Mattress Performance

emma Sulkowicz

Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)’ was a work of endurance performance art by Emma Sulkowicz, conducted as her senior thesis during the final year of her visual arts degree at Columbia University in New York City.

Begun in September 2014, the piece involved her carrying a 50-lb mattress – of the kind Columbia uses in its dorms – wherever she went on campus. She said the piece would end when a student she alleges raped her in her dorm room in 2012 was expelled from or otherwise left the university. Sulkowicz carried the mattress until the end of the Spring semester as well as to her graduating ceremony in May 2015.

The student Sulkowicz accused was found ‘not responsible’ in 2013 by a university inquiry into the allegations. He called Sulkowicz’s accusation ‘untrue and unfounded’ and ‘Mattress Performance’ an act of bullying. Sulkowicz filed a police complaint in 2014; the district attorney’s office did not pursue criminal charges, citing a lack of reasonable suspicion. In 2015 the accused student filed a lawsuit against the university, its trustees, university president Lee Bollinger, and art professor Jon Kessler, Sulkowicz’s thesis supervisor, alleging that they exposed him to gender-based harassment by allowing Mattress Performance to take place on campus for course credit. The suit was dismissed in 2016. An amended complaint has been filed.

The piece has been subject to controversy with praise from art critics and criticism from some commentators. Art critic Jerry Saltz called Mattress Performance “‘pure radical vulnerability’ and one of the best art shows of 2014. Journalist Emily Bazelon described the work and events surrounding it as ‘an increasingly bitter fight over truth and narrative,’ a triumph for the survivor movement and a nightmare for the student Sulkowicz accused. Caught between defending and enabling Sulkowicz’s freedom of expression and the accused student’s right to due process and the University’s written policies regarding confidentiality, the university was criticized by both parties and their parents for its handling of the issue. Social critic Camille Paglia criticized ‘Mattress Performance’ stating that feminist works ‘should empower women, not cripple them.’

Sulkowicz alleges that she was slapped, choked, and anally raped in her dorm room by another student, on the first day of her second year in 2012, during what began as a consensual sexual encounter. The student Sulkowicz accused denies the allegation, insisting that the encounter was entirely consensual. Sulkowicz filed a complaint with the university eight months later after encountering two other female students who said they had been victimized by the same individual.

One was a former girlfriend who said she was emotionally abused during their long-term relationship, and later came to view their sexual relations as having been non-consensual. The other said that on one occasion the accused student had moved toward her aggressively, grabbed her arms, and attempted to kiss her. Shortly after Sulkowicz filed her complaint, the two other students with whom she was acquainted also filed complaints with the university against the same student. Columbia ultimately cleared him of responsibility in all three cases.

The case attracted wider attention when the three female students who filed complaints gave interviews to the ‘New York Post,’ which broke the story in 2013, without naming those involved. In 2014 Sulkowicz appeared with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a press conference about campus sexual assault, that alleged that institutions discourage students from reporting sexual assault, that alleged perpetrators are not removed from campus, and that sanctions are too lenient. Sulcowicz subsequently filed a complaint with the NYPD. The district attorney’s office interviewed her and the student she accused, but did not pursue charges, citing lack of reasonable suspicion.

Sulkowicz created ‘Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)’ in the summer of 2014 for her senior thesis while at Yale University Summer School of Art and Music. Her first effort was a video of herself moving a bed out of a room, accompanied by the audio of her filing the police report, which she had recorded on her cellphone. The mattress later became the focus of the piece. Sulkowicz’s thesis was supervised by artist Jon Kessler, a professor at Columbia. As the idea for Mattress Performance developed, Kessler and Sulkowicz discussed the nature of endurance art. Sulkowicz told the Columbia Spectator: ‘I do think that nowadays art pieces can include whatever the artist desires and in this performance art piece it utilizes the elements of protest …’

She spent the summer of 2014 creating the rules of engagement, which defined the parameters of the project. Written on the walls of her studio in the university’s Watson Hall, these included that she had to carry the mattress when on university property; that it had to remain on campus when she was not there; and that she was not allowed to ask for help in carrying it, but if help was offered she could accept.

Sulkowicz said the work would end when the classmate she accused was expelled from or otherwise left Columbia, and that she would take the mattress to her graduation ceremony if necessary. In the end she carried it to their graduation ceremony despite a request from the school that students should not bring ‘large objects which could interfere with the proceedings.’ Several women helped carry the mattress on stage. As they approached, university president Lee Bollinger, who had been shaking other graduates’ hands, turned away as if to pick something up, and did not shake their hands; the university said this happened because the mattress was in the way. The next day posters appeared in Morningside Heights near the university calling Sulkowicz a ‘pretty little liar.’

After graduation Sulkowicz said she had known the university would not expel the student she accused, and had expected to carry the mattress for nine months, the length of a pregnancy, which was an important part of the work: ‘To me, the piece has very much represented [the fact that] a guy did a horrible thing to me and I tried to make something beautiful out of it.’

‘The New York Times Magazine’ writer Emily Bazelon called ‘Mattress Performance’ a nightmare for the student Sulkowicz accused. His name was written on campus bathroom walls and distributed on flyers, and he was shunned by other students and subjected to threats. On the ‘National Day of Action’ in November 2014 protesters took mattresses to one of his classes. He described ‘Mattress Performance’ as harassment ‘explicitly designed to bully’ him into leaving Columbia. Reporter and columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley accused Sulkowicz of ‘shaming without proof’ in an editorial published in ‘The New York Post.’ The parents of the student Sulkowicz accused criticized the university, including its decision to let Sulkowicz take the mattress to the graduation ceremony: ‘This has been a deeply humiliating experience. … A university that bows to a public witch-hunt no longer deserves to be called a place of enlightenment, of intellectual and academic freedom.’

