Bedside Theater

Emma Sulkowicz and the politics of healing

by Becca Hansen

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 3, 2017

At the Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center in Philadelphia, visitors come prepared to discuss their relationships, insecurities, deepest anxieties, and whatever else ails them in their 30-minute, $30 appointments. But unlike a traditional clinic, Healing Touch is staffed not by licensed therapists but by performance artist Emma Sulkowicz. Described as a “parafictional medical clinic,” visitors begin by filling out a questionnaire that asks typical questions (Are you experiencing physical pain?) and less typical ones (Have you ever cried while viewing art?). Sulkowicz wants to parse out the healing function of art, to map out its nuances and possibilities. “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 told the Daily Beast in January.

Sulkowicz isn’t looking for a straightforward answer here. She’s aware of the dark side of seeing art as therapy: if we demand that art heal, we condemn art that doesn’t. She faced such condemnation for the work that made her famous, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). For the nine-month project, her thesis at Columbia University, she carried around a 50-pound waterproof mattress whenever and wherever she was on campus. She followed a pre-written set of rules, promising, for instance, to never ask for help carrying the mattress (although she could take help if offered) and to leave it on Columbia’s campus if she went elsewhere. And she promised to continue to do so until she graduated or until the man who assaulted her was expelled.

Sulkowicz reported the assault in 2013 after she discovered he had targeted at least two other women. Despite their testimony, the university decided he was “not responsible” for all three incidents. The New York Post broke the story in late 2013, and Sulkowicz joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to call for stricter sexual assault policies at universities. In the summer of 2014, after nearly a year of activism, Sulkowicz developed the idea for Mattress Performance

Critics generally reacted positively to the piece: it was named 2014’s art piece of the year and an act of “pure radical vulnerability,” by critic Jerry Saltz, and described as “symbolically laden yet drastically physical,” by the New York Time’s Roberta Smith. Even then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in, calling it an “image [that] should haunt all of us.” But in 2015, controversial art critic Camille Paglia criticized Mattress Performance as a “protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever.” She draws on Freud’s ideas surrounding exhibitionism, arguing that “[t]o go around exhibiting and foregrounding your wounds is a classic neurotic symptom…no one sees the pathology in all this.” Paglia says that the project would have earned a D if produced for her art class (she doesn’t actually teach art classes; she teaches media studies at an art school). To Paglia, Sulkowicz is sick, and the art is a symptom. As an art critic, her job is to think about art in a meaningful way, but in the face of Sulkowicz’s project she seems to say, This isn’t art, and it’s not my job to deal with her. She collapses the categories of art, art piece, and story, throws in a set of assumptions about the therapeutic value of art, and then dismisses the project entirely. This is the dark side of equating art with therapy. 

In 2015, Sulkowicz performed Self-Portrait at the Coagula Curatorial gallery in Los Angeles, a work that touches on the critiques made by critics like Paglia.During the project, performed a year after Sulkowicz graduated and put down her mattress for good, the artist stood on a pedestal and invited visitors to the gallery to stand opposite her to talk. Conversations ranged from small talk to deep political or artistic debate, but if they asked her to describe the assault, they would be referred to a pedestal stationed alongside her. There stood Sulkowicz’s robotic replica, “Emmatron.” The Emmatron was uncanny in its similarity to the artist—same size, a similar outfit—but wore a permanent expression of sorrow, or melancholy, or maybe apathy, depending on how you looked at it. Visitors directed to the Emmatron could ask it to describe the night of the assault via an application on an iPad, and they would receive a prerecorded answer. 

Self-Portrait offered up what visitors demanded—the details of what happened to her—but removed “her” from the equation. 'Her' story is embodied in artificial imitation. In effect, the piece tells the story without providing a victim, without providing even a subject. In doing so, Self-Portrait rewrites our interpretations of Mattress Performance—it severs the connection between artist and story, artist and mattress, and then creates an entirely new relationship. Sulkowicz deems herself the art piece, but does so on her own terms. In outsourcing the story to her robot companion, she can circumvent any accusation of masochism or neuroses. It’s not 'her' telling the story anymore. In the process, Sulkowiscz demonstrates that maybe telling the story (and carrying the mattress) was less a product of her masochism and her neuroses, and more the product of ours—our demand to hear, again and again, what happened to her. At their core, Self-Portrait and Mattress Performance can’t be reduced to trauma narratives or expressions of pain—they’re about Sulkowicz, sure, but they also lay bare the relationship between the viewer and their expectations of suffering. 




For years, critics have struggled to understand art that experiments with audiences' expectations of trauma. In 1994, critic Arlene Croce coined the term “victim art”  to describe works that focused exclusively on the artist’s pain without providing any sort of anticipated relief. Her focus was Still/Here, a dance piece by Bill T. Jones that projected testimonies of terminally ill patients on a screen hanging above his dance performance. 

“I have not seen Bill T. Jones’ ‘Still/Here’ and have no plans to review it,” Croce begins in the New Yorker. She considers Still/Here to be part of a larger movement in art, which “forces” the viewer to feel sorry for artists “because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art.” This art becomes a sort of pity party, where the artists victimize themselves, and the audience “find[s] something to respond to in the litany of pain.” Croce means this as criticism—the viewer and the artist are both narcissists, obsessively re-enacting their own suffering.

‘Good’ art, according to Croce, isn’t about this repetition of pain—it’s about relief. To Croce, to live is to suffer, and art needs to offer a way out. Croce and Paglia both measure art on its ability to offer a form of catharsis, a term first presented in Aristotle’s Poetics, written in the third century BCE. According to the widely accepted understanding of catharsis, a viewer feels pity and fear while watching a tragedy, and, at the end, is purged of those emotions. It’s sort of a steam engine view of the human experience—we have a buildup of internal feeling and every once in awhile, for our health, we need to release some valve and let it out. In this view, art is what allows us to live full, healthy lives. 

Despite this common understanding of the value of catharsis, Aristotle never actually defined the term, and scholars deeply disagree over its true meaning. In the 1970s, Brazilian artist Augusto Boal argued that catharsis is not an inherent quality of art, but a tool of state control and oppression. He centered his analysis on tragedies. In the common structure, the hero begins with a major flaw that, over the course of the play, is eliminated. The audience, who sympathizes and empathizes with this hero, is similarly purged of antisocial elements—that, to Boal, is catharsis. He described this process in his book, Theatre of the Oppressed ,as the “coercive system of tragedy,” a system of intimidation whereby the audience is forced to conform to an existing social ethos. “[This structure] is designed to bridle the individual, to adjust him to what pre-exists,” Boal writes. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the existing social ethos is fair. “The coercive system of tragedy can be used before or after the revolution,” Boal writes, “but never during it!” During the ‘revolution’—or, really, in the process of enacting any substantive social change—we need not adjust ourselves to a pre-existing social ethos, but to reimagine it entirely. So-called victim art demands this readjustment, and so, by definition, cannot offer relief. If critics like Croce and Paglia judge victim art art based on its inability to be cathartic, they’re missing the point entirely. In effect, they’re demanding that the artist fit into existing society, and there’s no room for social change; there is only the personal failure in an ever-constant status quo.

In response to the expectation of catharsis, Boal developed a radical approach to theater that attempted to address oppression both inside of and outside of the theater space. In his Theatre of the Oppressed, the audience is encouraged to participate—to test out solutions, discuss oppressions, and, in effect, “rehearse” for the revolution. In practice, this theatre can take many forms. In some performances, even, audience members are allowed to interrupt the play and make suggestions for how characters should address or react to mistreatment. In others, they actually take the place of actors and carry out the play anew.

With Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz intentionally sheds the expectation of catharsis, and like Boal incorporates action and resistance into her piece. Now that the piece has ended, it’s reduced to famous images—Sulkowicz on the cover of New York Magazine, Sulkowicz carrying the mattress at her graduation—and these have come to define the project. But Sulkowicz’s piece was not just an image or a symbol. It was an embodied performance—a young woman carrying a ridiculous, bulky object—and allowed for action. Over the course of Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz kept a document of her interactions with strangers. In the end, it totaled some 59,000 words. One of the first to help Sulkowicz was a homeless man who saw her grip weakening. “He was the first person who helped without some sort of pre-constructed belief for why they were going to help,” she told New York Magazine. “He was like, ‘Oh, look, a struggling girl—let me help her and be a nice human being.’” And with that, Sulkowicz flips the demand of catharsis on its head. Relief becomes not an imperative but a choice. It occurs as a moment in time experienced over the course of a piece, not as its final conclusion. It comes through communal experience, not delegation of action. And, however temporary, it’s the artist, not the audience, who gets some relief. 

If we refuse to see her piece on an aesthetic level, refuse to interact with it as artwork, we miss a host of meanings. We limit her critique to the politics of Columbia without acknowledging that she’s also shedding light on our own demands and expectations—demands that are aesthetically-based, but are also deeply political. 




Sulkowicz acknowledged some of her problems with Mattress Performance in an interview the Daily Beast: “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.” They offered up their own stories of sexual violence and expected some kind of help, but often hurt Sulkowicz in the process. “I’d be like, ‘Ah, I just want to buy eggs! This is triggering!,’” she says. Even though Sulkowicz wasn’t offering a traditional form of catharsis, her audience still demanded something from her—a form of vulnerability that required a fair amount of unseen emotional labor.

Healing Touch perhaps represents the next step in Sulkowicz’s exploration of these themes. For the project, she directly confronts and experiments with art as therapy, with therapy as art. In charging for sessions and limiting them to thirty minutes, Sulkowicz further foregrounds the labor that’s demanded of her. In focusing on visitor’s pain, rather than hers, she re-affirms her own boundaries. And, she asks us to re-think our expectations of healing. “Definitions...that meant smoothing things over, getting over it, and moving on just weren’t interesting to me,” Sulkowicz told New York Magazine in an interview last January. Though she questions whether charging for her recent performance renders the work inaccessible, Sulkowicz acknowledges, this is all an experiment. She told the Daily Beast, “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.” And what we “need” from art, might not be what we expect.  


REBECCA HANSEN B’17 expects nothing