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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Haunting Portraits Of Rape Survivors Bravely Confront Sexual Abuse

article-2522955-1a08ca1900000578-148_634x844“Before it happened, I thought about going to the Peace Corps. I wanted to be somewhere, get somewhere bigger. I wanted to grow.” “Every part of me was altered.” Rochester, NY – 2013

article-2522955-1a08ca5600000578-790_634x844“The officer asked me if I could describe my rapist. When I told him it was my husband, he dropped his notebook on the table and asked me, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ They never did anything” “Once we have a place to talk about it, it’s like releasing a poison from inside us.” Rochester, NY- 2013

article-2522955-1a08ca5100000578-667_634x879“Imagine if someone erased your personality at age twenty. You have to figure out what kind of person you are without the first twenty years.” Ithaca, NY – 2012

article-2522955-1a08ca3500000578-18_634x843“I’m no longer afraid of what it means to be me. I refuse to let fear turn to regret. I am strong, and will be stronger.” Rochester, NY 2013

With her stunning series Trigger Warning, the photographer Lydia Billings works to “craft [a] collective voice” for survivors of rape and sexual abuse, and in doing so, she creates a complex visual and narrative mapping of diverse stages of human coping, healing, and experience. She powerfully avoids any impulse to re-victimize her subjects, granting them the power to speak out and to reveal only what they are ready to share. She first meets with each subject without a camera, allowing organic and intimate conversations to flow for as long as three hours. When she returns with her camera, she gets her shot in as little as ten minutes to one hour.

She cherishes her connection to her subjects and aims simply to make all “feel like they’re being seen honestly.” She explains, “I can celebrate every day the strength […] and beauty of survivors.” And her intent resounds throughout each piece; her sharp focus on the individual highlights steady tears, streaming locks of hair, set wrinkled brows, and unrelentingly magnificent eyes that stare straight ahead. With the focus on her subject, the various backgrounds take a back seat, becoming blurred and out of focus, and ultimately resting in peaceful deference to the details of the human face.

Trigger Warning also features a complimentary series of third person stories of assault alongside topographical shots of places in which rape could conceivably occur (note: none of the locations photographed are actual reported sites of rape or abuse). Sprinkled amidst the emotionally charged human portraits, the jarringly objective images are evocative of the work of 1970s New Topographics photographers, who shot man-made industrial structures and landscapes without the sentimentality or emotionality of early landscape photography. The power of this chapter of Billing’s work lies in an elegant slippage between fact and very real possibility, between emotional impulses and objective aesthetics; the dizzying relationship between neutral and candidly seen places familiar to us all—a wood, a church, a home— and simply told yet harrowing stories of very real traumas forces viewers to acknowledge the faces before us, to enter into dialogue with their experience, and ultimately, to applaud their courage. (via Bust, Daily Mail, and Huff Post)

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