Emma Sulkowicz’s Performance Piece Takes On Her Alleged Rapist At Columbia University

Sulkowicz

For centuries, artists have funneled suffering and anger into their art. Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz is doing the same, using her work “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight” as an endurance performance art piece protesting the lack of school imposed consequences on the man she says raped her in her dorm room.

American colleges are notorious for their treatment of sexual assault cases brought to them by students, often pressuring victims not to report attacks to the police and conducting disciplinary hearings related to sexual assault led by improperly trained personnel.

Sulkowicz’s story is similar to many — in fact she says that her rapist committed the same crime on a number of other women on their campus. The difference is the way that she’s chosen to use her art piece as a call to action. Sulkowicz will carry a dorm room mattress with her until her alleged attacker either moves off campus or the school expels him. She says:

I’ve written up 5 pages for the rules of engagement for the piece. I’ve tried to make it as thorough and well-researched as I can – as long as I’m on Columbia campus or any Columbia-owned property, I have to have this mattress with me. It’s an extra-long twin and made of foam so it’s not heavy and impossible, but it’s floppy and unruly. … I could have taken my pillow, but I want people to see how it weighs down a person to be ignored by the school administration and harassed by police.

One of the rules of engagement she’s created is that she’s not allowed to ask for help in carrying the mattress, but others are allowed to offer help, which she can accept. This is an interesting choice, implying that perhaps she’s still dealing with the self-blame survivors of rape frequently experience.

The entire project serves as a self-imposed scarlet letter in many ways. Sulkowicz has bravely allowed herself to become the visible face of a horrifying violation, one that still carries significant victim shaming. Just read the You Tube comments to see what she’s enduring by going public. She says, “I feel like it’s taken over my entire college experience. It’s like a cloud that will always hang over me.” Yet by committing to this public performance, she is continuing to burden herself every day, literally and figuratively, with memories of the experience. In her creation of art in the face of terrible pain, one can only hope that Emma Sulkowicz finds peace. (via New York)

 

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