Last Friday afternoon, the College hosted Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia who has garnered international recognition for her performance art piece “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).” Sulkowicz was joined onstage in Chapin Hall by Nancy Zhong ’15, Assistant Professor of English Anjuli Raza Kolb and Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Comparative Literature Vivian Huang.
For her endurance performance art piece, which has been ongoing since the start of classes in September, Sulkowicz carries a standard dorm-size mattress with her everywhere she goes on the Columbia campus. The rules that she set before the piece state that she can’t solicit help from others, but can accept help when it is offered. She will leave the mattress in a safe place upon exiting the campus, but must retrieve it immediately when she returns. Sulkowicz, a survivor of sexual assault, decided that the performance will end when either she or her attacker leaves Columbia or when she graduates at the end of this school year.
“Mattress Performance” is Sulkowicz’s senior thesis for her studio art major at Columbia. While the work is a multifaceted, dynamic piece of performance art that has myriad possible meanings and interpretations, readings of the work often involved its physicality. For example, the piece is often described as representing the burden that survivors of sexual assault must bear. While the piece could initially be seen as empowering, with Sulkowicz standing up to her attacker and her institution, she spoke about how the mattress also drags her down, a reminder of the emotional weight she carries constantly. However, much of the force of the mattress performance lies in the variety of meanings that can be attached to it. During the discussion, Huang proposed the possibility that the mattress is a symbol for Asian-American femininity, Sulkowicz questioned whether its necessary to qualify her art with the word “feminist” and Raza Kolb suggested that the texture of the mattress was intricately linked to Sulkowicz’s experience in carrying it. Sulkowicz responded to this suggestion by describing the mattress as an “antenna.” She has become so physically close to the mattress that, in a sense, it has become a part of herself, in that she can use it to sense how others feel when they carry the mattress.
A prevalent topic during the discussion involved the media and art critics’ frequent application of the label “martyr” to Sulkowicz in her performance. Raza Kolb raised this topic of religious motifs, and in response to these comparisons, Sulkowicz said, “I cry to myself at night. I’m not Christ. I’m not a martyr.” Sulkowicz was clear that this term is not how she identifies herself, emphasizing that she, too, is only a human being – but also noted that she would “rather be objectified as a martyr than a whore.” She bemoaned the ease with which people felt they could come up to her and tell her their stories of sexual assault, saying, “I don’t get a trigger warning [before these stories.]”
If she is not a martyr, then what is she? The comparisons to Christ seemed to suggest some dynamic where she is sacrificing herself for the good of others. Perhaps the act of carrying the mattress and the subsequent attention she received sacrifices her privacy. Carrying around a mattress isn’t exactly easy, either: Sulkowicz discussed an instance when she threw out her shoulder, which made carrying the mattress extremely painful. In a way, she is sacrificing the rights that she has to the health and privacy of her body for her performance. Sulkowicz herself conflated her artwork with her body, saying that the “brackets of performance art don’t exist. If I were someone else, it would be a different piece of art.” Regardless of the connection, Sulkowicz is clearly uncomfortable with the conflation of her artwork with martyrdom. Throughout the discussion and the performance, she kept an eye out for the dangers of objectification. If we give in to the temptation to treat her as a martyr, then we risk falling into the trap of commodified, empty support, and that isn’t good enough.
Sulkowicz doesn’t just have a lot to say about performance art, but also had plenty to tell the College about social activism and about community. Sulkowicz has faced more anger and disappointment than any person should in a lifetime. A notable example of this was when a Columbia student offered to help her carry her mattress, but retracted his offer upon seeing that the person carrying it was Sulkowicz. Many of us can’t even imagine what it’s like to see your attacker in class, or to know that the school you attend refuses to protect you, or to see your peers brush off your pain. However, it seems like Sulkowicz somehow still manages to love the people that she calls her community. When asked about how her piece affected the way she viewed her community, she spoke with anger and frustration, yes, but also with a loving desire to see it be the best that it can be. Maybe this is what makes her a Christ figure and a martyr in the eyes of many.