CW: sexual assault
By Sorcha Beirne
When Emma Sulkowicz began lugging a mattress around Columbia University’s campus in 2014 as part of her senior thesis, she became known worldwide. Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight was an endurance art piece that would only end when Sulkowicz no longer attended the same school as Paul Nungesser, the man she said had raped her.
Sulkowicz recounted the media outpouring that occurred during Mattress Performance when she spoke to a small crowd at Ryerson University last weekend. The event was put on by Consent Comes First Ryerson as part of Women’s History Month.
“People were suddenly debating my sexual assault on the internet,” she says. “It’s a relatively unseen thing and yet, suddenly everyone was an expert on my rape.”
Nungesser was found not responsible following a university inquiry. In 2015, Sulkowicz walked across the stage at her graduation carrying the mattress, with the help of three other students. “I didn’t make the piece because I wanted to. Who in their right mind wants to carry a mattress for nine months and not be rewarded with something like a newborn baby?” says Sulkowicz when she spoke on the idea of agency in art.
She says the most terrifying part about being raped was that someone else had taken ownership over her body. “It was not an out of body experience, it was the epitome of being trapped. I was forced to confront the possibility that I might not own my own body.”
Prior to Sulkowicz’s speech at Ryerson, Toronto-based artist Dainty Smith took the stage to give a short burlesque performance. Her piece, set to “Work” by Charlotte Day Wilson, exuded a type of vulnerability not often found in burlesque.
“The thing I love about burlesque is that it gave me back my body. Black women’s bodies are hypersexualized in particular ways, we’re seen as incredibly aggressive or defiant, resistant,” she says of her role as a performer. “When you decide to take that back, when you decide to become a woman who belongs to herself, performs for herself before anyone else, I find that healing.”
Many accused Sulkowicz of not behaving as a “real” rape victim would, she decided she needed to respond. Sulkowicz says she asked herself, “what’s the one thing a ‘real’ rape victim would never do? Whatever it is I probably need to do it to show that there’s nothing a real victim is not allowed to be doing.”
“It” was recreating her assault. Sulkowicz made a video and posted it to its own website (Ceci n’est pas un viol) with a comments section left open to be interacted with.
“I felt particularly out of control when I came up with the idea,” she says. “I was in turmoil because of how destructive [the video] would be to my mind and body, yet I simply had to make it.”
Before watching the video viewers must confirm they are over 18 and have read the artist statement, which provides questions to reflect upon.
Are you searching for proof? Proof of what? Are you searching for ways to either hurt or help me? What are you looking for?
Though the two artists dive into very different kinds of performance, themes of agency are common between both Sulkowicz and Smith’s artistry. Both women using their bodies as integral parts of their art.
“I use my body because it belongs to me. If I have nothing else, I need to know that I have this body that I’ve lived in and survived in,” says Smith. “That this body has been a landscape of war and of activism and resistance and so it also needs to be a body of beauty and of admiration.”