A Year and a Half After Mattress Performance, Emma Sulkowicz Wants to Heal You

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Emma Sulkowicz. Photo: Philadelphia Contemporary

At the Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center on North 2nd Street in Philadelphia, I was asked by a blonde woman named Tara sitting behind a laptop to fill out some paperwork and wait for the doctor. Around me were the familiar staples one would find in any medical office — magazines, a coatrack, the persistent thrum of white-noise generators. But amidst the stack of paperwork was an indication that I wasn’t just going to get a checkup — I had to sign my consent to participate in a “performance by Emma Sulkowicz at [a] parafictional medical clinic.”

Sulkowicz rose to fame in 2014 when she began carrying her mattress around Columbia University as a protest and art performance against how the university handled her sexual assault. Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) sparked a national conversation around campus rape, and Sulkowicz became herself something of a divisive figure. In her latest project at Philadelphia Contemporary, Sulkowicz decided to turn the spotlight from herself to the participant. She’s no longer the central figure of the artwork. Instead, Sulkowicz wants to heal you.

The performance, which runs until the end of January, is a coy meditation on our Western obsession with being neatly “healed” of our emotional ailments, and takes place at a converted gallery space in Old City. Every day, Sulkowicz holds 12 appointments at $30 a ticket. After filling out four pages of paperwork with questions like “Have you ever cried while viewing art? If yes, did crying make you feel better?”, patients are tended to by Sulkowicz through talk therapy. Sulkowicz says her goal with each of her visitors is to “eradicate lack by abolishing desire,” which, like all experiments in emotional healing, is both vague and flexible. “I’ve had patients literally write on their paperwork that they want to be diagnosed with depression,” Sulkowicz explained. “I tell them, ‘I’m not a real doctor, but we can talk about why you might desire for me to diagnose you with depression in this kind of art piece.’”

Back in the waiting room, I prepared for my session. “The doctor will see you now,” Tara said, motioning for me to walk through a white curtain and toward the end of a hallway. Behind a door, in a white room with no windows and scattered with various medical-adjacent props like a bottle of Currel lotion, a desk chair, a yellow legal pad, and a plant, I was greeted, professionally, by Sulkowicz. She wore a lab coat and Dansko slip-ons. With the door closed, it felt vaguely unsettling to suddenly be the primary focus of Sulkowicz’s attention. Looking at her, it was impossible not to be reminded of the very public trauma and recovery she had weathered in recent history. I felt for a moment that it was me who should be asking her about deep emotional distress, which I presupposed was part of the point.

Sulkowicz started our session by looking down at my paperwork and saying, “You say that art makes you cry. Can you tell me about the last piece of art that did this?”

Our conversation ranged from eggplant Parmesan to pathological ambition to the importance of physical embrace, and nearly every member of my immediate family and how I relate to them. Sulkowicz — while taking notes on the yellow legal pad in polished script — was much better at pulling important details from me than I’d expected. Her assessments were frequently accurate, but with her nervous laugh and occasional long pause to unveil a new question, in my 30-minute session, I was never able to fully buy in. It felt more like a very intense round of speed dating than a scheduled visit with a licensed practitioner.

The end of our session was abrupt: Sulkowicz smiled at me, said we were out of time, and I walked back out to the waiting room. As I put on my coat, she bound through the curtain, lab coat removed, and proclaimed, “I’m me now.” She immediately embraced me in a hug as if we were old friends, a purposeful extension of our session, which focused heavily on how much I value physical embrace. Sulkowicz breaking the fourth wall so soon after her diagnosing my need for art felt like a piece of the art itself. It was dizzying.

Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Performance art that requires viewer participation is not anything new, of course — Sulkowicz’s new project is emotional cousins with much of Marina Abramovic’s recent work, and is also aligned with the return of immersive theater as a trend. The through-line with them all is our desire to be touched, to be heard, to be truly felt in a time where we’re imprisoned by the iciness of technology. In Sulkowicz’s latest, there is safety in knowing that, theoretically, the viewer could say whatever she or he chooses, and the artist would help you work through it. But the word “healing” is in the title of the work, which indicates after leaving the space, participants should have gone through some sort of cathartic transformation.

“During Mattress Performance, as I would walk by carrying the mattress, people would touch me reverently, as if I could heal them. It was really weird,” she said. The performance ran for the entirety of Sulkowicz’s senior year, concluding when she carried the mattress with several classmates onstage during commencement. “No matter where I was, whether I had the mattress or not, people would come up to me and tell me about themselves. When you go to a medical clinic, you expect to have physical contact with your doctor by way of a stethoscope. In talk therapy, you talk it all out. This project aims to blend those two things, without the actual touching.”

But can this version of art mimicking medical intervention — “galleries are kind of like medical clinics,” she says, “all the white walls” — actually result in any healing?

For Sulkowicz, that depends on how you define “healing.” She’s not interested in the quick-fix approach to trauma that she experienced at Columbia following her assault, when she says a therapist told her she would soon be healed to the point of being able to “be in the same room as her attacker.” “It was that moment when I decided that definitions of healing that meant smoothing things over, getting over it, and moving on just weren’t interesting to me,” she says. Instead, Sulkowicz wanted to find a definition of healing that allowed for something of the contrary, something more long-term. “The opposite of getting over it was to decidedly not get over it and create spaces where people can actually confront their emotions as much as they need to.”

The results of the project so far are largely what you’d expect in the time we’re currently living in. “You won’t be surprised to hear how much the election comes up. We obviously can all agree that the election result was bad, that it was traumatizing. But when we start to pick that apart, the election has meant something completely different to every person.” This is why, Sulkowicz said, she aims to create “a space of radical sensitivity.”

After Mattress Performance, Emma Sulkowicz Wants to Heal You