The XX Factor

Emma Sulkowicz Carries a Mattress at Columbia’s Graduation

Emma Sulkowicz back in September, when she began carrying her mattress.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Columbia student and performance artist Emma Sulkowicz added one more chapter to her now internationally famous piece “Carry That Weight” when she and a group of four friends lugged a mattress across the stage during Columbia’s commencement on Tuesday. The piece, described by art critic Jerry Saltz as “clear, to the point, insistent, adamant,” involved Sulkowicz carrying a mattress around campus every day to protest how Columbia handled her rape accusations against a fellow student, who was cleared of the charges. (Other students also complained about his abusive behavior.) Sulkowicz promised to shlep the mattress until her accused rapist was no longer a student at Columbia, so it makes sense that their graduation ceremony would be the grand finale of her piece.

As with much of performance art, it helps to actually see it with your own eyes before passing judgment. Luckily, the Columbia Spectator has video. As viewers can see, this performance isn’t morose but triumphant. The audience applauds as Sulkowicz and her friends turn to them with nervous but winning smiles. 

Sulkowicz may not have persuaded Columbia to boot her alleged rapist off campus, but this piece has grown far beyond her case. Sadly, our culture is still saddled with the myth that being a rape victim somehow means you are weak or lacking agency, but Sulkowicz’s performance powerfully rebuts that notion. It may have started as a piece protesting a perceived injustice, but it ended as a piece celebrating women’s strength.