Here's How Emma Sulkowicz, The Columbia Mattress Artist, Plans To Resist Trump
The waiting room at Philadelphia's Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center isn't that different from one found at your average therapist's office — it has the same gentle lighting, the same soothingly blank walls, the same waiting room full of magazines that don't seem to have ever been read. The only difference lies on the other side of the office — where, instead of a psychiatrist or social worker, visitors meet Emma Sulkowicz.
Sulkowicz — who you likely know from Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance), her 2014 Columbia University art thesis project, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus for an entire school year in protest against the university's handling of her sexual assault claims — hasn't abruptly decided to switch careers. Rather, her newest work, the Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center presented by Philadelphia Contemporary, sets visitors up in 30 minute, one-on-one sessions with Sulkowicz herself inside a faux doctor's office. Utilizing the elaborate tropes of therapy and clinical medicine, the project hopes to get at something much simpler: empathy. Sulkowicz doesn't just believe that empathy can help us become better neighbors, or support our friends during this trying political moment; she believes it can literally change a world reeling from Trump's presidential victory.
Which is how I came to sit in that waiting room, nervously preparing to tell my personal secrets to a stranger I had read about in The New York Times.
After arriving at Healing Touch , you're given a multi-page survey to fill out, just like you would at an actual doctor's office. But while it shared some qualities with your standard physician's paperwork (do I smoke? Did any areas of my body hurt?), it quickly veered into different territory: do I have any phobias? Have I ever cried while looking at art? Did I want to touch the artist? (Yes, yes, and no, for the curious.)
Paging through, I wondered what exactly I had signed up for. I mean that literally. I read the promotional materials for the exhibit, which described it as a "a parafictional medical clinic" which would provide "a revolutionary cure for human desire" for visitors, but I wasn't sure what any of that actually meant — especially in terms of what would happen when I got in a room with Sulkowicz. I had been eager to attend because I was moved by Carry That Weight, and because I am chronically incapable of saying "no" to anything that sounds like a weird way to spend a few hours. But I'm not an art critic or expert, and in the waiting room, I started to get nervous that I was somehow doing... whatever it was I was doing wrong.
If I'm being honest, there's another element that drew me to the gallery: I was curious about Emma Sulkowicz the actual human being — which is part of the show's point. As she received a wave of media attention for Carry That Weight that landed her on magazine covers and at the top of critic Jerry Saltz's list of the best art of 2014, Sulkowicz also turned into a bit of a cultural Rorschach blot.
Some saw an emerging artist — The New York Times' Roberta Smith said "The work Ms. Sulkowicz is making is strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended...All of this determines its striking quality as art, which in turn contributes substantially to its effectiveness as protest." But to many others, she was a highly charged symbol in the culture wars. Writer Camille Paglia called the piece “a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism,” and conservative websites obsessed over her as a prime example of how PC culture had run amok at America's universities. Survivors of sexual trauma and their allies saw a hero who demanded accountability from a world that enables sexual violence. Neither reading left too much room for Sulkowicz's humanity.
In fact, some people connected with Sulkowicz to the point of almost revering her, viewing her as someone in possession of healing powers. On the phone, the day after we met at the exhibity, Sulkowicz told me about the people who would come up and touch her while she held her mattress. They would also approach her when she was doing mundane things sans mattress, like hanging out at a bar or going food shopping, and tell her about their own traumas — an experience which she told me could get "really triggering."
Post-Carry That Weight, Sulkowicz created new art to try to sift through the new ways people demanded things of both her and her work; a 2016 show at L.A.'s Coagula Curatorial called Self-Portrait had her standing next to a robotic doppelganger named Emmatron, which was programmed to answer the kinds of repetitive questions she often received about her previous piece.
The experience revealed something curious to Sulkowicz, though: many visitors didn't want to have their questions about her answered. They sidestepped the robot, who could field questions both personal and technical about Carry That Weight; they just wanted to converse with Sulkowicz herself. She told me that some brought pre-written lists of stories they wanted to tell her and topics they wanted to discuss. Some, Sulkowicz said, also claimed that it was "weird that they couldn't touch me."
Healing Touch is an outgrowth of these experiences. First conceived in May of 2016, it went through multiple drafts — "when a piece takes so long to make, by the time it happens, it goes through a lot of changes," Sulkowicz told me. But in its final version, people could book an appointment, show up at the Healing Touch office in Philadephia's Old City, and do exactly what I did — sit down with Sulkowicz and have a talk that began with a discussion of art, but broadened into, well, the kinds of things you'd talk to an actual therapist about — stresses, anxieties, politics, fears for the future.
In part, Healing Touch is a way to establish boundaries — if you want to tell Sulkowicz about your assault or give your opinion on her work, you can just make an appointment instead of running up to her on the street.
But as I sat in the waiting room, one question nagged at me: I knew why I wanted to travel across two states to talk to Emma Sulkowicz for half an hour. I was fascinated by her work, and intrigued to see the woman behind the art. But why the hell would Emma Sulkowicz want to talk to me?
After my name was called, I passed through a row of curtains, walking to a small room done up to look like a doctor's office, complete with an exam table. Sulkowicz stood waiting in the doorway, wearing a white lab coat, and greeted me warmly. Looking at my survey, she asked: did I see many art shows? Could I remember one that had moved me in particular?
