Emma Sulkowicz is in the news again. Who’s Emma Sulkowicz? How quickly we forget. Emma gained notoriety a couple of years ago when she was an art major at Columbia University and dragged her dormitory mattress around campus to signal her burden as a rape victim, pledging to stop only if the student who raped her is expelled. He wasn’t and Emma carried the mattress to her graduation in cap and gown last year.
Emma’s mattress caper was the stuff of what the art world calls “endurance performance” or “durational performance” for which Marina Abramović is famous. Marina’s show at MoMA in 2010 called “The Artist is Present,” showed her sitting opposite museum visitors, one at a time, for eight hours a day, without speaking. She did this for a total of 750 hours. As I described her performance at the time, she sat stock-still in a straight-back chair like Whistler’s mother, hands in lap, staring fixedly at whoever sat before her –as many as 750,000 for seven and a half hours every day for 90 days without food, drink or bathroom break.
In what seems to be ion the same spirit, Emma is having her first solo exhibit at Coagula Curatorial, an art gallery in L.A. run by art critic Matt Gleason, who owns the Cogula Art Journal. Her show, titled “Self-Portrait,” is billed as “a live investigation of identity as performance” that “pushes the limits and meaning of the self-portrait as a contemporary concept.”
Such is performance art with its focus on the body doing nothing. There are jillion ways to flee traditional painting and sculpture without resorting to making a spectacle of yourself – especially if you do nothing. At least performance artist Yayoi Kusamag did something – well she tried to – when in an open letter she offered to have sex with Pres. Nixon if he would stop the Vietnam war.
Even Abramovic’s immaterial efforts of the ‘70s, like her exhibit in a white space that was filled only with her taped message replaying “I love you,” was about something. In a public statement, Marina said that it look a long time to get up “the courage, the concentration and the knowledge to come to the idea that there could be art without any objects, solely an exchange between the performer and the public.” What exchange?
Marina’s hubris would almost be tolerable if she were the only performance artist who put on empty performances. But her apparent sway over Emma and all the future Emma’s is a worry. As said in this column many times before, challenging tradition in visual art is a good thing. But the challenge is to do it with visual art, not stage art.
In the spirit of fairness, this column gives Emma the last word, noted on the gallery website: “You can’t make a sculpture for a pedestal unless you’ve sat on the pedestal yourself.”