Photo Tanner Abel
Interview & Text Caroline D’Arcy Gorman
Style Gabriella Talassazan
DRØME: How’s it going?
Emma Sulkowicz: Good! My final show, The Ship is Sinking is coming along. I just went there to take measurements. I think I figured out how to navigate the space. The project is becoming clearer by the minute. I’m very hyped.
What is your process like when you first see a space? How do you figure out how to work within it?
I always start with an image, then I think about the space that it is going be in and figure out how to make it fit. For example, Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight started with a vision I had of me carrying a mattress, and I was like, ‘Huh, that was an interesting thing to see, why did I see that?’ The Ship is Sinking started with a vision I had of myself standing in the gallery space shouting at the top of my lungs, “The ship is sinking! The ship is sinking!” There is this Bertolt Brecht quote in which he compares useless poets to painters who “adorn the walls of a sinking ship with a still life.” So I started to think about what use art is on the wall of a sinking ship. What use is all the artwork in the Whitney Museum when our country’s falling to pieces? These programs pretend to be so left-wing and political, but what are we really doing? Are we really stopping the ship from sinking?
How has studying at The Whitney otherwise informed your practice as you navigate through the institution?
I think that a lot of the philosophers or theorists that we read don’t take the power of aesthetics into consideration. Some of them even goes as far as saying that aesthetics are bad. Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction suggests that the logical conclusion of an aesthetic practice is all out war and death and destruction. I think he’s wrong. Whenever any old white man tells me to do anything I usually do the opposite. (Laughs.) So I’ve been really excited about engaging with aesthetics and trying to find power in making work that looks good. Aesthetics are always used against women as a way of dismissing them, and I was seeing these kinds of anti-aesthetic, political projects as the ones that perpetuate a dismissal of femme-aesthetic, which takes away femme-power. People who can divorce themselves from aesthetics tend to be white cis men with privilege. There are a lot of people who cannot separate themselves from aesthetics. To some people, aesthetics can be a way of expressing a gender that’s not necessarily defined by society. I realized that to dismiss aesthetics is to dismiss something that’s really personally important for so many people and their struggles.
Totally. Recently I have been rediscovering fashion as an art form, and recognizing that the way you dress is often a tool for survival. That understanding of fashion conflicts with its supposed superficiality.
I think we need to empower aesthetics.
Speaking of aesthetics, I’m interested in your aesthetic choices for Mattress Performance.
When I was planning for Mattress Performance a lot of people told me to write something on the mattress; they really thought of this mattress as this blank canvas that was supposed to be filled. What was so interesting was that everyone had a different idea of what was supposed to be on the mattress—suddenly this blank rectangle became the site of so many different fantasies and projections. So it was really important to me that I didn’t use writing or images. When the piece started getting attention from the media, the photograph of me carrying the mattress became this site of so many fantastical projections. For many people, I was a beacon of hope, while for many other people I became a symbol of the destructive woman and evil feminist. So in that particular performance, the blankness was useful as a way of foregrounding imagistic projections.
How did you initially deal with that loss of anonymity following Mattress Performance?
It is not something I love having, but the ability to separate yourself from your art is a privilege. Mary Kelly is this really amazing artist who talked about when it means to be marked. Cis, white men have the privilege of making artwork that can be divorced from their lives, but women, or people who are not white, cis, rich men, are always going to be “marked.” White men are the ones who, historically, get to make abstract paintings. A black person making an abstract painting, will invariably have their work described as a “black painting.” Feminism is about making progress from the position of dispossession.
Going back to what you said about the national attention of Mattress Performance—whether you were viewed in a positive or negative light, people developed very strong and unsolicited opinions about your piece and therefore, you. I’m wondering how that manifested.
I have been through so many weird experiences during Mattress Performance; people would just touch me reverently as I walked by, almost as if they expected physical contact to be healing in some way. That’s why for my piece The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, I wanted to use the aesthetic of a doctor’s office to address this aspect of their expectations of my art. I used the aesthetic of the doctor’s office to get that out of the way so we could really get to the meat of what I think these people wanted, which was to feel heard. So by the time they had filled out their paperwork, walked down the hallway, closed the door, and sat on the treatment table, they really just want a chance to talk and be heard. Obviously it is way more complex than that, because everyone has something different that they need from art. But, at least we were able to explore what these people needed from art.
I read a post you wrote regarding the “Woman of Courage Award” that you received—“Many people ask me how I’ve healed from my assault as if healing were another word for forgetting about it, getting over it, or even shutting up about it. To expect me to move on is to equate courage with self-censorship.” What does the word ‘healing’ mean to you?
I love telling people my definition of healing because it’s very different from the dictionary definition. I made my own definition back when I reported myself to the school and they sent me to a school therapist. The therapist was really well-intentioned, but she said, “Emma, I know that if we work together for long enough you will feel so ok with what happened that you could even sit in the same room as your attacker again.” And I was like, “That is not something I want.” In an institutional context actually, healing does look like that. It is like taking painkillers—you ignore the pain so you can continue your life as if nothing happened. I am interested in a form of healing that entails a deeper engagement with pain. Healing, to me, means deciding not to get over it, not to move on. It means feeling more, and holding people accountable. And I think that good art actually comes from the angriest and saddest parts of your soul.
What about the process of letting go of your performances after they’re over? I know you mentioned you’ve been dying your hair after each performance, which is interesting to me because perhaps that is an external representation of an internal change. Is there a grieving process?
It’s funny because usually after I do a big performance I just look in the mirror and think, “My hair color is wrong!” It just so happens that this event occurs after every one of my performances, when I’m ready for the next thing. I liked that you used the word “grieving” because it definitely feels like that. I actually have a term for it—I call it “Post-Performance Partum Depression” (Laughs).
Makes a lot of sense.
