On the morning of Feb. 4, students awoke to find a man nude, save for a pair of Hanes underwear, seemingly wandering down the main thoroughfare of Wellesley College, an all-female university in eastern Massachusetts.
The man, who appeared to be young in age, attracted some arresting stares, a second glance here and there, and occasional bouts of panic amongst those who crossed his path. In the midst of his somnambulation, he remained frozen in his tracks as snow blanketed his outstretched arms and reposed shoulders, his cracked lips and droopy eyelids let out for a yearning, a longing. Only after multiple calls to campus security did the students realize that the man was lifeless — his bones cast in bronze, his skin layers of paint.
It did not take long for the students at Wellesley College to draft a petition to have the sculpture, “Sleepwalker,” as it is formally known, moved inside the on-campus Davis Museum, which is currently hosting work by Brooklyn-based artist, Tony Matelli, in a solo exhibition titled “New Gravity.” In the petition, which has garnered over 700 signatures, the female students plea with the school’s administration for a reprieve from the its threatening nature as it has evoked thoughts of sexual assault and rape.
In an online statistics report published in 2007 by the National Criminal Justice Service, close to 300,000 (5.2%) of 6 million college women in the United States reported instances of sexual assault or rape. In the same federal study, it is estimated that close to 88% of college women do not report these instances. A more recent study reported on by the Boston Globe in 2014, shows that “reports of ‘sexual offenses’ rose by nearly 40 percent between 2008 and 2012” on Boston-area college campuses. These remind us of the harsh reality of campus assault. It is possible that this is why the women who attend Wellesley College have given cause for concern regarding the art piece.
In an attempt to defend the dignity of his work, Matelli released statements in an online interview with boston.com saying how the students at Wellesley College have failed to “get” the sculpture’s point. He simply “wanted to create something that feels misplaced and vulnerable.”
Although I get the claims made by Matelli, I also get that art exists within the realm of subjectivity — each viewer brings with them their own personal history and life experience, affecting the way in which they interpret and perceive a work of art. What has attracted me most to this particular sculpture is not its life-like appearance, but the discourse that has ensued. Following the string of conversation put forth by the concerned, albeit fearful, students, I sense a message veiled in irony.
Here, we have a male sculpture that is depicted as being “misplaced and vulnerable” against a backdrop of a barren field in the midst of a cold, harsh winter. The statue remains the only semblance of life in its landscape, merely because it exists. Its existence mirrors the way in which female victims of sexual assault or rape often feel: “misplaced and vulnerable” in their struggle to regain a sense of self, a sense of power.
I do believe that the students at Wellesley College have a right to demand that the statue be taken down or moved inside the on-campus art museum, if doing so gives them greater peace of mind. However, I cannot criticize Matelli for wanting to defend his work. The purpose of art is to create discussion, which is why I support Matelli; his art has sparked a small claim of controversy, catapulting the grievances by the students into the mainstream cultural conversation. In essence, Matelli has succeeded as an artist.