One of the most intriguing artists of our time, Emma Sulkowicz opens up about events leading to the viral performance piece and continuing work.
Three years before the #MeToo movement went viral, New York–based performance artist Emma Sulkowicz became famous for the 2015 performance piece Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), in which Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound dorm mattress around Columbia University’s campus for nine months to protest the university’s lack of action against an alleged rapist.
After becoming a luminary in the art world, Sulkowicz — who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns — performed Self-Portrait (Performance with Object), in which they answered questions from visitors while standing on a platform at the Caogula Curatorial gallery in Los Angeles, California. Questions that objectified or fetishized Sulkowicz, however, had to be directed toward Emmatron, a life-sized robot in the likeness of Sulkowicz, which dispensed prerecorded answers to preset questions Sulkowicz didn’t wish to answer anymore.
Sulkowicz’s latest piece, The Floating World, features suspending orbs, which contain items that represent the relationships in the artist’s support system, which Sulkowicz tied together with rope using a combination of shibari and ukidama techniques.
In an interview for Crixeo, Sulkowicz spoke with me about the inspiration for Mattress Performance, addressing misinformation about the piece, and what they’ve learned about human nature through their continuing work.
I think what most people know about Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) is from news reports. Do you think the media accurately covered the piece?
I always like to talk about Mattress Performance in full, because there are a lot of myths and misconceptions that have propagated about that piece and somehow become sedimented into fact. The Wikipedia page for Mattress Performance is such a mess. Looking at it is depressing.
I was assaulted on the first day of my sophomore year. I’m the mixed-race Asian grandchild of Holocaust survivors — my mom is half Japanese, half Chinese and my dad’s parents survived two different concentration camps — so genetically I’m built to suck up all my emotions. And I did that when I was assaulted. I wasn’t going to do anything about it.
But then I met this woman at a party, and we locked eyes, and we were like, “We need to talk.” We got coffee, and she said, “I’ve heard rumors about you. I had what’s called intimate partner violence with the guy who assaulted you.” We talked about rumors we’d heard of other women. I met another woman who said he raped her.
I complained to the head of the society that he and I were both in, and she said, “Oh, I’ve gotten complaints about him from two women and one transgender student.”
Now there were six of us. The two other women and I decided to report our cases to the school, who dragged the cases out for almost a year. One of us graduated in the meantime. That was what they were trying to do: have us graduate without ever resolving the case. It was such a circus. Ultimately, they ended up not punishing him.
Then someone was writing an article for Columbia campus’s Blue and White Magazine, and she wanted to write about how Columbia handled these kinds of cases. A mutual friend put us in touch with the writer, and she wrote an article about us anonymously, using pseudonyms for names.
Senator Gillibrand was working on a bill about campus sexual violence at the time, and she read the article. Her team contacted the writer to see if at least one of us would be open to going public with Senator Gillibrand in support of her bill. At that point, we all felt so desperate, because we were still at school with this guy; the whole reason we’d reported our assaults to the school was that we didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.
In this weird way, we drew straws and figured out who’d be the one to go public with Senator Gillibrand, and it was me. That was when I was put on the front page of the New York Times for the first time, because I was a survivor who’d gone public at an Ivy League school at this press conference supporting Senator Gillibrand’s bill. So I was known a little bit before Mattress Performance.
I started getting emails, and people would be like “Why haven’t you gone to the police yet?” The NYPD has a five-year limit; you’re allowed to report your assaults to NYPD within five years of it happening. So I was well within the bracket, but I didn’t want to go to the police because I’d heard that they’re a–holes, but finally I was like, “All right, all right, I’ll do it. So suspecting that they were a–holes, I took an iPhone and recorded the conversation. The conversation was horrible. They were saying things like “He got a little weird that night.” And I replied, “No, he raped me.” Another detective said, “He got creative.”
It was exhausting, and they were so disrespectful of how painful it was for me to have to talk to strangers about this. They would call me at random hours of the day and ask me follow-up questions, so I was put in this position where I had to respond; I had to talk about my rape with the police at any hour of the day. That was how they conducted their investigation. The case could take about a year to process, and by then I would’ve already graduated Columbia. So it didn’t seem worth it. I’d have to spend a year getting random phone calls by these idiot policemen. They kept transferring my case, and I’d have to tell the whole story again to a new person.
