Emma Sulkowicz

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Emma Sulkowicz
Sulkowicz in 2014
Born (1992-10-03) October 3, 1992 (age 31)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation(s)Performance artist, anti-rape activist
Known forMattress Performance (Carry That Weight), Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol

Emma Sulkowicz (born October 3, 1992) is best known as a political activist and performance artist. While still a college student, Sulkowicz developed a national reputation with the performance artwork Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014–2015). In 2019, they said they had stopped making art and began a master's program in traditional Chinese medicine.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Sulkowicz is the child of Sandra Leong and Kerry Sulkowicz, who are both psychiatrists in Manhattan. Sulkowicz is of Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish descent.[2] Sulkowicz attended the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, where they [a] were an A student and competitive fencer.

They attended Columbia University, where they fenced sabre for the Columbia University Lions fencing team, and obtained a degree in visual arts in 2015.[3][4][5] Sulkowicz is non-binary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.[6]

Rape allegation[edit]

In April 2013, Sulkowicz filed a complaint with Columbia alleging that they had been raped by Paul Nungesser, another Columbia student, on August 27, 2012.[7] A university inquiry found Nungesser 'not responsible'. In May 2014, Sulkowicz filed a report against Nungesser with the New York Police Department (NYPD).[8] After the district attorney's office interviewed Sulkowicz and Nungesser, it found insufficient grounds for reasonable suspicion. Sulkowicz declined to pursue criminal charges further,[9] saying that NYPD officers were dismissive and had mistreated Sulkowicz.[10][11][12][13]

Sulkowicz subsequently focused their senior thesis on a work of performance art entitled Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). Starting in September 2014, the student carried a mattress around campus and to classes. The performance and their allegations received considerable media attention, with Sulkowicz becoming known as "Mattress Girl". Nungesser denied Sulkowicz's allegations of rape, citing as evidence friendly messages from Sulkowicz in the weeks following the alleged attack.[14]

Sulkowicz developed the performance piece after learning that Columbia had dismissed sexual assault charges against Nungesser by two other Columbia undergraduates. A second motivating factor was her sense that Columbia and the NYPD had dismissed the allegations without enough of a serious inquiry.[15][16]

In April 2014, Sulkowicz had filed a Title IX complaint with 23 other students, alleging Columbia has mishandled sexual assault cases.[13] Journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis described this as "the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s.”[17][18]

In April 2015, Nungesser filed a Title IX gender discrimination lawsuit against Columbia, its board of trustees, its president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz's supervising art professor Jon Kessler, alleging that they had facilitated gender-based harassment by allowing the art project to proceed.[9] Federal District Court Judge Gregory H. Woods dismissed the lawsuit[19] but allowed Nungesser to refile an amended suit.[20] The refiled complaint was also dismissed. Columbia settled the case under undisclosed terms after Nungesser's attorney began the process of appealing the dismissal.[21]


Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)[edit]

Their initial endurance performance piece consisted of Sulkowicz carrying a mattress wherever they went on campus during their final year as an undergraduate at Columbia University. [22][23][24][25]

[26][27][28] The work was a protest against campus sexual assault and the university's handling of the sexual assault case, in which it had cleared the accused of responsibility.[29]

Sulkowicz (center right) carrying the mattress at graduation

Sulkowicz created Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) in the summer of 2014 as a senior thesis while at Yale University Summer School of Art and Music. This performance artwork was in protest against campus sexual assault and the university's handling of Sulkowicz's allegation that a fellow student at Columbia University anally raped them.[28] The university cleared the student of responsibility,[29] and the district attorney's office declined to pursue criminal charges, citing lack of reasonable suspicion.[30][9]

Sulkowicz's first effort was a video of themself dismantling a bed, accompanied by the audio of them filing the police report, which they had recorded on a cellphone.[24] The mattress later became the sole focus of the piece.[28] Sulkowicz told New York magazine:

I thought about how ... the mattress represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens; and how I have brought my life out in front for the public to see; and the act of bringing something private and intimate out into the public mirrors the way my life has been. Also the mattress as a burden, because of what has happened there, that has turned my own relationship with my bed into something fraught.[13]

