The white platform is already showing traces of numerous visitors to Emma Sulkowicz's Self Portrait project at Coagula Curatorial gallery in Chinatown, Los Angeles. The artist is one week into her three-week occupation of the gallery, and visitor numbers are climbing steadily as word of the project spreads.
Sulkowicz has received more than her fair share of media attention in the past couple of years, however she has taken steps to ensure the Self Portrait project stays focused in the present. Her interactions with visitors to the gallery space are on her terms, but unlike many artists working in the performance genre, Sulkowicz is open to - and in fact encourages - dialogue with audience participants.
When I enter the gallery, another visitor is already engaged with Sulkowicz, so I step onto the adjacent platform to be confronted by her doppelganger, dubbed Emmatron. The replica is so lifelike that my first impression had been of human twins standing on separate platforms facing the entrance.
Via an app programmed with answers to pre-set questions, the inanimate Emmatron covers material the artist Emma chooses not to. I get the impression the artist has heard a lot of these questions numerous times before. Examples are "Tell me about the night you were assaulted", "Is this art piece a part of Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)?" and "What do your parents think of all this"?
I become more aware of the differences between Emma and Emmatron as I feel the artist watching me as I unload my bag and read the gallery introduction before stepping onto the small platform immediately in front of hers. Her smile is warm and welcoming and she initiates the conversation by asking me a few questions about myself. I feel a little unprepared, not having given careful consideration to questions I could ask her beforehand. Consequently my initial question about the development of the Self Portrait project receives the suggestion that this would be a more suitable question for Emmatron. Okay, I am determined to be more original with my questions from here on in.
I ask if she has received any really strange questions - does anything come to mind? She thinks for a moment and recalls a young guy who she discerned had been drinking prior to their conversation and who asked if she would want to get into bed with Emmatron. She says she turned the question back onto him - "If he had a replica of himself, would he want to get into bed with that?" "But just to cuddle" he qualified. "So would you want to cuddle a replica of yourself?" Sulkowicz persisted, at which point she recounts he acknowledged that it had been a strange question.
I reflect that his question cuts to the core of issues Sulkowicz is addressing in the work, namely the sexualization and associated depersonalization of young women. The original rape allegation made by Sulkowicz against a fellow Columbia University student in 2014, along with the subsequent legal action and performance art projects have certainly attracted a polarity of responses. Misreporting and judgment in both traditional and social media are also key contemporary issues underpinning the current project.
Self Portrait sets a structure around a simple, but powerful, concept of dialogue. Sulkowicz makes herself available to answer questions from whomever walks through the gallery door. Rather than retreating from public scrutiny as many understandably might, she steps forward each day to the edge of her platform, willing to engage.
My final question is open-ended. "Is there something important you would like to tell me that I wouldn't hear from Emmatron?" Her answer is succinct. "That I'm a human being, an ordinary person, not something the media has portrayed".