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Many Beds and the Burdens of Feminism

Image of Emma Sulkowicz courtesy altmagazine.co.uk

Rebecca Mead has penned a scattered article for the New Yorker comparing the strategies of Tracey Emin and Emma Sulkowicz’s respective artworks that use beds as subject and material. These two artists seem unlikely subjects for comparison–while Emin’s bed symbolizes women’s sexual freedom as both liberating and kind of gross, Sulkowicz’s bed represents her rape, and the omnipresent trauma she experiences because of it. Mead then confusingly goes into the plight of her friend, Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, who has been protested against at the Illinois university for writing an article decrying trigger warnings, because apparently students should toughen up before they enter the real world. “What do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life?” writes Kipnis. “What becomes of students so committed to their vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency?” For some reason, Kipnis doesn’t consider that university is also a training ground for young people to learn how to respectfully interact with others regarding complex issues such as rape, sexuality, gender, violence, race, etc.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” 1991

It’s confusing that this article seems to be about both trigger warnings and the growing presence of feminist politics on university campuses as well as an artistic treatment of the bed. The bed has a long, rich history in art. Consider, for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s painterly “Bed” (1955), commemorating his love for his partner Jasper Johns; or Nam June Paik’s “Video Bed” (1972), reportedly made for his love Charlotte Moorman; Rachel Whiteread’s plaster cast “Untitled (Bed)” (1991) that gives shape to overlooked domestic space; or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s elegiac 1991 untitled photograph of his unmade bed, its pillows dented by sleeping heads. Gonzalez-Torres’s photograph was installed on billboards around New York City as his lover had just died from AIDS. There’s also Nadim Abbas’s isolated chambers installed with beds in “Surround Audience,” the current New Museum triennial, or even Chu Yun’s “living sculpture” of a medicated woman sleeping in a bed at the first New Museum triennial, “Younger than Jesus,” in 2009. The bed is such a rife topic with varied accounts of sexuality, domesticity, partnership, and even death, that it’s even the subject of a current exhibition at 21er Haus in Vienna. It seems pertinent to specify how exactly it’s being treated, especially given that superficially comparing an earnest artist like Emma Sulkowicz to Tracey Emin, who is known for exploiting media antics, seems misleading, and a cruel fate.

What are your thoughts on Mead’s article? You can read the text below.

Last week, “My Bed,” a 1998 work by Tracey Emin, the British artist, went on display at the Tate Britain gallery, in London. Consisting of a rumpled, unmade bed surrounded by very personal detritus—newspapers, a half-squeezed tube of K-Y Jelly, a used tampon, soiled tissues, empty vodka bottles, cigarette cartons, underwear stained with menstrual blood—“My Bed” caused an uproar, critical and popular, when it was first exhibited at the Tate after being nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, in 1999. Its reinstallation at the Tate after a fifteen-year interval confirms its status as a landmark work of contemporary British art; it has been loaned to the gallery for at least the next decade by Count Christian Duerckheim, who paid £2.5 million—about $3.7 million—for it at auction last summer.

In 1999, “My Bed” was shocking to reviewers and gallery visitors, whom it helped to draw in record numbers to the Tate, not just because it presented what was an incontestably squalid mise-en-scène. In contrast to other women’s beds as represented in the Western artistic tradition—such as that of Titian’s Venus, with its suggestively mussed sheets—Emin’s bed bore the marks of blood, sweat, and, most likely, tears. The bed could certainly be interpreted as having served as a site of pleasure, but it was also suggestive of a psyche steeped in doubt, self-neglect, and shame. The bed looked like the residuum of a lost weekend, yet it also intimated that the bed’s occupant felt herself to be lost, too.

By the time Emin created “My Bed,” she had become well known for blending the conceptual and the confessional. Her first show, at the White Cube gallery, in 1993, was called “My Major Retrospective”; in it, she covered one wall with diary entries from her childhood, which had been spent in the working-class seaside town of Margate, as well as letters to family and friends, including one sent to her twin brother while he was in prison. In 1994, Emin published a limited-edition book, “Exploration of the Soul,” in which she recounted her life from conception to the loss of her virginity, through rape, at the age of thirteen. Emin’s contribution to the notorious “Sensation” show at the Royal Academy, in 1997, was “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”: a tent embroidered with names of friends, lovers, and her grandmother, as well as Fetus Number One and Fetus Number Two, signifying her abortions. In interviews given in advance of the 1999 Turner Prize—which was won that year not by Emin but by Steve McQueen—Emin said that “My Bed” actually was her bed; it was in a state that resulted when, sunk in depression, and at the end of a relationship, she didn’t leave it for several days. “I got up and took a bath and looked at the bed and thought, ‘Christ, I made that,’ ” she told one interviewer at the time. A bed without a body, it was nonetheless a naked self-portrait.

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, has since last fall been engaged in an art project also built around a bed. In “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” Sulkowicz has committed herself to carrying a twin mattress with her whenever she is on campus. The work, which Sulkowicz, a visual-arts major, is submitting as her thesis project, includes several “rules of engagement,” among them Sulkowicz’s determination that, whenever she is inside a building owned by Columbia, the mattress must be inside, too, and that, whenever she leaves campus, she must find a safe place to stow the mattress.

Like Emin’s bed, Sulkowicz’s project is, she has explained, based upon a very specific experience: that of being raped by a male student, a friend, in her dorm room, which was equipped with a mattress very like the one she is now carrying. Several months later, Sulkowicz filed a complaint against the student with campus authorities, but the subsequent hearing found him not responsible, and no disciplinary action was taken against him. Sulkowicz ultimately decided against filing police charges, but she conceived of the art project as a protest against the university’s position. She has committed to carrying the mattress for as long as the student in question remains on the same campus. (The accused student has publicly denied the rape charge.)