The 50-pound (23 kg), dark-blue, extra-long twin mattress used in the performance art piece is of the kind Columbia places in its dorms, similar to the one on which they say they were raped. Sulkowicz spent the summer of 2014 creating the rules of engagement: written on the walls of their studio in the university's Watson Hall, these stated that Sulkowicz must carry the mattress whenever they were on university property; that it must remain on campus even when Sulkowicz was not there; and that Sulkowicz was not allowed to ask for help in carrying it, but could accept if help was offered.[24][31] In September that year they began carrying it on campus, which they said was a physically painful experience.[32]

During a protest organized by the student group No Red Tape on Oct. 29, 2014, hundreds of Columbia students stacked 28 mattresses on Columbia's president Lee Bollinger's doorstep. The mattresses symbolized the 28 sexual assault complaints in Columbia's Title IX case, reported New York magazine. The Columbia student group Student Worker Solidarity, who booked the space for No Red Tape, would be charged $1500 for the removal of the mattresses on behalf of the university.[33]

Newspaper Bodies (Look, Mom, I'm on the Front Page!)[edit]

Sulkowicz's final thesis show, the week before graduation in May 2015, included depictions of a naked man with an obscenity and a couple having sex, printed onto a New York Times article about the student they accused. Sulkowicz said that the images were cartoons, and asked: "what are the functions of cartoons? Do they depict the people themselves (a feat which, if you've done enough reading on art theory, you will realize is impossible), or do they illustrate the stories that have circulated about a person?"[34] This work was later shown under the title Newspaper Bodies (Look, Mom, I'm on the Front Page!) as part of a group exhibition at the Southampton Arts Center, Southampton, New York.[35]

Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol[edit]

On June 3, 2015, Sulkowicz, working with artist Ted Lawson, released Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol ("This is not a rape"), an eight-minute video of Sulkowicz having sex with an anonymous actor in a Columbia dorm room.[25] The title of the piece is a reference to the caption in René Magritte's The Treachery of Images: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". Introductory text by Sulkowicz stresses that the sex was consensual throughout, though toward the end it portrays resistance, violence and force.[36] When the video was first posted, each screen displayed the timestamp of August 27, 2012, the night of the alleged assault, but later the date was blurred.[37] Sulkowicz wrote that the work, which examines the nature of sexual consent, was not a reenactment of the alleged rape and later stated that it was a separate piece from Mattress Performance.[36]


From February to March 2016 at Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles, Sulkowicz exhibited a piece, Self-Portrait.[38] For the first three weeks of the exhibition, Sulkowicz stood on a pedestal in the gallery, and had one-on-one conversations with visitors who would stand on an identical pedestal in front of them.[39] The exhibition featured a life-sized robotic replica of the artist that was called "Emmatron". Emmatron plays prerecorded answers to several questions Sulkowicz has been repeatedly asked, which they will no longer respond to. A few examples of questions Emmatron had answers to included "Tell me about the night you were assaulted", "Is this art piece a part of Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)?" and "What do your parents think of all this?"[40] If audience members asked these questions to Sulkowicz during their conversation, the artist would send them to Emmatron for the answers.[41]

The Ship Is Sinking[edit]

In 2017, Sulkowicz performed a bondage performance piece titled The Ship Is Sinking.[42] In the piece, Sulkowicz (in high heels and bikini with the “Whitney” logo, to convey the look of a woman in a beauty pageant) is tied up, berated, and hung from the ceiling on a wooden beam by a man in a suit, “Master Avery”,[42][43] as the figurehead of a ship.[44] Sulkowicz said “white cis men have the privilege of making art that can be divorced from their lives”[45] while “it’s a privilege that I don’t really have so I’m trying to work in a way that makes the best use of that position as I can.” At closing time, the museum turned off its lights, but spectators stayed and used phone flashlights to continue watching until Sulkowicz was finished.[45] Sulkowicz portrayed being able to express the pain they felt and endured, putting themself physically within the artwork.

Untitled Protest Performance[edit]

On January 30, 2018, Sulkowicz was documented protesting at two New York City museums and a subway station. During the protest, Sulkowicz posed for several photographs in front of Chuck Close paintings at The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Close mosaic in a subway station, and in front of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Sulkowicz wore black lingerie, with home-made pasties made of tape, and covered their body with drawn-on asterisks.

Sulkowicz said that the protest was a response to a New York Times article from January 28, in which members of the art world, responding to allegations of sexual harassment against artist Chuck Close, debated over the future of art created by individuals accused of improper behavior. Among the people quoted in the article was Jock Reynolds, the then-director of the Yale University Art Gallery, who said, "Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?"[46] Sulkowicz was reportedly "appalled" by the comments, asking, "Are you only showing work by Harvey Weinstein?"[47] The protest was described as a "performance" in the media,[48][47] and as "performative action" by the artist.[49]

The Floating World[edit]

From March 10 to April 22, 2018, The Invisible Dog gallery in Brooklyn, New York, hosted Sulkowicz's first gallery installation as a performance artist,[50] a piece entitled The Floating World.[47] The title The Floating world is a literal translation from the Japanese term Ukiyo-e, an ironic homophonous Buddhist term for "sorrowful world.[51]" The piece consists of a series of glass orbs that symbolize trauma, suspended by ropes, containing floating artifacts of personal significance to Sulkowicz and members of their community.[52] A hybrid style of Shibari, Japanese bondage, and Ukidama, Japanese glass floats tied by fishnets, are used respectively to lift and hold the orbs in the air.[53] The relationship of the ropes and the orbs is the metaphor for the love and support Sulkowicz received from loved ones and the community.[50]


  1. ^ Sulkowicz uses she/her and they/them pronouns, but has stated a preference for they/them. This article uses gender neutral pronouns for consistency.


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  3. ^ "Fencers Earn Two Second-Place Finishes, Twelve All-League Selections in Ivy League Championships". Columbia University Athletics. March 5, 2013.
  4. ^ Segura, Brianna Sacks, Melissa (July 23, 2021). "A Fencer Made It To The Olympics In Spite Of Multiple Accusations Of Sexual Assault. His Teammates Say The System Is Broken". BuzzFeed News.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Vanessa Grigoriadis, "Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault", New York Magazine, September 21, 2014.
  6. ^ Tolentino, Jia (February 5, 2018). "Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  7. ^ Chapman, Isabelle (February 3, 2015). "Columbia student says he didn't rape Emma Sulkowicz". AOL.com. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
  8. ^ Shapiro, T. Rees (July 13, 2017). "Columbia University settles Title IX lawsuit with former student involving 'mattress girl' case". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 16, 2017.
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  10. ^ Ariel Kaminer, "Accusers and the Accused, Crossing Paths at Columbia University", The New York Times, December 21, 2014: "Sulkowicz did not press criminal charges, a lengthy process that she said would be too draining"
  11. ^ Christopher Robbins (May 18, 2014). "Spurned By Columbia, Student Says NYPD Mistreated Her While Reporting Rape". Gothamist. Archived from the original on May 24, 2015. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
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  13. ^ a b c Van Syckle, Katie (September 4, 2014). "The Columbia Student Carrying a Mattress Everywhere Says Reporters Are Triggering Rape Memories", New York Magazine.
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  25. ^ a b Lux Alptraum, "There Is Life After Campus Infamy", The New York Times, July 21, 2018.
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  29. ^ a b Lauren Gambino, "Emma Sulkowicz's 'This Is Not A Rape site' taken down by cyberattack", The Guardian, June 9, 2015.
  30. ^ Emma Bogler (May 16, 2014). "Frustrated by Columbia's inaction, student reports sexual assault to police". Columbia Spectator.
  31. ^ For Watson Hall, Sulkowicz, September 2, 2014, from c. 2:00 mins.
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  34. ^ Emily Bazelon (May 29, 2015). "Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?", The New York Times Magazine.
  35. ^ Andy Battaglia (May 28, 2015). "Will Emma Sulkowicz's Protest Mattress Wind Up in a Museum?", New York; accessed February 13, 2019.
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  41. ^ "Emma Sulkowicz Will Answer (Almost) Any Question At Her First Solo Gallery Show – The Frisky". The Frisky. February 16, 2016.
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  44. ^ Owen, Karen, Following the Aftermath Of Campus Controversy
  45. ^ a b "The Ship is Sinking: Sulkowicz Strikes Back". DRØME. June 17, 2017. Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  46. ^ Deb, Sopan; Jennifer, Robin (January 28, 2018). "Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?". The New York Times.
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