Mattress Girl at Columbia: Victim art turns everyone into a critic

A cultural controversy with an unusually long half-life, “Carry That Weight”, aka Mattress Girl at Columbia University, has proved once again that the category of victim art tends to bring out opinions and emotions from public figures who don’t normally weigh in on arty matters.

Columbia’s commencement ceremony Tuesday saw undergraduate art major Emma Sulkowicz lugging the infamous twin mattress that she has been carrying around campus since September, after claiming that she was raped in 2012 by a male student.

The mattress was part of a performance art project, titled “Carry That Weight,” which the senior reportedly conceived as part of her degree. Her project has earned plaudits from some feminists and left-leaning politicians, and condemnation from those who see it as a dubious publicity stunt, a form of harassment and an outright lie.


It has also resulted in legal action from Paul Nungesser, the German student who was at the center of her rape claims. Nungesser was eventually cleared of charges by the university, and last month filed a lawsuit against Columbia, its trustees and other parties, saying that they improperly treated the rape allegations as fact.

Among the defendants named in the suit is renowned artist Jon Kessler, who taught Sulkowicz at Columbia and advised her on the mattress project.

On Sunday, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, praised Sulkowicz on Twitter. “From a wmn carrying a mattress on her campus to Afghanistan’s Wmn’s Nat Cycling Team, reaching true equality req showing change is possible,” Powers wrote on her official Twitter account.

Power’s statement has elicited some backlash, including a piece from the New York Post editorial board that characterized her comment as an insult to Afghan women.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has publicly shown her support for Sulkowicz, and even invited the art student as a guest to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in Washington earlier this year.

“I believe Emma,” Gillibrand has reportedly said.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith favorably reviewed the project in a September article, describing it as a “succinct and powerful performance piece” that is “strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical.”

Smith continued: “All of this determines its striking quality as art, which in turn contributes substantially to its effectiveness as protest.”

Meanwhile, Nungesser’s lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in April, is seeking unspecified damages and alleges that the defendants’ actions have harmed his “college experience, his reputation, his emotional well-being and his future career prospects.”

The lawsuit contains excerpts of sexually explicit messages sent between Sulkowicz and the plaintiff. It also claims that Sulkowicz and the plaintiff engaged in consensual sex on a number of occasions.

Nungesser alleges that during the rape investigation conducted by Columbia, his request to be represented by an attorney was denied by the university and and that “important evidence was excluded.”

His lawyers are arguing that the mattress project constitutes “gender-based harassment and misconduct against Paul” and that despite being cleared of all charges, he was branded a “serial rapist” by Sulkowicz.

“He was targeted because he is a male, and attacked for his (consensual) sexual activity,” the lawsuit states.

As for Kessler, the artist and Columbia instructor who advised Sulkowicz on the project, Nungesser argues that Kessler not only approved the performance piece, “but also publicly endorsed her harassment and defamation of Paul.”

Nungesser’s side of the story has received support from right-leaning media outlets, including the Post, Breitbart and the Washington Examiner.

A recently launched street-art campaign in New York has sought to discredit Sulkowicz’s version of events. Photos posted on the anonymous Twitter account “Fake Rape” show posters of Sulkowicz and her mattress, with the words “Pretty Little Liar.”

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT