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.