On the third floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building, a line of guests stretches down a cigarette ash-colored hallway. In an adjacent kitchen area, a captivating, gray-bearded man wearing a black suit and a white tie with WHITNEY printed in block letters splashes cold water on his face. Two younger guys congratulate him on his work this evening. They think they’ve witnessed the end of a performance piece starring the sharp-dressed man and Emma Sulkowicz, the 24-year-old artist most famous for protesting an alleged rape by lugging a mattress through the Columbia University campus for the duration of her senior year. But tonight’s work, conceived by Sulkowicz and titled The Ship is Sinking, is still going.
“Mr. Whitney,” as Sulkowicz refers to him in the piece that debuted last Saturday, is portrayed by the bearded man, an S&M film star known as “Master Avery,” whose Kink.com profile describes his body type as that of a “swimmer” and his cock girth as “thick.”
“So, what was that all about?” one of the guys asks Mr. Whitney, who a few minutes ago tied a bikini-clad, pink-haired Sulkowicz to a seven-foot slab of wood and raised her to the ceiling of the gallery one floor below, while verbally and physically assaulting her.
“Well,” Mr. Whitney begins casually. “I had to kick her ass a little. She’s lazy. I can’t have her thinking she can be an artist.”
The two guys don’t know what to say next. Mr. Whitney keeps the conversation going, asking, “Do you think I was hard enough on her?”
A few days earlier, I sat with a friendly, nervous Sulkowicz at lunch and talked about her latest offering, part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s esteemed Independent Study Program. “At this point I’ve read enough theory and I’m confident enough in myself as an artist to know that I can only maintain an art practice if I’m doing stuff that’s kooky, wacky and fun,” she said, “and that’s why I’m really excited about this piece.” Revealing that she would be dressed in a bikini while hanging from the ceiling in the position of a female figurehead on a ship’s mast, she giggled, adding. “I’m definitely going to be the most naked person in the room.”
Sulkowicz’s carefree demeanor betrays the depth of thought and preparedness put into The Ship is Sinking. It’s inspired by a 1935 Bertolt Brecht essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” – in which Brecht compares the Great Depression-era United States to a sinking ship. In taking the abuse from “Mr. Whitney” in her piece, she is questioning her value as an artist while posing the question: “What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?”
During the performance, Mr. Whitney uses heavy-duty ropes to bind the submissive Sulkowicz, clad in spiky, sparkling heels. Drops of sweat trickle off the tip of his nose as he muscles the ropes around her over and over again. He burns her skin while she moans as the tightest of knots is executed. As he raises her off the ground, she maintains a show of stoicism; then Mr. Whitney goes back to perusing the financial section of The New York Times in a nearby chair.
Sulkowicz says the piece is part observation on Donald Trump’s America and the place of art within it, part critique of the art establishment, and part personal exploration of her own boundaries as an artist.
“If our country is falling to pieces and you’re like, I’m going to make political art!, you’re just kind of weighing the ship down,” Sulkowicz says. “The only art that’s really going to fix things are going to happen outside the walls of the institution,” meaning, in this case, the Whitney.
Nevertheless, “Every one of the artists in the room that night asked to be a part of this structure, we all want to be bound to the institution,” she continues, referring to her peers in the program. “In spite of all this pain, we still want it.”
As Sulkowicz hangs several feet above the performance space’s floor – with pink tufts of pubic hair sprouting from the top of the bikini bottom and from her armpits – a woman pushes through the gallery goers. “Do you want me to get you down?” she asks Sulkowicz, looking up at her.
“No, it’s O.K.,” Sulkowicz says. “I have to show Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.” She’s repeated that phrase over and over tonight, even as friends greeted her upon arriving, not realizing that the performance had already begun.
“Excuse me!” Mr. Whitney shouts at the concerned woman, jumping out of his chair. “Is she bothering you?”
Quickly turning his attention to Sulkowicz, he says, “Did you say something bad about me?”
Sulkowicz playfully denies any wrongdoing, but Mr. Whitney’s not having it. He unbuckles his belt and removes it. The audience can guess what’s coming next.
