Going From Class to Class with Emma Sulkowicz and Her Mattress
September 9, 2015 | ELLE
"I was raped in my own bed and I carry that weight with me wherever I go."
21-year-old Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz speaks firmly and calmly outside of her dormitory building. It's an earnest statement, and one that she's repeated to many reporters since school resumed last week.
Three days into her senior year, and still unsure of her rigorous class schedule, Sulkowicz is already swarmed by reporters and photographers on her way to class. The visual arts major has just embarked on her senior thesis, an endurance performance art project she's calling "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)," in which she will carry around a navy, twin XL mattress—the exact same kind of mattress on which she was raped the first day of her sophomore year—until her rapist leaves the school through expulsion, voluntary leave, or graduation (whichever comes first). Sulkowicz has already received media attention as one of the 23 "complainants" filing April's Title IX case against the university's alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases, but the personal attention has escalated since her art piece has gone viral on the Internet.
For example, last week, one male broadcast journalist repeatedly harassed her until she finally told him off for invading her personal space, which, she says, was extremely distressing given that her entire art piece is about being violated. It seems like the entire world feels entitled to explicate Emma's actions—and in response, she cogently repeats the same answers to the same questions: Rape can happen anywhere; it happened to me in my own bed; beds are where we usually go for comfort.
The performance, she insists, is about carrying the weight of the desecration of the bed with her.
When Sulkowicz was at the Yale Norfolk Artist Residency this past summer, she worked on a video project depicting herself carrying a mattress out of a room. The image of the mattress stayed with her—"like a song stuck in my head"—and she realized that there were embedded meanings in the object. She decided to explore the scar tissue with an art piece, something she says is different than a protest. "I fully realize that my rapist might not get kicked out and that our administration has been dragging its feet for years now," she says. "I've sort of resigned myself to carrying it for as long as it takes. It's an art piece because there's a lot of symbolism and meaning that using the word 'protest' would ignore. I'm not carrying a picture of my rapist; I'm just carrying a mattress. I haven't seen my rapist since I started the piece. My vision is always blocked, but he might have seen me."
On Mondays, Emma attends class from 8:40 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., carrying the 50-pound mattress across campus from north to south, east to west, and occasionally taking a shuttle bus to the uptown classroom locations beyond the ivy gates. The awkwardly bulky mattress forces her to constantly shift the positioning from one side of her body to the other as she walks. The lanky athlete, formerly a member of Columbia's fencing team, stands resolutely tall in spite of the crushing weight of the mattress, which forces her to slouch and sway from side to side. "It's a lot of physical pain," she says. "By day three, I couldn't get out of bed." Unless there are reporters surrounding her, her fellow students, both friends and strangers, male and female, are eager to help her before and after class. These acquaintances aren't only helping her get from point A to point B but also sharing in her everyday burden: carrying the weight of her past—and present—upon her shoulders.
On the way to sculpture class, a student who recognizes her from the news asks if she can help. "Yeah, sure! I'm Emma, by the way. Pleased to meet you," Sulkowicz replies, with the surprise of someone who hasn't yet had time to digest her newfound fame. "I'm still winging it every day," she says. "I haven't had time to have emotions for the past six days now. I've just been waking up, having interviews, doing homework, and going to sleep." Reactions to the piece, she says, range from extreme adoration—"Emma's a goddess and angel"—to extreme hatred—"Emma's a slut and a liar who's trying to grab attention."
Occasionally, students will come up to Sulkowicz to greet her as "Mattress Girl." "They look at me like I'm this thing that popped out of the computer. I have to crack them," she says. "I'm a real person."
Still grasping tightly onto the mattress, Emma and her three aides run up Broadway to catch the shuttle bus, flailing their spare limbs to make sure the driver sees them. When the bus finally slows, Emma laughs with relief. Unfortunately, she's still late to the six-hour studio art class, where she speaks eloquently about her work in photography, kinetic sculpture, and performance art.
After class, she waves at a male friend walking by. "That's my suitemate," she says with a smile. An hour later, he carries the entire mattress to her five-hour evening class, giving her a break after having shouldered the weight since 8:00 a.m. "It's been a week now, and it already feels a little lighter," she says. "I'm getting used to it; I'm getting stronger."