how emma sulkowicz carried the heavy legacy of feminist performance art

Emma Sulkowicz's piece 'Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)' continued a strong tradition of performance art tackling sexual assault and brought new visibility to America's campus rape problem — even if her university just settled a court case...

by Erica Euse
Jul 28 2017, 7:55pm

photograph andre burton/getty images

In the fall of 2014, Emma Sulkowicz returned to Columbia University for her senior year carrying a 50-pound twin mattress. The dark blue extra-long bedding wasn't for sleeping. Instead, it was a prop for Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), a performance art piece that was prompted by Sulkowicz's experience with sexual assault. The mattress, which she dragged around for nine months, was the same style as those provided in the Columbia dorms where she was allegedly raped two years earlier by a fellow student.

Sulkowicz later said that she hadn't really thought of herself as a performance artist, but her work, along with recent projects by students from Michigan to Florida are harking back to the 1970s when feminists started using performance art as a way to bring attention to serious but under-discussed issues like rape.

Prior to the beginning of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, cultural norms taught women to keep their experiences of sexual assault and violence secret. But the use of consciousness-raising finally provided women with a space to discuss private topics openly. The activism tool, which was introduced by the civil rights movement, created spaces for open dialogue on topics like sexism, racism, and discrimination, in hopes this awareness could lead to greater social change. This push to make the previously private struggles of women public helped pave the way for feminist performance art.

"One of the reasons performance art was so attractive was that it was relatively new. People had just started making performance art from fine art, and it was very portable and immediate," says Dr. Jennie Klein, an art history professor at Ohio University. "This was a radical time where you had women being educated together and you had them doing consciousness-raising as a way for informing their artwork."

For centuries, artists had portrayed women in situations of sexual violence through painting and sculpture. Too often the pieces were made by men who portrayed romanticized depictions of rape, like in Gian Lorenzo Bernini's The Rape of Proserpina and Peter Paul Rubens's Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus.

Not to mention, the patriarchal establishment of the art world blocked women artists from gaining widespread recognition. Performance art, on the other hand, was a lane that had yet to be dominated by men's perceptions of women. This new movement of expression gave female artists a new sense of agency. By using their bodies at the center of their work it also allowed them to blur the line between art and life in an unprecedented way.

Yoko Ono was one of the early artists to use her platform to explore assault. In 1969, she released a controversial film titled Rape. The 77-minute movie was filmed from the perspective of a stalker-esque cameraman as he follows an unsuspecting young woman down the streets of London. Eventually he knocks her down in an alley, to symbolize an assault.

But it was California-based artist Judy Chicago who helped cultivate the genre of feminist performance art. She founded the Feminist Art Program at California State University at Fresno in 1970, which was the first course of its kind in the country. Taking cues from the feminist movement, Chicago used consciousness-raising to encourage women to discuss their personal experiences and make art from them.

"Violence, that was one of the very, very shocking things that came up out of consciousness-raising groups," one of Chicago's first students Suzanne Lacy explained in an interview with The ARTery. "Information about rape, about experiences of violence, about incest, it was stuff we had no idea existed. It basically was not something people talked about when I grew up — at all. It was sort of darkly hinted at, but it wasn't talked about."

With a starting class of only 15 students, the women worked together to create immersive performances with themes addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. In one of their earliest pieces, Ablutions, a recording of a woman recounting her rape played in the background, while the performers bathed in tubs filled with clay, eggs, and animal blood.

Lacy went on to make some of the most well-known work around violence against women in the 70s. One of her most popular pieces was a 1977 collaboration called Three Weeks in May, in which she created several large-scale pieces around sexual assault in Los Angeles. One piece included chalking the location of reported rapes on the streets where they occurred, while another recorded them on a large map hanging at the Los Angeles City Hall Mall.

That same year Lacy led a motorcade to the steps of Los Angeles City Hall for an iconic piece called In Mourning and In Rage, following the murders of ten women by Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, who were also known as the "Hillside Stranglers." Women dressed in all black recited lines like "I am here for the 388 women who have been raped in Los Angeles between Oct. 18 and Nov. 29" and "I am here to speak for the thousands of women who have been raped and beaten and have not yet found their voices."

Artist Ana Mendieta is also remembered for her work around sexual assault, which was inspired by the rape and murder of Sarah Ottens at the University of Iowa in 1973. Mendieta, a fellow student, created a series of provocative works on rape and violence. In a piece named Untitled (Rape Scene), Mendieta recreated the scene of Ottens's horrific murder in her apartment, where she posed as the victim covered in blood, and invited an audience inside.

Over the years, feminist performance art has been carried on by acclaimed artists like Marina Abramović, Karen Finley, and even the anonymous performers behind the radical group Guerrilla Girls.

Like Sulkowicz's piece, many of the early feminists' works grabbed the attention of media around the country, which was influential in changing the way we discuss rape.

"Lacy was inviting local government and managed to get a rape crisis hotline established," explains Dr. Klein. "[Feminist performance artists] were very successful in turning around the discourse surrounding sexual assault and how it was understood."

Sulkowicz's protest against sexual assault could have similar results. While her work has faced some criticism, Sulkowicz has contributed to a growing movement that is pushing for universities to reform their policies around sexual assault and end "rape culture" on campuses across the country.

That progress won't come without setbacks. Although Sulkowicz has ended her Mattress Performance piece, earlier this month her alleged rapist Paul Nungesser settled a lawsuit that he brought against Columbia for supporting Sulkowicz's art by offering her school credit. The settlement has student artists worried about how universities will deal campus activism, which could be especially critical in light of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's plan to possibly roll back President Obama's policies for investigating campus sexual assault.

Still, students around the world from California to Hungary have picked up their own mattresses in solidarity with victims of sexual and domestic violence. The need to make the personal political has been passed down to a new wave of feminist artists.

Related: Dr. Emma Sulkowicz is healing her patients (and haters) with art


Text Erica Euse
Photography Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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Columbia University
Emma Sulkowicz
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