Another woman in the crowd says, “Oh my god,” and Mr. Whitney smacks Sulkowicz’s rear end repeatedly with the belt. As pink welts rise on her right butt cheek, Mr. Whitney asks the crowd if they “think she can take it.” Some nod, one gives a thumbs up, and others remain stone-faced. The woman who offered to rescue Sulkowicz looks on, horrified.
This isn’t the first time Sulkowicz has infused assault into her work. Weeks after graduating from Columbia – and famously walking her mattress across the stage to accept her diploma – she released Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, a video performance art piece in which she filmed herself engaged in a sexual encounter that turned violent from four different angles. She says that work, meant to display in raw detail just how seamlessly sex can turn into rape, was the first time she had to confront the particular ways in which she was harmed while being sexually assaulted in 2012. (The man she accused has denied any wrongdoing, and has repeatedly filed court actions charging Columbia with gender-based discrimination. In July 2017, after multiple appeals, the university settled with him in court.) In the video, her co-actor strangles and sodomizes her, like she says her attacker did. “I was gearing up for the shoot date so much in my head and [thought] ‘these things trigger me, but on this day I’m just going to have to deal with it,’” she recalls. “This is the most corny thing ever, but art enabled me to face my fears.”
Sulkowicz says that for a long time if anyone touched her neck, she’d be triggered, and become upset. But in part because of Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, and the psychotherapy she’s engaged in for the past year, her neck is no longer off-limits.
Since graduating, Sulkowicz has offered commentary on the rape case through a collection of silkscreened images and newspaper clippings, and dressed up as a doctor and played the role of therapist to see how “art heals in ways that medicine can’t,” as she told The Daily Beast in January. She hopes to restage this collaboration with Master Avery in other venues, and is “always working on something” art related.
During the performance last weekend, after taking a few lashings from Mr. Whitney’s belt, Sulkowicz finally gives in and asks to be taken down.
“Oh, you’re giving up?” Mr. Whitney taunts. “O.K.,” he continues, lowering the wooden post. “I guess you don’t have what it takes to be an artist.”
A silent Sulkowicz lays on the carpet a good ten minutes while Mr. Whitney unties the knots wedding her to the wood. Once she can stand, Mr. Whitney returns to his newspaper.
The attendees offer Sulkowicz a mix of praise and condolences. One girl asks, “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Sulkowicz says, undoing a knot. “But I’ve just got to get back up there and prove to Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.”
“What’s the bar for that?” the girl asks, oblivious that Sulkowicz has broken free of the wood post, but not yet of the confines of the piece. “How long do you have to stay up there?”
With a straight face, Sulkowicz stops toying with the rope, flips a wrist and says, “I mean, like, forever.”
The girl stares at her blankly.
An eager Sulkowicz attaches the wooden post to the makeshift pulley system hanging from the ceiling, approaches Mr. Whitney and pleads with him, again, to “make me an artist.”
“You know it’s going to hurt,” Mr. Whitney retorts.
“I know what it takes now,” she says, steadfast. “I know what to expect.”
Mr. Whitney goes to work again, but much more fiercely this time, grabbing Sulkowicz harder, tying the knots tighter, making her moan louder.
He moves quicker this time, once again positioning her like a figurehead atop the gallery. He pulls Sulkowicz’s hair, slaps her face, and invites an audience member to join – a heavyset dude, dressed in a black tee and torn black jeans, wearing some lipstick and face powder. He’s been here since the doors opened, and now he and Mr. Whitney are both slapping her ass.
As the clock strikes eight, the gallery’s lights go out, signaling the end of the performance. But Mr. Whitney continues the onslaught, pinching Sulkowicz’s nipples.
Onlookers fire up the flashlight function on their iPhones, once again illuminating the gallery corner.
Shortly thereafter, Sulkowicz “gives up” again. Mr. Whitney takes her down and continuously chastises her as he unravels the knots.
“Ah, this is a waste of my time,” he suddenly ejects. Then, addressing the crowd says, “Why don’t you all untie her instead?”
Eight or so people surround Sulkowicz as she lies on the ground and pull at the ropes. In a couple minutes she’s free, and everyone applauds.
As the crowd thins, Sulkowicz and Master Avery embrace. With her eyes shut, she smiles widely.