashi’s phrase, and was reduced to the life of toil only as a result of jealous punishment.

In our ability to live the life of a creator can be found the meaning of the fall of man.  It was a fall from the good, rather than from the abundant, life.  And it is precisely here that the artist today is striving for a closer approach to the truth concerning original man than can be claimed by the paleontologist, for it is the poet and the artist who are concerned with the function of original man and who are trying to arrive at his creative state.  What is the raison d’être, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden?  For the artists are the first men.”

Were the first expressions of women and men poetic before they were utilitarian, as Newman argued?  These types of questions are what Artlux aims to get closer to when attempting to understand and explore the artistic and creative mind.


Selections from:

Newman, Barnett. “The First Man Was an Artist.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing         Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 574-577. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.