dr. emma sulkowicz is healing her patients (and haters) with art

In a new performance at Philadelphia Contemporary, the artist behind 'Mattress Performance' will prescribe personalized cures for her patients' insatiable, divergent desires. Dr. Emma Sulkowicz MD talks to i-D about healing, haters, and why good art...

by Hannah Ongley
Jan 11 2017, 7:50pm

Why can art help heal in a way that traditional medicine can't? And what does healing even mean? Emma Sulkowicz has been thinking about this since long before the trauma of the recent election cycle. The New York artist started addressing a very private tragedy in a very public way in 2014, when she decided to carry a 50-pound mattress around her Columbia University campus to protest the school's mishandling of her sexual assault complaint. Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance) sparked an important conversation about sexual violence and made Sulkowicz a magnet for the intense emotions of others, both online and in the street. Some people approached her to share their own stories, while others launched violent campaigns against her.

The reactions to Mattress Performance have inspired Sulkowicz's next performance. Over the next two weeks, she'll be going by the title Dr. Emma Sulkowicz MD and prescribing advice in a makeshift office at the Philadelphia Contemporary. Visitors, or patients, can make appointments for a 30-minute private consultation at The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, described by the artist as "a parafictional medical clinic that provides a revolutionary cure for desire." Dr. Sulkowicz will provide her patients with personalized cures for their desires and an increased awareness of the importance of art. As The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center opens for business, she talks to i-D about why feeling emotions intensely is more important now than ever.

Did you seek psychiatric advice of your own over the course of Mattress Performance or afterwards? How do you reconcile healing with the idea of "getting over" or "forgetting about" trauma?
Before Mattress Performance, I was assigned a therapist through the university that I saw while my case was pending. At one point, my therapist said that if I desired, we could get to a point where I could feel so much better about what had happened, that I could even be in a room with my rapist again and not feel bad about it. That changed the way I thought about healing. I realized that there were two types of healing: one aimed toward "smoothing things over" and one aimed toward more feeling, emotion, friction, and potentially even more hurt. I decided that I was interested in the latter. I decided that I was not interested in a therapeutic practice that equated healing with moving on or getting over it.

How do you think art can help heal when traditional medicine can't?
Already, in rehearsal, I've definitely learned so much about my own belief in the healing power of art. In hearing about the many different ways in which art is important to others, it's shown me why art is so important to me. I identify with many of the desires that my "patients" have when they go to see art. I think that good art makes you think differently, but the best art makes you feel differently, and often, feeling differently means feeling more. The best art brings up a lot of emotions.

Why is physical contact an integral part of this performance?
Ultimately, it isn't really such an integral part of this performance. I think that when people go to a doctor's office, there is the expectation that there will be some sort of physical contact involved. During Mattress Performance, when I would carry the mattress down the street, people would touch me as I walked by, as if I were a holy object/person that could heal them. Of course, this was a violation of my body, so I was freaked out that people would do that to me. The mention of physical contact in this art piece alludes to the strange role that touch plays in these "healing" acts. However, in the actual performance, touch isn't one of the central features of what happens.

The comments you get from trolls online are often very aggressive. Have many people approached you like this in real life?
No one acts like a real "troll" to my face. I think this is why trolls are trolls; they are much more comfortable behind their computer screens. One person even came to my performance in LA and was very personable to me, but then went back home and wrote a very troll-ish thing about his experience with me on his blog... where I think he admitted to masturbating to my work Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol? Something along those lines.

On Instagram you keep the negative comments up, which helps to raise awareness that violence and misogyny are so rampant. Then you see things like the (now suspended) @fakerape Twitter account and the "pretty little liar" posters. How do you draw the line between what needs to be seen and what is just too dangerous?
I think it's all about framing and authorship. In one context, I'm putting out information to show people that misogyny is bad. In the other context, these trolls are putting out information to draw people to their side.

The new project seeks to challenge the insufficient appreciation of Asian American women in the service sector as well as the objectification of women's bodies. Is panethnicity something you were very conscious of regarding responses to Mattress Performance?
Yes! People rarely talk about the "Asian American" or even "mixed-race" reading of Mattress Performance, but it's one of the most important ways I understand my work. In a paper, Vivian Huang read my work in light of Derrida's writings on hospitality. Derrida writes about the ethical scenario of a person letting a stranger into his home. He examines the politics of the threshold. However, Huang points out that Asian women have a different relationship to that political site — we aren't often allowed the power or agency to refuse the stranger entrance into our space. When people would tell me their stories in public without warning, it often felt like they assumed I would heal them, whether I was ready to or not. Huang writes that I employ "a feminist and Asian aesthetic strategy to embrace the position to accept and receive."

Has the US presidential election changed how you approach art as a form of protest, or what the goal of such art should be?
Yes. I want to create a space where people can feel, and feel more, because that's the kind of healing that I believe in. I feel that it is extremely important to do this artwork this month, the month of the inauguration.

The best art enables us to empathize with each other because it makes us better at feeling. It creates compassion. And I think that the more compassion there is on earth, the less evil will exist. People will not want to harm each other, because they'll actually understand the way each other feels. The more compassion there is on earth, the less shit like the past election will happen. So yes, this month, I think it's important we enable people to feel as much hurt, anger, and loss as they need. I think it will actually make things better.

The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center is open January 13 - 29, 2017 at Philadelphia Contemporary. A panel discussion and opening celebration takes place on Wednesday, January 11 from 6 - 10pm. 


Text Hannah Ongley

sexual assault
Emma Sulkowicz
mattress performance