Emma Sulkowicz

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Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz, 14 December 2014.jpg
Sulkowicz in 2014
Born (1992-10-03) October 3, 1992 (age 27)
OccupationPerformance artist, anti-rape activist
Known forMattress Performance (Carry That Weight), Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol

Emma Sulkowicz (born October 3, 1992) is an American performance artist and anti-rape activist[1][2][3] who first received media attention[4] for the performance artwork Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014–2015). The artwork consisted of Sulkowicz, who uses they/them pronouns as well as she/her pronouns, carrying a mattress wherever they went on campus during their final year at Columbia University.[5] Sulkowicz said the piece would end when the student whom they alleged had raped them in their dorm room in 2012 was expelled or otherwise left the university.[6][7] The work was a protest against campus sexual assault and the university's handling of their sexual assault case, in which it had cleared the accused of responsibility.[8]

Early life and education[edit]

Sulkowicz is the child of Sandra Leong and Kerry Sulkowicz, both psychiatrists from Manhattan, and is of Chinese, Japanese and Jewish descent.[9] Sulkowicz attended the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, where she was an A student and competitive fencer, and Columbia University, where she obtained a degree in visual arts in 2015.[10] Sulkowicz is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.[11]

Rape allegation[edit]

In April 2013, Sulkowicz, then in the fourth year of their degree, filed a complaint with Columbia requesting the expulsion of fellow fourth-year student and German national, Paul Nungesser, alleging he had raped them in Sulkowicz's dorm room on August 27, 2012.[12] Nungesser was found 'not responsible' by a university inquiry. In May 2014, Sulkowicz filed a report against Nungesser with the New York Police Department (NYPD), which did not pursue charges.[13][14] The district attorney's office interviewed Sulkowicz and Nungesser, but did not pursue charges, citing lack of reasonable suspicion.[14] Sulkowicz declined to pursue criminal charges further, saying it would be too draining and that NYPD officers were dismissive and had mistreated them.[15][16][17][18] Sulkowicz subsequently focused their senior thesis on a work of performance art entitled Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). The performance and the 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.[19]

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.[14] Federal District Court Judge Gregory H. Woods dismissed the lawsuit[20] but allowed Nungesser to refile an amended suit,[21] the refiled complaint was also dismissed, but Columbia settled the case under undisclosed terms after Nungesser's attorney began the process of appealing the dismissal.[22]


Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)[edit]

Sulkowicz (center right) carrying the mattress at graduation

Sulkowicz created Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) in the summer of 2014 for their 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.[7] The university cleared the student of responsibility,[8] and the district attorney's office declined to pursue criminal charges, citing lack of reasonable suspicion.[23][14]

Their first effort was a video of them dismantling a bed, accompanied by the audio of them filing the police report, which they had recorded on their cellphone.[3] The mattress later became the sole focus of the piece.[7] 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.[18]

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 allege 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 they must carry the mattress whenever they were on university property; that it must remain on campus even when Sulkowicz was not there; and that they were not allowed to ask for help in carrying it, but if help was offered they may accept it.[3][24] In September that year they began carrying it on campus, which they said was a physically painful experience.[25]

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.[26]

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?"[27] 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.[28]

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.[4] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[29]


From February to March 2016 at Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles, Sulkowicz exhibited a piece, Self-Portrait.[31] 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.[32] 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 that 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?"[33] If audience members asked these questions to Sulkowicz during their conversation, the artist would send them to Emmatron for the answers.[34]

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, as well as 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 stated 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 towards 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 stated, "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?"[35] Sulkowicz was reportedly "appalled" by the comments, asking, "are you only showing work by Harvey Weinstein?"[36] The protest was described as a "performance" in the media,[37][36] and as "performative action" by the artist.[38]

