By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Without question, Emma Sulkowicz has brought more attention to the place of sexual assault in our culture than any other artist. Her thesis project, titled “Carry That Weight” attracted national coverage, as the then-Columbia University senior took a 50 pound mattress, sewn into a black sheet, with her, wherever she went to protest her school’s lack of action in prosecuting her alleged rapist, who remained enrolled along with her.
Sulkowicz’s project coincided with a surge of attention paid to the sexual assault epidemic on U.S. campuses. It’s estimated that one in four college women are raped during their college career, but prosecution of rapists, even in cases like Sulkowicz’s where a charge is made, are nearly unheard of.
Prior to “Carry That Weight,” Sulkowicz, along with twenty two other women from Columbia and Barnard, filed a Title IX complaint about the mishandling of sexual assault cases at their schools. Her project, however, gave a face to the pain suffered by sexual assault survivors in a way their legal complaint couldn’t.
Rape is traumatic, yet in our society, survivors are seldom believed. The word of those who have violated them is, almost without exception, given equal or greater weight than theirs. Survivors thus carry both the pain of the act, and the knowledge that nothing is protecting them from its repetition. Sulkowicz spoke about this terror to Time magazine when explaining her work.
“Every day, I am afraid to leave my room,” she said. “Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.”
What was remarkable about “Carry That Weight,” was the way the project literalized the burden the act had caused her. Her bed, an item that should seemingly represent privacy, rest, domesticity, and, perhaps, pleasure, was transformed into an albatross, an inescapable monument of grief. Through her art she externalized a pain that’s, by custom, secret, shameful and shockingly widespread, into one her classmates, and, eventually, the whole country, were confronted with for an entire school year.
Sulkowicz’s project garnered national press. She attended the State of the Union Address as the guest of NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has pursued reforms to Federal sexual assault laws.
When the project ended, Sulkowicz talked about its meaning to New York Magazine. She said it’s nine month duration was symbolic, the length of a pregnancy. She said, as well, that most observers misinterpreted her outlook, explaining, “People think I was supposed to have this warlike relationship with it and it was supposed to be this object that I was angry with, but . . . to me, the piece has very much represented [the fact that] a guy did a horrible thing to me and I tried to make something beautiful out of it.”
Sulkowicz’s latest project is a video, with an accompanying website, titled, “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” French for “This Is Not A Rape.” Provocative, and potentially enormously triggering, the eight minute piece, released in early June, depicts a sexual encounter between Sulkowicz and a male partner that begins consensually and becomes an assault.
The work shows the encounter from four cameras, bringing to mind security surveillance, the banality of the aesthetic stripping away the titillation and ambiguity normally associated with filmed sex, and focusing the viewer instead on clear dynamics of what transpires.
The project’s title is an obvious allusion to Magritte’s famous surrealist painting, “Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe,” which depicts a smoking pipe, while saying it’s not. The meaning seems evident: one in four college women are raped, yet seemingly none are believed. Rapists abound, unprosecuted, on U.S. campuses, but none are charged. The artist creates a rape in her work, yet knows she’ll be vilified and discredited for doing so.
The character assassination Sulkowicz endures is a disheartening part of her story. As Jess Kibler at Bitch Media noted, if you type “Emma Sulkowicz” into Google, the search engine auto fills “liar” as the first option. Conservative sites, such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller, rushed to call her new project a “sex tape” or “porn,” but, sadly, mainstream outlets like The Daily Beast did, as well.
Some have suggested Sulkowicz is using her website as a way to examine the violent reaction her generates. The text prior to the film is an at times bewildering set of instructions that engage the viewer meta-textually on questions of consent and intentionality. Similarly phrased questions follow the film. Rebecca Vipond Brink at The Frisky argues this makes the piece a participatory art work, which incorporates the comments—the decision by viewers to respond—into its meaning.
The comments, as one might imagine, are horrific. Sarah Seltzer, at Flavorwire, characterizes them as a collection of “explicit anti-Semitism, rape apology, crude objectification, harmful memes, (and) poorly spelled insults dripping with misogyny and hatred.” Indeed the mere fact of Sulkowicz’s agency, her choice to find empowerment in expressing the truth of what happened to her through art, appears to act as lightning rod for our culture’s worst, most viciously inhumane forms of misogyny.
With “Carry That Weight” and “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” Emma Sulkowicz focuses directly on a topic, sexual assault, that our culture’s been woefully negligent in reckoning with, seemingly forever. In challenging those who denied or hid away from her claims, she’s given us new ways to frame this epidemic we remain in denial about, and exposed the hatred and ugliness that fuel it. She’s helped brings rape out of the shadows and into the cultural imagination.