I stumbled for a minute before drawing up a memory from my teenage years. I began to panic, ever-so-slightly. Should I have done some more research before agreeing to be involved in experimental performance art? Is it a bad idea to meet people you admire? Should I re-examine my commitment to doing literally anything to get out of going to work?
And then, suddenly, half an hour had passed. And it had passed in a way that was, well, remarkably similar to actual therapy. I talked about my childhood, my fears, my guilt about the sheer amount of time I spend dicking off on Twitter. Sulkowicz listened, drew out answers, and, when the moment seemed to call for it, gave me her own takes. "You were told your voice didn't matter, but also that your voice is dangerous," she said about my issues with chronic indecision. "You need to just jump in," she told me, as we discussed my fear of making life changes. Her tone was comforting, her vibe kinder than most doctors or performance artists whom I've encountered.
When my time was up, I thanked her, and exited to the cold city street, feeling jazzed and energetic — better than I had in weeks. But also: what the hell just happened?
Over the phone the next day, Sulkowicz told me that Healing Touch is still about the necessity of facing trauma, just as Carry That Weight was; but, she said, while she used to make art that was angrier, this new work examines why we want what we want, and shows how being open to healing can be just as important and revolutionary as anger — especially in our current cultural moment.
Though Carry That Weight was pegged by many to be a solely political gesture, I was most taken by it emotionally, and the way it physically represented how the pain of trauma takes up space. Sulkowicz told me this kind of emotional response to her work is her motivation; to her, "art isn't to make people think, it's to make people feel...[and] the best art makes people feel their emotions and get in touch with them." But while many (including me) connected with Carry That Weight because of the way it dramatized the emotional endurance we felt while living with trauma, the endurance of Healing Touch — talking to strangers for hours a day, about anything they like — suggests a different goal: not of honoring our own pain, but recognizing the pain of others.
"Art has the power to make people more empathetic," Sulkowicz said. And that desire to help people excavate their feelings is what animates her work: "In my art practice, I'm gonna push people to feel — if I'm not doing that, I'm gonna do something else."
Though Healing Touch was conceived before the election, Sulkowicz told me that she absolutely considers it a political piece — and that empathy, which the piece tries to cultivate, has a place in politics. "I believe empathy can make people stop doing bad things," Sulkowicz told me.
Before I was able to ask her my big question — what does she get out of performing casual psychotherapy for eight hours a day — Sulkowicz told me the experience of performing Healing Touch was "physically draining" but emotionally uplifting. By the end of each appointment, she said, she felt love for each participant, often going out to chat with the exhibit's receptionist about how lovely the last visitor was — only to be reminded by the receptionist that she had said that about every visitor that day. Her voice audibly joyful, she told me that the project "gave me hope for humanity."
The term "empathy" has been weaponized in a lot of ways since this election, pretzel-twisted into a form of blame or punishment for people on the left: we are told that our lack of empathy for Trump voters is what landed Trump in the White House, and that the only way to achieve our goals now is to empathize with people who seem interested in denying us our human rights. Pieces that pin Clinton's loss on "identity politics" say: you chose the wrong groups of people to empathize with.
Healing Touch, I believe, is a corrective to this. Sulkowicz's passion for empathy isn't about how we need to use it to "work across the aisle" or secure our basic human rights from people who seem hellbent on snatching them away from us; it's about how empathy is our birthright as humans. It's about how we're still allowed to feel and connect with each other, and derive energy and joy from that connection, even during the grimmest, scariest cultural moment we've ever lived through. Healing Touch isn't pushing some simplistic "all you need is love" philosophy; but it is saying, you're allowed to feel. And, unfortunately, in this moment, that is a kind of revelatory thought.
Sulkowicz and I talked about politics in our session, briefly; but as she noted during our interview, whenever visitors brought up politics, "all of their stresses about politics were about the ways politics were affecting them on a personal level." She's right; I call my reps and donate because I believe in it politically, because I think it's right, but also because I feel terrified — not just of the future, but of a feeling like I'm estranged from humanity. When I attended the Women's March in D.C., I spent most of the time feeling like I was watching my body from the outside. These days, I often feel unsure of how to exist anymore.
Did Healing Touch change that completely? Of course not. But I can't deny that, in small, incremental ways, I have felt more and more like myself since that half hour in Sulkowicz's office. Was talking to her that different than talking to a therapist, or a particularly wise friend? No... except that your therapist is listening because it's their job, and your friends listen because they already love you. Sulkowicz was listening just because she chose to spend hours of her life listening to strangers talk about their lives. And that fact made it powerful to me.
If you weren't sold on Carry That Weight, or think that Sulkowicz's work is a symbol of a culture strangled by choosing feelings over logic, Healing Touch probably won't change your mind. But if you're someone like me — someone who saw Sulkowicz's previous work as a sign that the world was changing for the better, and now live in fear that you were wrong — Sulkowicz's dedication to empathy, to connecting with people, gives me a small but very real feeling that all hope is not lost.
Which is, ultimately, Sulkowicz's plan for the next four years: "What's your plan for resistance? For me, I'm gonna try to make people more sensitive, one person at a time."