‘Mattress Girl’ explores fame and persona

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On a side street in Chinatown reserved for pedestrians, nestled between a few unassuming galleries and a parking lot, stand two identical purple-pigtailed figures, side by side, in an otherwise empty room: Emma Sulkowicz, who some might remember as the “Mattress Girl” from Columbia University, and her robot clone, Emmatron.

I wait nervously outside, buying time reading the few reviews of the performance art posted on the window as I mentally prepare myself for the intimate exchange I know is coming. I recall a recurring nightmare, in which I follow a friend to an improv show that turns out to be hyper interactive and hyper involuntary, lacking any audience besides the two of us. With clearly no other reason to be on this tiny, vacant street, and feeling Emma’s eyes on me, I apprehensively make my way inside.

Like most art galleries, Coagula Curatorial is enclosed by four unadorned white walls. A drink fridge hides in one corner, across from the unobtrusive blue-haired gallery owner. In the middle of the room, Emma and her likeness stand atop two square white platforms, with two more resting a foot in front of them, inviting the next patron to step up to let the games begin.

These are the rules: You may ask Emma any questions you like, but she reserves the right to answer only the good ones. The more common the question, the more likely she is to refer you to her stoic counterpart to answer. Questions ranging from, “Did the Columbia administration allow you to carry your mattress to graduation?” to “Why are you in LA?” and “How did you make Emmatron?” make up a list of topics reserved for Emmatron, who replies with preprogrammed answers after the question is selected on an iPad facing the user in front of her.

The performance explores the concept of fame and the distinct personas it creates within and without the individual who has achieved it. Emma is the pre-existing human being within; Emmatron is the persona created in, for and by the public eye. She became known as “Mattress Girl” around the country after Columbia’s refusal to expel her alleged rapist prompted her to carry a mattress around campus as a statement via performance art. As her bold act of defiance against an unjust administration turned her into a public figure, she grew tired of answering the same questions again and again and decided to channel this frustration into the next phase of her art and career.

Self-conscious of my own self-consciousness, I beelined for Emmatron. After learning that no, Columbia did not allow the mattress at graduation (she brought it anyway), and about the various components and inner-workings of Emmatron, I stalled for an additional few minutes, then eventually pushed myself off one platform right onto the other, landing face-to-face with the heroic woman I had read and written about and admired so much for almost a year now.

I introduced myself, extending an awkward hand before realizing that touching was also against the rules. We air-shook uncomfortably as I tried to recall the mediocre questions I had formulated while interacting with Emmatron. Soon enough we realized we had grown up in the same city, attending high schools 10 blocks away from each other. After checking for mutual friends and comparing experiences in New York, we quickly and effortlessly wound up in a candid and intellectual but unpretentious discussion about what an art space means, what patrons expect of them and why they come at all.

“Unlike New York, because there’s no foot traffic in LA, everyone who walks through here does so intentionally,” Sulkowicz said. “So I’ve learned a lot about why people come to art shows. It’s an interesting place to be in, as part of the art itself. Some people come for the art, some come to have a kind of transcendental experience, others because art is a free activity, and it’s something to do.”

I asked her to elaborate on the transcendental crowd.

“Sometimes someone will stay for hours. Some people cry. People have given me gifts,” Sulkowicz said. “I’m treated like a deity for no reason. Some people try really hard to connect with art because they want or expect some kind of spiritual or mystical experience.”

For Emma, the gifts are the strangest result of the project — and the most philosophically intriguing. One man gave her a paper crane he made out of his gum wrapper and another bought her a sparkly T-shirt from Forever 21 with “work of art” written across the front.

“It’s really weird. I really appreciate them, but it’s definitely weird,” Sulkowicz said.

We traded theories back and forth in an organic exchange, agreeing that the gift-givers and the transcendence-seekers likely fell from the same tree — and were looking to Emma, in her position as a “work of art,” as a means to get back up. She recommended the book she’s reading called “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde, which ruminates on gift-giving in addition to giftedness, relating to art in particular.

“I’m still in the first section which talks about tribes and tribal gifts, sacrifice for instance,” Sulkowicz said. “One tribe would take the salmon they fished from the river, share it amongst themselves, and then send its bones back down the river as a ‘gift’ to the river gods, essentially as a kind of karmic retribution. That’s sort of my best explanation for the gifts I’ve received.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s got gift-giving on the docket of themes for her next project.

When I first learned of the show and researched its concept, I worried it might be a self-centered and awkward exploitation of the fame Emma received from her sexual assault. But the combination of Emma’s unassuming and easygoing demeanor and her thoughtful, keen mind only served to affirm her status as a symbol, hero and work of art all on her own for women, artists, survivors and young people everywhere.

Sulkowicz will appear through March 31, and the show will be on view through April 3. The gallery is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.