In September 2014, Columbia University art student Emma Sulkowicz undertook a massive piece of performance art, carrying a 50 pound dorm room mattress everywhere she went on campus to protest the university’s handling of a rape claim she made against a fellow student. Her piece, titled Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight), gained nationwide media coverage and spurned a debate on college sexual assault that continues to this day.
Now a graduate of Columbia University, the New York based Sulkowicz is headed to Los Angeles for her first solo show. Dubbed SELF-PORTRAIT, the show features two new works from the artist that expand traditional notions of the self-portrait while reflecting on Sulkowicz’s relationship to the media during and following Mattress Performance.
The first of the pieces, “In-Action Figure,” includes 10 replicas of the artist, each about 14 inches tall, made via 3D printer. The piece comments on the commodification of Emma Sulkowicz’s image following the viral spread of Mattress Performance. As the creator notes, “If anyone wants to mention anything about campus rape, they’ll invoke my name even if I’m only marginally related to what they’re talking about. My image has sort of become this currency that you use if you want to talk about anything related to these topics.” The printed replicas reflect on referencing Sulkowicz in that context, vaguely meaningful but unable to capture the full scope of her message.
The second piece, “Self Portrait: Performance with Object” is a bit more complex. Emma Sulkowicz will be present during gallery hours throughout the show, performing in this piece alongside Emmatron, a life-sized rubber replica of the performance. The real Sulkowicz will be standing on a pedestal about one foot off the ground, with Emmatron on another pedestal next to her. Guests are invited to interact with the artist and ask her questions, but any questions that objectify or fetishize Sulkowicz will be directed to Emmatron, who guests can interact with via an iPad app. The replica even “talks” through a speaker inside its throat, answering questions that Sulkowicz does not want to answer. Once again, the piece reflects on the media storm that followed Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance, where the artist was constantly asked the same questions over and over again, ones that often missed the point of her performance art or objectified her in the process.
Mattress Performance was a breakthrough work from Emma Sulkowicz, working as a unique piece of performance art and activism that kickstarted a national movement to hold colleges accountable for on-campus sexual assault. It was easily one of the biggest art headlines of last year, for better or worse putting Sulkowicz in the spotlight. And thankfully, the artist continues to expand her work and challenge audiences. Emma Sulkowicz’s solo debut will be at Los Angeles’ Coagula Curatorial from February 27 through April 3. If you plan on attending you’ll want to go early, because Sulkowicz will only be present performing “Self Portrait: Performance with Object” through March 18.
What do you think of Emma Sulkowicz’s latest works? Does the young artist really deserve the critical adoration she’s received? Share your thoughts in the comments.