On my Wikipedia page, it says the police dropped the case because there wasn’t enough evidence. It’s not true. I had to stop working with them because they were harassing me. That’s been a frustrating thing about how my story turned into history.
So the rape happened the beginning of sophomore year, I met the women at the end of sophomore year, and it took all junior year to do the investigation. By summer between junior and senior year, this assault had taken up two of my four years at Columbia. I knew I’d have one more year to spend with this guy.
How did the idea for Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) develop?
Between junior and senior year, I was in an art residency at Yale University School of Art: Norfolk. It was the first time I was given a chance to make art that wasn’t for a class. This was my first time to make whatever I wanted. I was working on a video that took place in a room. In order to film in this room, I had to move all the furniture out to clear the set, and this video wasn’t coming together.
I asked one of my friends if she could film me getting the room ready and everything I had to do afterward. I watched the footage, and I could not stop watching this one part of it in which I was moving the bed out of the room. I just kept thinking, “Maybe there’s something to that.” So I asked her to film me again moving the bed from the inside of the room, taking it entirely outside of the house, part by part, reassembling it on the front lawn, and getting into it.
The idea was that even though it would be a lot of physical strain to carry this bed, I was on my own. She wasn’t going to help me. The video I made at the residency is called Helping. In it, you’re following me carrying this bed out of this house and reassembling it on the front lawn. There’s this imagery of taking something that happened indoors and bringing it out into the sunlight. And for the audio of the video, I used the recording I took of the policemen harassing me.
There’s the parallel between you as a viewer being unable to help me as I bring this heavy thing out into the light and then the policemen who are actively not helping by actually hindering me from bringing this thing out into the light.
I showed that video to my peers, and they thought it was good. The only thing they thought I could improve upon involved the disconnect between the audio conversation with the police regarding something that happened at Columbia, and the video depicting me doing something in the middle of nowhere. I thought to myself: “Maybe I should continue carrying the mattress at Columbia.” I knew of only one performance artist who’d done anything remotely similar to this: Tehching Hsieh. He did these incredible yearlong endurance performances, and I’d learned about him in high school. He was my favorite performance artist and the only real inspiration. His stuff was very quiet and meditative.
I thought, “This performance is going to be more like that.” Even though I was already in the public eye, I didn’t know Mattress Performance was going to be anything more than a fem version of a Tehching Hsieh piece. While he did yearlong pieces, I was about to embark on a nine-month piece, which is the length of an academic year but also the length of a pregnancy.
How was the piece received?
There’s another myth people always say: “Emma carried a mattress to get her attacker kicked off campus.” I tell this whole story to show that by that point I knew he was not going to get kicked off campus, because we’d tried the school and we’d tried the police. The whole point of the performance was that I was stuck with him for nine months: What kind of thing could incubate inside of me for nine months? I was also interested in that kind of pregnancy metaphor.
Also, I use the pronoun “they,” so when people say “her attacker,” it’s not true on multiple levels: My pronoun is “they,” and also it wasn’t just my attacker. When people talk about it as “my attacker,” they bury the other survivors who were affected by this guy. They shove them under the rug. Whenever I give interviews, I try to bring them back to the light and reaffirm that what they experienced is extremely valid and part of what inspired me to make this piece.
When I look back, it was one of the first media sensation artworks, which is something I could have never anticipated. Also, the performance was really about care, in a weird way: By the end of those nine months, I had become more adept at caring for this large object. My arms got so strong because I had to build strength for this piece. I knew every inch of the mattress. I knew the sound it made. I think people see Mattress Performance as this repudiation of my attacker, but I think holding someone accountable is the most earnest form of care.
How are you able to emotionally thrust yourself into a piece and then step back and do some self-care?
After Mattress Performance, I needed a yearlong break when I was not thinking about making art. The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center is an excellent example of a piece I wish I’d built more time into for self-care because I’m just hyper-attracted to the concept of endurance at this point. When I was working with the museum to negotiate the hours for The Healing Touch, they were like, “You shouldn’t start so early and end so late.” I said, “No, I want to start at 9:30 a.m. and end at 6:30 p.m. with two breaks — one for lunch and one for coffee.” Looking back, I should have listened to them and taken my need for self-care a bit more into account.