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, a piece entitled The Floating World.[36] The piece consists of a series of glass orbs, suspended by ropes, containing objects of personal significance to Sulkowicz and members of their community.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kunter, Jenny (May 20, 2015). "Columbia University president refuses graduation handshake with anti-rape activist Emma Sulkowicz". Salon. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  2. ^ Chan, Melissa (June 5, 2015). "Columbia University anti-rape activist Emma Sulkowicz releases sex video as newest art piece". New York Daily News. Retrieved August 8, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "Carry That Weight", Emma Sulkowicz interviewed by Roberta Smith, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, December 14, 2014. For age, see c. 48:50 mins. For recording of police report, see c. 38:45 mins. For rules of engagement and source of mattress, see c. 39:57 mins.
  4. ^ a b Lux Alptraum, "There Is Life After Campus Infamy", The New York Times, July 21, 2018.
  5. ^ https://www.thecut.com/2019/10/did-emma-sulkowicz-mattress-performance-get-redpilled.html
  6. ^ Soraya Nadia McDonald (October 29, 2014). "It's hard to ignore a woman toting a mattress everywhere she goes, which is why Emma Sulkowicz is still doing it". The Washington Post.
  7. ^ a b c Smith, Roberta (September 21, 2014). "In a Mattress, a Lever for Art and Political Protest". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  8. ^ a b Lauren Gambino, "Emma Sulkowicz's 'This Is Not A Rape site' taken down by cyberattack", The Guardian, June 9, 2015.
  9. ^ https://www.huffpost.com/entry/emma-sulkowicz-asian-american_n_5ab29ce5e4b054d118df2d86
  10. ^ Vanessa Grigoriadis, "Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault", New York Magazine, September 21, 2014.
  11. ^ Tolentino, Jia (2018-02-05). "Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  12. ^ Chapman, Isabelle (February 3, 2015). "Columbia student says he didn't rape Emma Sulkowicz". AOL.com. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b c d Kutner, Max (April 28, 2015). "The Anti-Mattress Protest: Paul Nungesser's Lawsuit Against Columbia University". Newsweek. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
  15. ^ 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"
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Van Syckle, Katie (January 20, 2015). "Alleged Columbia Rapist 'Dismayed and Disappointed' by Accuser’s SOTU Invitation", New York Magazine, January 2015; accessed May 29, 2016.
  18. ^ a b Van Syckle, Katie (September 4, 2014). "The Columbia Student Carrying a Mattress Everywhere Says Reporters Are Triggering Rape Memories", New York Magazine.
  19. ^ Young, Cathy (February 3, 2015). "Columbia Student: I Didn't Rape Her". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
  20. ^ Tyler Kingkade (2016-03-12). "Lawsuit Against Columbia Over Mattress Protest Is Dismissed". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  21. ^ "Paul Nungesser's lawsuit against Columbia over Emma Sulkowicz's "mattress protest" returns to court". Newsweek. 2016-04-25. Retrieved 2017-08-26.
  22. ^ Kate Taylor (2017-07-14). "Columbia Settles With Student Cast as a Rapist in Mattress Art Project". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-07-15.
  23. ^ Emma Bogler (May 16, 2014). "Frustrated by Columbia's inaction, student reports sexual assault to police". Columbia Spectator.
  24. ^ For Watson Hall, Sulkowicz, September 2, 2014, from c. 2:00 mins.
  25. ^ Duan, Noel (September 9, 2014). "Going From Class to Class With Emma Sulkowicz and Her Mattress", Elle.com; accessed May 29, 2016.
  26. ^ Frizell, Sam (2014-11-17). "Columbia University Charging Student Group $1,500 After Anti-Rape Protest". Time.com: N.PAG.
  27. ^ Emily Bazelon (May 29, 2015). "Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?", The New York Times Magazine.
  28. ^ Andy Battaglia (May 28, 2015). "Will Emma Sulkowicz's Protest Mattress Wind Up in a Museum?", New York; accessed February 13, 2019.
  29. ^ a b Cait Munro (June 4, 2015). "Emma Sulkowicz Breaks New Ground With Troubling Video Performance", Artnet
  30. ^ Teo Armus (June 5, 2015). "Sulkowicz films herself in a violent sex scene for newest art project", Columbia Daily Spectator.
  31. ^ "Moving beyond 'Mattress Girl': Artist Emma Sulkowicz pushes the conversation forward". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 13, 2019.
  32. ^ "Life After Mattress Girl: Emma Sulkowicz Reclaims Her Identity". KCET. March 28, 2016.
  33. ^ "Self Portrait – Dialogue With Emma Sulkowicz and an Inanimate Object". HuffPost. March 9, 2016.
  34. ^ "Emma Sulkowicz Will Answer (Almost) Any Question At Her First Solo Gallery Show – The Frisky". The Frisky. February 16, 2016.
  35. ^ Sopan, Deb; Jennifer, Robin (January 28, 2018). "Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?".
  36. ^ a b c Cascone, Sarah (February 2, 2018). "Artist Emma Sulkowicz Wore Asterisks—and Little Else—to Protest Chuck Close at the Met (and Picasso at MoMA)". Archived from the original on July 3, 2018.
  37. ^ Pogrebin, Robin; Schuessler, Jennifer (January 28, 2018). "Museums and a Performance Artist Grapple With Chuck Close's Work".
  38. ^ Mahoney, Maggie. "Emma Sulkowicz: Life Post Mattress Performance". Archived from the original on July 3, 2018.
  39. ^ "The Floating World by Emma Sulkowicz". Archived from the original on April 17, 2018.