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Emma Sulkowicz Still Has Our Attention

“An asterisk is such a small punctuation mark but it represents a huge terrible thing,” Emma Sulkowicz recently told Jezebel. Sulkowicz was referring to a February performance during which Sulkowicz stood in front of works by Chuck Close, recently accused of sexual harassment, their body covered with asterisks.

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Sulkowicz’s performance was in part a response to a story from the New York Times that asked: “Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?” The Times story asked curators if artists accused of harassment and/or assault should be contextualized as such, how their work or careers should be contextualized and if labels next to great works should carry an asterisk to note that history. The asterisk was meant to indicate a kind of footnote in an otherwise celebrated career; a nearly undetectable mark that reinforced an ordered hierarchy of experiences. Close’s career—and by proxy, the artistic achievement of great artists—remained intact, centered as the primary narrative while the harassment and abuse he allegedly inflicted on others were reduced to a punctuation mark. Standing in front of Close’s works, body covered in asterisks, Sulkowicz’s performance was as much of an insistence as it was an intervention.

The performance was part of Sulkowicz’s growing body of work since Sulkowicz staged Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) on Columbia University’s campus between 2014 to 2015. In that performance, which quickly became a flashpoint for campus sexual assault, Sulkowicz carried a dorm mattress across Columbia’s campus calling attention to the literal and metaphoric weight of their sexual assault. Since then, Sulkowicz has explored similar topics, producing work that poses questions like “How to heal from trauma? What does support look like? What does strength look like?”

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Here, Sulkowicz reflects on past work and introduces current work, including a new installation titled The Floating World, currently on view in Brooklyn. Sulkowicz also spoke about #MeToo and sexual assault. “I always wonder what would have been different about my sexual assault hearing back at Columbia if it had happened this year instead of back then,” Sulkowicz said.

Video: Producer and Editor: Phoebe Bradford; Associate Producer: Zoe Stahl

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DISCUSSION

With regards to the asterisk performance, I am wary of so-called feminist or activist art that mostly consists of displaying a conventionally pretty female body in little to no clothes. I feel like in this society, with our skewed values vis a vis women’s bodies, it’s catering to the traditional male gaze and doing little to challenge status quo; our status quo literally is attractive female bodies on display.