Emma Sulkowicz: From Mattress to Therapist’s Couch
Famous for dragging a mattress around Columbia University after allegedly being sexually assaulted, Emma Sulkowicz is now play-acting being a therapist.
Emma Sulkowicz has a disarming bedside manner.
She doesn’t introduce herself when I arrive at her Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center in Philadelphia, but smiles warmly as she thumbs through my unfinished paperwork—a list of questions like “What concerns bring you into the office today?” and “Are you experiencing physical pain?”—and tells me to make myself comfortable on her paper-covered doctor’s bed.
Dressed in a white lab coat, black slacks rolled up around her ankles, and black Dansko clogs, she sits on a stool and picks up where I left off with the paperwork: “Why do you go to art shows and performances?”
It’s an interesting role reversal for Sulkowicz, who has been fielding questions from reporters, fans, and critics since she became the face of America’s campus sexual assault debate in 2014 with her senior art thesis at Columbia University, Mattress Project: Carry That Weight.
The marathon performance piece involved carrying a mattress around campus all year to protest the school’s handling of her alleged rape by a fellow student.
Early on, The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the performance’s “striking quality as art” and “effectiveness as protest,” contextualizing the piece in the tradition of artists like Marina Abramović as well as “more extreme physical acts of political resistance—the fasts of jailed suffragists in early-20th-century Britain come to mind.”
Less than a month into her senior year, Sulkowicz and her mattress covered New York magazine, front and center of a feature about campus sexual assault. Her thesis performance had already been widely covered in online media by that point, with some referring to the 21-year-old Columbia student as “mattress girl”—a reductive sobriquet that still nags her two years later, as she tries to establish her real name in the art world.
Sulkowicz has taken on the role of doctor for her latest piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, seeing patients for 30-minute appointments from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for two weeks at the Philadelphia Contemporary gallery.
Dr. Sulkowicz strikes a balance between challenging and empathetic during our appointment, probing me about my relationship to art and the contemporary art world (cynical about its exploding wealth, I confide; fascinated and critical of the people at the top).
Our conversation darts from the absurdly rich and clueless collectors at Frieze Art Fair (my words) to the swarthy and influential New York gallerist Gavin Brown, and how my father’s money-driven career colored my opinion of the contemporary art “scene.”
I leave 25 minutes later feeling slightly more vulnerable and introspective than when I arrived: The person I’d come to judge and assess had flipped the script.
The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center is meant to be a form of art therapy, though not in the traditional sense.
“If the thesis of this project is that art heals in ways that medicine can’t, I’m trying to figure out what that means,” Sulkowicz tells me at the gallery the following day, before her first scheduled appointment.
“I want this to be a space where people can safely explore their emotions—that’s what I think a ‘safe space’ is—and figure out what they need from art, not just as an intellectual journey but to really feel why art is important to them.”
The real Sulkowicz is even more disarming and affable than her MD-qualified persona. “I have to give you a hug because I loved our conversation yesterday so much!” she says when I arrive that morning, throwing her arms around me like an old friend.
She laughs often throughout our conversation—a high-pitched, infectious giggle—and bears little resemblance to the self-serious college student in media interviews given during Mattress Performance.
A year and a half after graduating from Columbia where she studied visual arts, Sulkowicz is pursuing a graduate degree in studio art at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program.
She seems happier and more grown up now, though still plenty young at 24 and preoccupied with the same issues that preoccupy her millennial feminist peers, like intersectionality and safe spaces.
She speaks the same language, too, and is prone to deploying buzzwords like “triggering.”
Much as she’s tried to move beyond Mattress Performance, two of Sulkowicz’s subsequent live performances were inspired by her thesis project in some way, including her first solo exhibition, Self Portrait: Performance With Object, which opened last winter at Los Angeles’ Coagula Curatorial gallery.
For the piece, Sulkowicz stood on a podium and invited people to ask her questions, though she’d programmed an “Emmatron” robot to answer some of them and installed it on a podium next to her.
The idea first came to her when she was being inundated with interview requests about Mattress Performance.
“If I took every interview I’d have had three of them a day, all the same questions—things like, ‘What do your parents think about this? Can you tell me about the assault? What does the school say? Is your attacker being punished?’ At the time I wished there were a robot version of me who could answer all of these questions. So I made a robot!” she says with a laugh, pulling her shoulder-length, fluorescent purple-dyed hair into a short ponytail behind her neck.
The Healing Touch is a follow-up to Self Portrait, where many visitors asked if they could touch her during her performance. Strangers frequently did so without her permission during Mattress Performance.
“Even when I wasn’t carrying my mattress, people on the street would touch me as if I were a saint who could heal them or something, which was of course a violation of me,” says Sulkowicz, adding that others would approach her with their rape stories when she was in a grocery store or at a bar. “I’d be like, ‘Ah, I just want to buy eggs! This is triggering!’”
The Healing Touch is meant to cure people’s desire to touch her, while also addressing the bigger-picture objectification of women’s bodies.
According to her artist’s statement, “Sulkowicz’s practice builds upon the conception that the human body is a representation of social configuration and performative intervention, which reflects the artist’s courage in both a broader and personal sense to publicly process a despicable act of violation against women.”
In person, she offers a more succinct explanation of her role in her latest performance: “Doctors touch their patients in a healing way, and shrinks listen to their patients and give feedback. So I combined the two. It’s more therapy art than art therapy.”
Sulkowicz had never seen a therapist herself until several months ago, when she decided to try it out so as a way of preparing for her performance piece—though she’s quick to note that wasn’t her only motivation.
“The piece happened to be on my mind when I was considering going to therapy,” she says, reluctant to enumerate the reasons she initially sought treatment. She’s not entirely sure if she wants to continue, either. “I feel like the revelations I’ve had with my patients in my art piece are above and beyond the revelations I’ve had in therapy, which might sound cocky.”
Sulkowicz’s parents are both psychotherapists, as is her aunt. Her father, Kerry Sulkowicz, is a psychoanalyst turned business consultant whose firm advises high-powered executives on interpersonal boardroom dynamics. (He abandoned his private practice more than 15 years ago, but was lauded as “one of the most sought after psychoanalysts in the world” in a 2014 Psychiatric Times profile.)
What was it like growing up in New York City with shrinks for parents?
“There were definitely things that I interpreted as normal when I was young that I later realized other children wouldn’t think were normal,” Sulkowicz says, like that time her mother told her a classmate was only bullying her because he had an Oedipus complex.
As a kid she was painfully shy and introverted—"I'm definitely still introverted," she says. "People just don't realize it because I can put on a performance if I have to." She has a younger sister and describes her family as “very close.”
Sulkowicz went to Dalton, a private prep school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, before enrolling at Columbia University across the park. She loved art as a child (she told her preschool teachers that markers were her “favorite toy”), and was a teacher’s assistant in a drawing class at Dalton. But she was somewhat of a math wiz, so she wrote in her application to Columbia that she wanted to study physics. “I knew I was into art but it felt like that was a given in my life, and physics was the thing that I would go to college for.”
Everything changed when she got there.
Sulkowicz went public with the account of her alleged assault in 2014.
She befriended Paul Nungesser, a classmate, toward the end of her freshman year and had consensual sex with him twice. When they returned to school after summer, in August 2012, they left a party together (she’d nursed a drink but was sober; he was buzzed and toting a handle of vodka) and were having consensual sex in her dorm room when she says he suddenly became violent, hitting, choking, and anally penetrating her as she wrestled beneath him and told him to stop. He finally did, then abruptly left her room. (Nungesser has disputed many of these details and claimed their anal sex was consensual.)
Sulkowicz didn’t report her assault to the university until April 2013, after meeting two other women who told her that they had also been assaulted by Nungesser. A university disciplinary panel presiding over Sulkowicz’s case found Nungesser innocent on a “preponderance of evidence” standard reinforced by the White House for universities adjudicating campus sexual assault.
In January 2014, Sulkowicz and the two others who claimed they were assaulted by Nungesser gave anonymous interviews to a student reporter for a feature about Columbia’s handling of sexual misconduct.
“At this point it’s buried in history, but the article blew up and caught the eye of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,” Sulkowicz explains. Gillibrand was trying to get sponsorship for a campus sexual assault bill at the time and asked the Columbia student reporter if any of the women she interviewed would speak at a press conference about the bill. “It just happened that I was most available to go public with Senator Gillibrand.”
Sulkowicz gave interviews to The New York Times, then filed a police report identifying Nungesser and describing the assault (ultimately deciding not to press criminal charges).
That summer, the idea for Mattress Performance began germinating during Sulkowicz’s residency at Yale Summer School of Art and Music in Norfolk, where she made a video of herself dissembling a bed and used the recording of her interview with police as audio. (“I taped it because I knew they would be assholes,” Sulkowicz says of reporting her assault to police.)
Returning to Columbia, Sulkowicz decided to restage and develop the piece for her senior thesis. Within a month, she’d drafted a strict set of rules for Mattress Performance.
For starters, the extra-long twin bed had to be with her in the same building wherever she went on campus. And Sulkowicz vowed to haul the mattress around as long as her assailant remained on campus.
Before long, she had the upper-body strength of a sherpa. “I miss my beautiful arms more than anything else,” Sulkowicz jokes.
Nungesser did not leave Columbia, despite an open letter from Sulkowicz’s parents to Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger and Board of Trustees imploring the school to “act as a higher court of appeals, and allow Emma a properly conducted retrial” and to expel their daughter’s attacker for lying during his disciplinary hearing.
“Allowing Nungesser to lie with impunity makes a mockery of all such proceedings, and violates the spirit of the University itself,” they wrote. (Nungesser denied all wrongdoing in his hearing, and in subsequent interviews with The New York Times and The Daily Beast.)
Asked if she still resents Nungesser, Sulkowicz considers the question for a few moments. “Yes, because people accused me of launching a bullying campaign against him. But no one knew his name until he put it out there,” she says, referring to his media interviews and recent lawsuit against the school citing Title IX gender discrimination laws.