After I do a performance, I literally feel like I have given birth to a baby and then it goes away. Mattress Performance was the most literal version of P.P.P.D. since the act was nine months long. But after every performance there’s this week where I have to re-adjust to my body again. And I do feel kind of depressed until I come up with the next idea and then I can get really excited again.
What about environmental change? You have done shows in Philly, in LA, in New York—how does the flow of the city shape the way that you experience your work?
Oh wow. I don’t even know if I think about that, because I am such a city kid. I think the weirder question would be, “What would my art even look like in the middle of a grassy field?” (Laughs). I have no fucking idea.
So the show you just had in LA, Self-Portrait, what was the genesis of that piece?
After Mattress Performance, I was getting a lot of interview requests. It was really frustrating because every interviewer had basically the same set of questions to ask me. At a certain point I thought, “Why can’t they just google the answers?” Also, a lot of the questions were difficult to answer; for example, ‘“Tell me about the night you were raped.” How many times can you really answer that before you go totally insane? I came up with the piece because I thought it would be really nice if I had a robot to answer all of these questions for me. She wouldn’t have to deal with all the emotions!
And how did you go about the process of creating the piece?
I was thinking a lot about making self-portraits because I was literally in the process of making one. I realized that there are drawing self-portraits, sculptural self-portraits, photographic self-portraits; but what would it mean to have a performance art self-portrait? So for that piece, I had a sculptural self-portrait on one side—the robot that I made—and the performance art self-portrait on the other side. My task was to perform as myself, which if you think about, is surprisingly not easy.
What is your relationship with your body while you perform?
I think the first thing that makes me think of is Mattress Performance; I was literally exercising all day (Laughs.)
Right! I read somewhere that you said you were going to miss your arm muscles.
Actually I still miss my arms. Ever since, I have been trying to figure out another performance art piece when I have an excuse to exercise all the time. But at the beginning of Mattress Performance it was really hard. I actually had such bad neck pain that I couldn’t turn my head. But by the end I was jacked! I actually didn’t need help to carry the mattress anymore.
So Mattress Performance was super physical; and Self-Portrait was anti-physical in the way that you positioned yourself in the space where no one is allowed to touch you. Perhaps, the “Wellness Center” is somewhere in between those two. How do you deal with objects and touch in your pieces?
In all my performances, there is a huge slippage between human and object. And I think that that’s related to how, when a person is raped, they become an object. With Mattress Performance, what was so interesting was the object—the mattress—was about human size. I feel like many people interpreted Mattress Performance as a ‘bearing of weight’ which is true, but it was also a dysfunctional dance— a fucked-up tango. I always had to navigate spaces as two, as a pair. I’ve always thought of myself as a really big person because I have really big hands and they’ve always seemed huge compared to other people’s. But when I had to pick up Emmatron [the robot version of myself in Self Portrait] to move her and ship her to LA, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m teeny!” It’s super interesting. I experienced what it feels like to hug me, as another person.
That is bizarre! Especially since, in today’s selfie culture we ae so accustomed to seeing ourselves, but there isn’t really a way for us to touch ourselves in the same way.
If you ever get a chance to make a self-portrait robot, you need to try it.
For sure. Let’s talk about Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol.
So that origin story… (Laughs). After the Mattress Performance reached a certain pitch on the internet, people were writing in comment sections things like, ‘If Emma were a real rape survivor, she wouldn’t be making art,’ or, ‘she would look more sad,’ And in response, some people were arguing, ‘No way, she is a real rape survivor!’ The idea of a “real rape survivor” is kind of ridiculous because it sets up the idea that there is also a “fake rape survivor.” I wanted to figure out the one thing a “real rape survivor” would never do, and then do it.
Back then, the title of the piece was “The Proof I Wish I Had.” I worked on the artist statement online with this feminist art theorist named Rosalyn Deutsche, who is a total badass—she is a big deal in the art theory world. Rosalyn helped me couch the piece in a way that would help people understand what was going on theoretically. Under the video online, I included another comment section—which of course is where I got the original inspiration for the piece from. In many ways, Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is actually two endurance performances. The first, where I re-perform the rape; and the second, where I have to read every single comment. At the time, there was an ongoing lawsuit where my attacker was suing the school. I had to read every single comment, because technically the comments were words on my piece and thus made me legally liable.
Can you talk about the physicality of the piece?
Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol was not physically fun in any way, shape, or form. But the fact that I came up with the idea meant that there was some part of me that desired it. This is something that I do not really have any answer to, but I wonder if it was a way of sublimating some sort of repetition compulsion: this event happened once in my life and it was completely non-consensual, and then I did it again, but this time it was completely consensual. So even though it was a reenactment of rape, it was actually a consensual practice. Before we did the performance, my actor and I signed these consent forms and came up with safe words. When I give artist talks, I like showing a slide with the consent agreements and the safe words. That is the difference between consensual kink, reenactments of rape, and actual rape. That said, it was very painful and not particularly fun. We had to do three takes before it looked good.
Reading the comments is no easy feat. How do you do that and how do you come out of it?
I don’t have a strategy, I don’t really have a management solution. It hurts and there really is no getting over it. There is never really going to be a moment in my life when a rape threat is not going to bother me. As a person who receives a lot of internet bullying, it is important to be very vocal about the fact that internet bullying is real and sit with the pain.
Right. And you are positioning yourself in a way that renders you visible.
Yes. There is this really annoying strain of art people who are say that millennials are egotistical; that we just want to be looked at. But performance art has a long history that predates this generation. Yvonne Rainer recently gave a talk at the Whitney and someone asked her, “Why do you put yourself in you choreography? Why don’t you just have other dancers?” And she just stood up—she’s a thin, old woman—and said, “What, I like being looked at, OK?” (Laughs.)