In April 2015 the student filed a Title IX lawsuit against Columbia University, its trustees, university president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz’s senior-thesis supervisor, Jon Kessler, alleging they exposed him to gender-based harassment and a hostile educational environment in allowing the project to go forward. He says that in so doing they damaged his college experience, emotional well-being, reputation and career prospects. His lawyers argued that Columbia allowed Sulkowicz to create a ‘public persona surrounding her false allegations, which has led to the posting of videos and other proposed performances depicting [the plaintiff] as a rapist’ even though the university cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Among examples of what they described as ‘public harassment,’ they cited Sulkowicz’s public display of drawings which they said depicted the genitals of the student she accused as part of her project (Sulkowicz left open the question of whether these drawings were of the student or stories about the student), as well as depictions of the alleged sexual assault, as violations of Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policy, which prohibits ‘Unwelcome remarks about the private parts of a person’s body’ and ‘Graffiti concerning the sexual activity of another person.’

Numerous art critics responded positively to ‘Mattress Performance.’ ‘Artnet’ cited it as ‘almost certainly … one of the most important artworks of the year,’ comparing it to Ana Mendieta’s ‘Untitled (Rape Scene)’ (1973) and Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus’s ‘Three Weeks in May’ (1977). Performance artist Marina Abramović praised it, and ‘New York Times’ art critic Roberta Smith described it as ‘strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical,’ writing that comparisons to the ‘Stations of the Cross’ and Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter were apparent. Jerry Saltz, art critic for ‘New York magazine,’ included it in his list of the best 19 art shows of 2014, calling ‘clear, to the point, insistent, adamant … pure radical vulnerability.’

The political response was marked too. Nato Thompson, chief curator of ‘Creative Time,’ said he could not think of another case where art had triggered a movement in the way ‘Mattress Performance’ had. Hillary Clinton told the DNC Women’s Leadership Forum in September 2014: ‘That image should haunt all of us …’ In October Columbia students carried 28 mattresses on campus, one for each student who joined the federal Title IX complaint, then left them outside the university president’s home; they were fined $471 for the clean-up. A month later a group called ‘Carry That Weight’ organized a ‘National Day of Action to Carry That Weight,’ during which students carried mattresses on 130 US campuses and several elsewhere. Sulkowicz received the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Ms. Wonder Award. In January 2015, New York’s U.S. senator Kirsten Gillibrand invited Sulkowicz to attend the 2015 ‘State of the Union Address.’ Families Advocating for Campus Equality said the invitation was ‘undeserved and violates the principles of confidentiality and gender equality of Title IX,’ and that Sulkowicz had ‘failed to establish any wrongdoing’ on the part of the student she accused.

Critics like Camille Paglia described Mattress Performance as ‘a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism.’ The accused said in a December 2014 interview with ‘The New York Times’ that the mattress performance is not an act of artistic expression, but instead one orchestrated to bully him. He also said that he was not permitted to use written communications between himself and the alleged victim as evidence, and expressed disbelief that anyone could believe he was guilty even after his accusers failed to meet what he deemed the low burden of proof in the university hearing process. His lawyer added that Senator Gillibrand failed to adequately investigate his accuser’s account before appearing with her and that she ‘[took] a fictional event and [built] an entire platform around it.’ Naomi Schaefer Riley accused her and her supporters of ‘saving themselves from having to answer any questions and destroying men’s lives with lies and innuendo.’

Sulkowicz’s final thesis show, the week before graduation in May 2015, included depictions of a naked man with an obscenity and a couple having sex, printed onto a ‘New York Times’ article about the student she accused. She said that the images were cartoons, and asked: ‘what are the functions of cartoons? Do they depict the people themselves (a feat which, if you’ve done enough reading on art theory, you will realize is impossible), or do they illustrate the stories that have circulated about a person?’ This work was later shown under the title ‘Newspaper Bodies (Look, Mom, I’m on the Front Page!)’ as part of a group exhibition at the Southampton Arts Center.

Two months later, Sulkowicz released ‘Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (‘This is not a rape’),’ an eight-minute video of herself having sex with an anonymous actor in a Columbia dorm room. The title of the piece is a reference to the caption in René Magritte’s painting of a pipe, ‘The Treachery of Images’: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’). Introductory text by Sulkowicz stresses that the sex was consensual throughout, though toward the end it portrays resistance, violence and force. When the video was first posted, each screen displayed the timestamp of August 27, 2012, the night of the alleged assault, but later the date was blurred. She wrote that the work, which examines the nature of sexual consent, was not a reenactment of the alleged rape and later stated that it’s a separate piece from ‘Mattress Performance.’

In 2016 Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles exhibited a Sulkowicz piece called ‘Self-Portrait.’ For the first three weeks of the exhibition, Sulkowicz stood on a pedestal in the gallery, and had one-on-one conversations with visitors who would stand on an identical pedestal in front of her. The exhibition also featured a life size robotic replica of the artist that was called ‘Emmatron.’ Emmatron plays prerecorded answers to several questions Sulkowicz has been repeatedly asked that she will no longer respond to. A few examples of questions Emmatron had answers to included ‘Tell me about the night you were assaulted,’ ‘Is this art piece a part of ‘Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)?” and ‘What do your parents think of all this?’ If audience members asked these questions to Sulkowicz during their conversation, the artist would send them to Emmatron for the answers.


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