The Davis Museum at Wellesley College is holding an exhibit of the work of sculptor Tony Matelli, and to help advertise the exhibit, the museum placed one of Matelli’s statues outside. Titled The Sleepwalker, the realistic-looking statue shows a bald man in his tighty-whities lumbering forward with his arms outstretched, his eyes closed, and his head lolling around in deep sleep. It’s funny and is, unsurprisingly, a big hit on Instagram. It’s also creating controversy, as reported by the Boston Globe, as many students object to the statue on the grounds that it’s scary. Zoe Magid, a junior at the university, started a Change.org petition demanding that the statue be moved inside the museum. “Within just a few hours of its outdoor installation, the highly lifelike sculpture by Tony Matelli, entitled ‘Sleepwalker,’ has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community,” she writes, adding variations of the word trigger two more times.
The museum director Lisa Fischman responded to the petition in an email that highlights how much the statue does not resemble a rapist who is coming to get you: “Arms outstretched, eyes closed, he appears vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him. He is not naked. He is profoundly passive. He is inert, as sculpture.”
This email did not placate the critics of the statue, who left dozens of comments, mostly written in feminist jargon. “Your claim that Sleepwalker is passive is spoken in privilege and without regard to the many students on this campus who have faced and survived assault, racism, and many other forms of violent oppression,” writes one commenter. Another likens the statue to real-life sexual assailants and harassers: “You claim that Sleepwalker is inert, passive - free of action or blame. Funny, so do his real-life counterparts.” One woman gets a wee bit excited with, “He ‘appears’ like a creepy pervert! There are so many talented artists who create BEAUTY! This is not art! It’s a sexual assault!” Notably, no self-identified rape survivors piped in to say that the statue reminded them of their own experiences, but that didn’t hold back the tide of speculation that it might traumatize them.
It’s hard to pick the “best” comment, but here’s one of my favorites:
Matelli’s statue does not speak to the power of art to inspire dialogue but rather to the power of the nearly nude, white, male body to disturb and discomfit. Even unconscious and vulnerable, he is threatening. “Arms outstretched, eyes closed,” he lumbers forward, quite literally unable to acknowledge the presence of his (in this context) largely female spectators. What a perfect representation of the world outside of Wellesley, where women and people identifying as women are often subject to a similar ambivalence. “I’m not even conscious that I’m wandering through your lady landscape,” the statue says. “I do not have to experience you. I feel about you the same way I feel about the snow. But you have to experience me, and I don’t care.”
What does this statue do if not remind us of the fact of male privilege every single time we pass it, every single time we think about it, every single time we are forced to acknowledge its presence. As if we need any more reminders.
To be clear, there are as many, if not more, voices supporting the statue. Sadly, none of the defenders mentioned the selfie possibilities in their largely high-minded arguments about freedom of expression.
I’m sure this story is on its way to a conservative media outlet near you, where some white, privileged man in tighty-whities will roll his eyes about the hysterical feminists, which, in this case, well—good call. Still, one thing I’ve been trying to keep in mind is that the women getting wound up about the statue are really young and just starting to explore the identity of “feminist.” College is a time for taking everything too far, from drinking beer to sports fandom to sexual drama to using your fancy new vocabulary words picked up in women’s studies courses. Which doesn’t mean that one should refrain from having a laugh over this, of course. Let’s hope Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are taking careful notes for the next season of Portlandia.