Not long after the suit was rejected by a federal judge last spring, Nungesser refiled with an amended complaint.
For the most part, though, Sulkowicz doesn’t think much about Nungesser anymore. “I’m doing other things now, but he still has a pending lawsuit. What’s he doing with his life? It’s crazy to me.”
When I mention that Senator James Lankford (R-OK)'s interest in scaling back the size and influence of the Office of Civil Rights has stoked concern that the incoming Trump administration will reverse progress on campus sexual assault, Sulkowicz says she wouldn’t be surprised.
But, she adds, “as an artist and not a politician, I honestly don’t care that much about judicial processes. It’s not even about ‘no means no,’ because sometimes there are other signs. It’s about emotional education. I don’t think people are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and I think that’s where art comes in. With this piece, I’m trying to allow people to think about emotional discord in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
Sulkowicz took a break from art after graduating, but feels ready to recommit to it now more than ever. “It sounds corny, but if my goal with art is to actually change the world for the better, I think performance art is going to be the most effective tool for that.”
Is there a part of her that wishes she could escape the fame and notoriety that have chased her since Mattress Performance?
“Absolutely. It’s really depressing to not be anonymous. It’s an ongoing conflict because on the one hand, I’m happy that the movement needed someone to step up and be the face of it and humbled to have been chosen, but the sacrifices I’ve had to make for that have been really stressful. I’ve lost friends. It was a very tumultuous year and I was very depressed.”
Sulkowicz recalls most of her senior year at Columbia as if looking through a Vaseline-smeared lens.
“When I say that I blacked out that year, I look back now and seriously wonder, ‘Did that actually happen?’” she laughs, though her incredulity about how much it has impacted her life is sincere.
She still can’t fully wrap her ahead around it all: attending the State of the Union in 2015 with Senator Gillibrand, for example, whom she gushes about—“She’s so cool and feisty and fiery”—the way young feminists do about Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Mattress Performance has defined Sulkowicz’s public identity, making her an easy target for Twitter trolls, conservative media, and even feminist firebrand Camille Paglia, who denounced Mattress Performance as a “protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn’t feminism—which should empower women, not cripple them.”
Paglia’s stinging remarks reverberate, though, when Sulkowicz describes feeling a sort of separation anxiety about parting ways with her mattress before graduation, revealing how much it became part of her private identity.
“It was weirdly psychological, like a baby losing its security blanket, even though the whole year it had made me feel the opposite of secure. So I guess it was more like a phantom limb, like having your arm cut off.
“It was like I had Stockholm Syndrome or something,” she adds, half-joking. The mattress is now in a Manhattan storage unit with “a bunch of other stuff.”
In the week before graduation, administrators tried to dissuade Sulkowicz from bringing her mattress to the ceremony.
She was still conflicted about confronting President Bollinger when she walked across the stage holding it horizontally under her right arm (several friends helped carry the back end).
“A part of me was like, ‘Am I going to shake his hand? I hate him so much!’ But I didn’t even have to make that decision because he turned away. In interviews afterwards he said that he dropped something, but, like, what did he drop?” she says, arching an eyebrow and laughing again.
Sulkowicz hopes to participate in the Women’s March on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration this weekend, and has preemptively closed her Wellness Center on Saturday in recognition of the March.
“I have some emotional baggage to work out about it,” she tells me, adding that she's anxious about attending. "I've been so honored and humbled by all the crowds and rallies that have gathered around me in the past, but I have a complicated history with them. I get triggered and can panic in a large crowd.”
After the initial shock of Trump’s election, Sulkowicz is somewhat cynical now.
“A lot of people of color have said, ‘Why are all these white people surprised that America elected a racist?’ For me it’s kind of like, ‘Why are we surprised that this rapist got elected?’ People who perpetuate sexual assault have always had power in our country.
“I have this theory that being sexually assaulted didn’t take away my power. It reaffirmed an imbalance of power that already existed. It’s not like I was almighty or something before Paul raped me.”
Trump’s election despite his blustery misogyny and allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women is surreal, of course. But it also provokes a verbal shrug from Sulkowicz.
“I see it as another moment in a long history of patriarchal oppression.”
Activism remains a crucial component of Sulkowicz’s art, though the focus is less on campus sexual assault than what she describes as the “patriarchal structures” that perpetuate rape culture. She mentions intersectionality again—how prioritizing it in the feminist movement is key to dissembling the patriarchy and combatting sexual assault.
“I think so much of the discourse on rape happens between a man and a white woman,” she says. “There’s not a lot of talk about how rape is different for people of different genders and colors.”
Six months ago, when the National Organization for Women honored Sulkowicz with its 2016 Woman of Courage Award, Sulkowicz hit back at Paglia in her acceptance speech:
“[Paglia] speaks as if she, a white woman, knew what was best for me, a woman of color she’s never met… To expect me to move on is to equate courage with self-censorship. The phrases—suck it up, move on, and get over it—are violence… I dedicate this award to everyone who has not told me to get over it.”