Text by Caroline D’Arcy Gorman
Photography by Katia Repina
CW: BDSM, mention of sexual assault
“I’m doing a really crazy piece,” Emma Sulkowicz told me over lunch in April, “If all goes according to plan, I will be wearing a Whitney logo bikini and be tied to the wall by a man in a business suit.” After attending Sulkowicz’s final show for her Independent Study Program under the Whitney Museum of American Art, I can confirm that everything did go according to plan, and then some.
On my way into the gallery, I bumped into a breathless woman with a shock of pink hair. It was Sulkowicz. “Hi!” She greeted me warmly, racing past in a dark overcoat and glittery high heels. Following the trail of pink, I pushed my way through the tightly packed gallery towards a growing crowd, shoulder-to-shoulder to watch Sulkowicz’s latest performance piece. Her work, The Ship is Sinking, provided a bold and unabashed critique of the very institution under which she studies: The Whitney. The piece was not performed inside The Whitney itself — “I think that [the institution] fears having a bunch of politically minded artists making work in the museum,” Sulkowicz said — but, rather, at a smaller gallery elsewhere in Chelsea.
The performance artist is no stranger to taking the stage to slam large, seemingly all-powerful institutions. At the ripe age of 24, Sulkowicz has already made her mark on the art world. She became most widely known for her piece Mattress Performance (2014-2015), a brave lash back against the administration of Columbia University, which refused to expel Sulkowicz’s rapist after she filed assault charges against him. The artist’s nine-month-long endurance piece—in which she carried the mattress upon which he raped on her back everywhere she went on campus—quickly became iconic. The case, and Sulkowicz’s piece, resonated deeply with students across the country, prompting a series of marches during which students carried mattresses around their college campuses.
The Ship is Sinking involved two parties: Sulkowicz and her scene partner, Master Avery, a trained S&M artist. Master Avery, dubbed “Mr. Whitney”, was a bearded white male in a suit and Whitney logo tie. The performance began with Sulkowicz asking Mr. Whitney to tie her up and, over the next 45 minutes, Sulkowicz underwent intensive bondage, all the while berated by Mr. Whitney, who shouted “You’ll never make it as an artist!” as he twisted her nipples and hit her with his belt. At one point, Mr. Whitney encouraged audience members to engage in the violence, prompting mixed reactions. Some laughed, some were visibly disturbed, and some dropped their things and began to hit and tease an aerially suspended Sulkowicz. At some moments throughout the performance, the artist’s face was contorted into such pain that it provoked genuine concern from some audience members.
Informed by Bertolt Brecht’s conception of the nation as a sinking ship to which the artist is moored, The Ship is Sinking provided a dynamic and valiant critique. The piece worked both on a broad scale—is it futile to create art within the context of Trump’s America?—and on a more acute scale, with regard to the Whitney’s role in the formation of static conceptions of contemporary art. Additionally, The Ship is Sinking dealt with the complexities and burdens of becoming a public figure, particularly as a woman, a survivor, and a person of color: “White cis men have the privilege of making art that can be divorced from their lives,” she explained. “It’s a privilege that I don’t really have so I’m trying to work in a way that makes the best use of that position as I can.”
Halfway through Sulkowicz’s performance, something unforeseen occurred: the gallery lights unexpectedly turned off. As they continued to flicker throughout the remainder of the performance, never fully turning on, one audience member held up their phone flashlight, then another, and another. Soon enough, nearly every audience member was shining their light on Emma and Mr. Whitney, allowing them to complete their performance in full view.
Next, at precisely 8PM, the show organizer announced that the space was now closed, and began loudly urging audience members to leave the gallery. “I’m angry!” a man next to me declared, “That’s shameful. You can’t interrupt an artist in the middle of her performance. That is crazy!” And indeed, perhaps this proved to be the perfect example of the deleterious effect that the bureaucracy of large art institutions have on the artist as an individual.
The Ship is Sinking finally ended with Mr. Whitney abandoning Sulkowicz, fully-tied on the floor, dusting off his hands and telling the audience, “You can untie her,” as he scoffed and walked away. Without hesitation, members of the audience got down on their hands and knees and began working together to untie Emma. As evidenced by the “collective carry” that occurred during Mattress Performance, where friends and supporters worked together to carry Emma’s mattress for her, there is something about Sulkowicz’s unflinching candor that inspires even the most timid to step forward and untie the rope.
The Ship Is Sinking took place on May 20, 2017 at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space.