“Mattress Project: Carry That Weight” has garnered important critical accolades: writing in the Times, Roberta Smith called it “succinct and powerful,” while Jerry Saltz, in New York magazine, described it as “pure radical vulnerability,” a work that not only spoke to Sulkowicz’s own experience but demanded a reckoning with the issue of sexual violence on campus, and with the responsibility of academic institutions to confront it. As a political gesture, the project also has drawn considerable attention. Sulkowicz was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s guest at the State of the Union address in January.

One of Sulkowicz’s rules of engagement is that she may not ask for help in carrying her mattress, which weighs fifty pounds, but she is allowed to accept help from anyone who offers it. This has given the work a powerfully generative force: offering to help Sulkowicz with her burden is not just a gesture of simple human empathy, like helping a mother struggling with a stroller on the subway stairs, but has become a means of protesting sexual violence and expressing solidarity with those who have experienced it. Supporters have organized “collective carries,” in which groups have rallied to help to bear Sulkowicz’s mattress aloft. And on campuses other than Columbia, students protesting sexual violence, or institutional tolerance of it, have incorporated mattresses into their demonstrations. Carrying the Weight Together, an alliance of activist groups, has called for a national day of action on April 13th, to demand policies “to end gender-based violence and rape culture at our schools”; participants are encouraged to carry a mattress or, failing that, a pillow, around with them all day.

Last month, students at Northwestern University held a mattress protest against an individual who, at first glance, would appear to be an unlikely target: Laura Kipnis, a professor in the film department and a feminist cultural critic. The protest was prompted by an essay Kipnis had written for the Chronicle of Higher Education concerning regulations limiting romantic or sexual relationships between students and faculty at her university. She made reference to a case at Northwestern in which a professor had been accused of engaging in “unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.” (I reviewed Kipnis’s anti-monogamy polemic, “Against Love,” in 2003; thereafter, we became friends.) Kipnis makes it clear that she is not defending perpetrators of unwanted sexual advances, or worse: “For the record, I strongly believe that bona fide harassers should be chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the nearest public square,” she wrote, in a rhetorical gesture of overstatement. But she did seek to question the response of some contemporary campus feminists to the issue of sexual harassment. In the essay, she wrote that the feminism with which she had identified as a student stressed independence and resilience, and she suggested that contemporary modes of feminism—relationship codes such as that at Northwestern, and the increasing use of “trigger warnings” to alert students that material being studied in class might contain representations of rape or other forms of violence—rendered students less powerful, not more. “What do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life?” she asked. “What becomes of students so committed to their vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency?” The students who marched in protest against her called upon the administration to do something about the “violence expressed by Kipnis’s message.”

Kipnis, who went to art school in the late seventies and early eighties, belongs to a generation whose members grew up expecting that consensual sexual relationships, and the power dynamics they involve, would often be as messy as an unmade bed. (“Sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly and inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing,” Kipnis wrote in her Chronicle essay.) Emin, who is now fifty-one, belongs to the same generation. “My Bed,” when it was first made, conveyed not just the specificity of Emin’s own experience of depression, but also spoke to the experience of any woman who came of age in a similar cultural climate. Its implied occupant was an autonomous sexual actor—Emin’s birth-control pills were part of the installation—as well as someone who risked emotional pain with every relationship willingly entered upon, and who knew to expect external and internal judgment. We’d made our beds; we’d have to lie in them.

Emin’s bed was an interior, self-critical work, but it also enabled its creator to assert her power and self-reliance. “By realizing how separate I was from it, I separated myself from the bed. I wasn’t there any more,” Emin explained at the time. Sulkowicz has not separated herself from her bed. Rather, she has taken it on as a visible burden. She has devoted her strength, in a very literal way, to bearing it publicly, and, by permitting others to help her bear its weight, she has suggested that the threat of sexual violence might itself be alleviated through a shared, lifted consciousness. If “My Bed” turned blame and responsibility inward, “Mattress Project: Carry That Weight” directs them outward. For all the parallels that may be drawn between the two works, they do not derive from identical experiences: Sulkowicz’s unadorned mattress signifies a rape, a stark violation, while Emin’s bed suggests a multiplicity of more ambiguous stories. At the same time, Sulkowicz’s project is a far more idealistic work than Emin’s: it demands a social and political response. Sulkowicz’s mattress, in its plain blue cover, is a sanctuary restored. Emin’s lived-in bed is consecrated by hard-won knowledge.

Emin was interviewed recently about “My Bed,” and she spoke affectionately of it, explaining that she regards the work as “a portrait of a young woman, and how time affects all of us.” Last fall, Emin showed her latest work at White Cube: a collection of paintings and bronzes representing the curves and lines of a female body, her own. She told one interviewer that the work constituted an attempt to understand what had happened to her between the ages of thirty-five—the era of “My Bed”—and fifty. “As you get older, life feels heavier, more cumbersome,” she said. “Things get harder to carry around, literally and spiritually.” Perhaps women of Sulkowicz’s generation, having grown up with a form of feminism that nurtures mutual protection through community more than it stresses individual self-reliance, will find themselves better-equipped than Emin and her peers to bear the accrued burdens of age and experience. Or perhaps they will, after all, discover that the muscles they have developed are still insufficient to the weight of the world.