CULTURE MONSTER
Review

Moving beyond 'Mattress Girl': Artist Emma Sulkowicz pushes the conversation forward

Emma Sulkowicz is present at Coagula Curatorial. If the name is unfamiliar, it’s because she’s better known as “Mattress Girl,” the Columbia University student who in 2014 began carrying a mattress on campus to protest the university’s refusal to expel the student she accused of rape.

The performance became a highly visible flashpoint in discussions of campus sexual violence. Sulkowicz graduated last spring and her first solo outing, titled simply “Self-Portrait,” is a frank response to this media attention.

No mattresses are in sight, only Sulkowicz and an uncannily life-like sculpture of her, “Emmatron,” standing on matching white pedestals. Empty pedestals are placed before artist and artwork, and visitors are invited to step up to talk with them.

You may speak to Sulkowicz about anything you like, but if you stray into mattress territory, she will direct you to “Emmatron,” who “speaks” (although her lips don’t move) through an iPad app loaded with preset questions and answers of which Sulkowicz has grown tired. However, at the well-attended opening Saturday night, viewers wanting to learn more about “Mattress Performance” were out of luck: The recorded answers were difficult to hear amid the babble of conversation, rendering “Emmatron” effectively mute.

Headphones might have helped but would have run counter to the piece’s spirit of conviviality. Sulkowicz was friendly and energetic, smiling and enthusiastically greeting people who stepped up to speak with her. But there were rules. She refused to engage with anyone who was not on the pedestal, and there was no touching -- a familiar concept when it comes to art objects, but a bit strange in a social interaction. Still, her openness was brave.

Performance art queen Marina Abramovic is an obvious reference here, but Sulkowicz’s piece is less a feat of physical endurance in which the body becomes an object, than it is a kind of marathon of sociality. Indeed, with “Emmatron,” Sulkowicz has created a decoy for her objectification as a woman, as a celebrity, as a symbol.

Of course the friendly “Emma,” as Sulkowicz’s pedestal was labeled, may be as much a performance as “Emmatron,” but the piece pointedly asks us to navigate the difference between engaging with someone as a peer and engaging with them as a thing.

Coagula Curatorial, 974 Chung King Road, Los Angeles (424) 226-2485. Sulkowicz will appear through March 31, and the show will be on view through April 3. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.coagulacuratorial.com

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