How many days was that?
It was a month.
In The Healing Touch, what was the best possible outcome from a 30-minute session between you and a “patient”?
I think with every single person, there was a point in the conversation when there was this shift in tone and content. The discussion got a lot deeper, and the person revealed something very vulnerable about themselves.
Since you talked to several people over 30 days, was there something universal they were all seeking?
Yes. To be seen and feel heard. I tried to have the conversation start very specifically with “What brought you to this art show?” and then get deeper into it. We also talked about that person’s favorite artwork. I didn’t ask it to every single person, but often that was an auxiliary question to help get to the meat of it. And then we brought it back to why they were here in this art piece, in particular. It became apparent to me that every person has experienced something that’s made them [who they are] and that’s just part of living, whether that was an event or an experience or a nonevent. Every person needs art, and we need each other because we need to feel heard. It was so interesting, because my role as the artist in that piece was to not talk to the patient but to listen and ask questions that were conducive to being an active listener. I liked how the piece kind of mirrored itself.
Did you open up to the people at all during the performance, or were you only in the role of therapist?
I was very candid. There was this theatricality that resided in the set and the costume, but not in my performance. I was not performing as a doctor. I was just listening and enjoying people.
How did you maintain self-care during The Healing Touch?
I’d say the most significant problem not with the piece but with my ability to take care of myself was that I finished late in the day. I’d eat dinner and crash. Then I had to wake up early. I didn’t have any time to do anything else. I did that piece four days a week, and I was at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program the other three days a week. So I was in Philadelphia four days a week, and then I’d take a train back to New York to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and I’d take a train back to Philly for a whole month. I was going crazy.
How did you recover from that performance?
I don’t even really know if I did. Self-care was not on point.
Out of all your work, is there any performance piece you’d like to revisit? If so, how would you modify it?
I would be happy to do The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center again in a different location. There are performances I’ve done as collaborations with my amazing friend Violet Overn that I would be happy to revisit just because we’ve done them for limited audiences and we’d love for more people to see them. And, of course, the show I just did, The Floating World, if it were to travel to another city, I’d love to continue working on it and make more sculptures.
Are you able to work on multiple concepts at the same time, or do you focus on one until completion and then start another?
This is something I want young artists to know, and I wish someone had told me: When you put your artwork on display, something will not go as well as you want, and then that’s where you learn and make better decisions for next time. I think when I first started making artwork, I wanted things to be perfect before I put them out into the world, but that’s just impossible. You have to make a mess, and then you fix things as you go along.
One thing I’ve had to learn for myself is that I always think I can handle more than I can. Often I’ll work on multiple art pieces at the same time. And I can do it, but that self-care goes out the window. I need to have time to exercise, whether it’s going to yoga class or going for a run or whatever, because that’s when I meditate. If I don’t do that, I start to get very sad.
With Self-Portrait (Performance with Object), would a person walk toward you and you’d think, “I know what they’re going to ask me”?
No, because everyone had such different motivations for coming. There was the college freshman type who didn’t have anything better to do with their day and wanted to hang out. They would sit on the platform in front of me and hang out for hours, which was cool. They were the kinds of people who came in ready for a transcendental experience and they were going to make it one. Some people would have a speech written on their phone, and they needed to read to me.
Some people just needed to cry, and that was pretty intense because that was something I wasn’t prepared for. And this is all stuff that inspired me to make The Healing Touch and Wellness Center, because people had such quizzical behavior to me that I thought, “What do all these people want from art?” The Healing Touch and Wellness Center was kind of my investigation into that question: What type of healing impulse are you trying to satisfy when you go to an art show?
The Floating World is your first solo show that isn’t a performance piece. What’s it like setting up The Floating World, walking away from it and revisiting it the next day? Do you learn more about yourself when you can take yourself outside the work more than when you’re doing a performance?
Well, that’s kind of true for both because, for example, in Self-Portrait (Performance with Object) I would do it — go to sleep and go back to it. It was different every day. So I’d say that pattern is true for both.
Has the political climate in the U.S. changed how you approach your art, and has it inspired any future pieces?
I have an amazing idea, but I believe if you talk about your art ideas too much, you get them out of you and have no impetus to make them anymore. If someone wants to fund a crazy performance art piece about our current political climate, please hit me up.