The Show at the Center Of the Storm

The Show at the Center Of the Storm

Courtesy of the Davis Museum

Courtesy of the Davis Museum

A circus atmosphere surrounds College Road as cars drive slowly past the nearly naked figure of a man, his eyes closed in sleep, his arms outstretched. At the side of the road, people mill around him, posing for the camera. They reach out hesitantly to touch his skin, laughing uneasily.

The “man” is actually a sculpture titled Sleepwalker and its outdoor installation as part of the Davis exhibition, Tony Matelli: New Gravity, has generated intense controversy on campus. While many people see the hyperrealistic sculpted figure as representing little more than a paunchy, middle-aged guy in white briefs, others find the figure deeply disturbing. They argue that Sleepwalker undermines community members’ sense of safety by triggering unwelcome associations with sexual assault. Some students circulated a petition to move the sculpture inside the museum.

The controversy has become a sideshow to the rest of the exhibition, which includes imagery of a variety and depth that Sleepwalker only hints at. Inside the Davis, there’s a second figure of a sleeping man; this time he’s young, fully clothed, and levitating eerily above the gallery floor. Other sculptures involve similar feats of weightlessness, including coils of thick rope that twist toward the ceiling like cobras dancing to a snake charmer’s tune, and a vase of stargazer lilies in which the branch of flowers is turned upside down, poised gracefully on the lip of the container.

Matelli’s work emphasizes the transitional space that exists between opposites: heavy and light, awake and asleep, interior and exterior. In the Davis’s lower gallery, he’s created large, opaque “windows,” which have been suspended from the ceiling. The “glass” in the darkened windows is broken; its neglect suggests a larger malaise in the life of the building and its occupants. Matelli’s sculpted windows also include details such as a pair of wet socks, a cactus plant, and a dead bird that invite viewers to invent their own stories.

Interpretations of Sleepwalker run the gamut from creepy stalker to lost soul to sad sack. Seen from the window of the Davis’s upper gallery, the man on the lawn below looks vulnerable, exposed to the elements, cut down, alone. The distance lends perspective on the sleepwalker’s existential plight, which is why Matelli and Lisa Fischman, the Davis’s director, sited the figure there.

Up close, however, the figure arouses curiosity, aversion, pity, and humor. People marvel at the uncanny resemblance to a living, breathing human being. They circle the figure warily, as they would a visitor from another planet, even though they know it’s art. They wonder, “Is it supposed to be funny or serious?” and “Can I touch it?”

Matelli says he’s fascinated by the moment when someone first encounters one of his sculptures. In the first instant they think it’s real, and in the next they realize it’s a work of art. This, too, is a marginal state, transitioning from belief to unbelief, which he sees as fertile artistic ground. “I’m interested in the grotesque, where you feel attraction and horror at the same time and you can’t reconcile them,” he says. “The place where these opposites collide is powerful territory.”

He’s hardly the first hyperrealist sculptor to provoke a strong reaction. Duane Hanson (1925–1996) generated controversy in the 1960s with his depictions of backroom abortions and motorcycle accidents. Hanson used the technique of life casting—making molds from real people—which lends startling power to his figures. His work influenced Matelli, but while both artists use similar techniques, their aims are different. Hanson set out to shock people, while Matelli says that was not his intention with Sleepwalker.

He’s perplexed by the intense reaction on campus, although he says he understands how the figure could have a triggering effect on certain individuals. Still, it puzzles him that people would find the figure menacing in any way. “For this show, I decided to revisit the idea of a sleepwalker, which I’ve done before, and make him older,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to expand the narrative and declare that this person is still lost after all these years, still sleepwalking.”

The Sleepwalker: The Voices of Debate

In early February, the installation of Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker sculpture on the edge of Munger Meadow sparked intense campus debate. Thanks to social media, the story went viral, and the College became the subject of media coverage around the world. Below are some of the many voices, on campus and off, that weighed in. Petition, posted Feb. 5 by a Wellesley student

The sculpture of the nearly naked man on the Wellesley College campus is an inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to our community that we, as members of the student body, would like removed from outdoor space immediately, and placed inside the Davis Museum.

Statement in response from Lisa Fischman, Ruth Gordon Shapiro ’37 Director of the Davis

I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside (art) and what we expect to be outside (life). As the best art does, Tony Matelli’s work provokes dialogue, and discourse is at the core of education.

Wellesley News, Editorial

Despite the media onslaught it has wrought, the Sleepwalker controversy reflects the progress that debate and interaction between students and administration can achieve in a model of representative democracy. This ongoing interaction has certainly not resolved all student concerns, but students have a chance to have their voices heard and are nurturing a movement to realize the changes that they want to see. … We should continue to foster the cooperation that was ignited by the Sleepwalker in order to empower students with the ability to change the aspects of the College that they believe need improvement.

Feminist Reflections on the Wellesley Sleepwalker, Lamia Balafrej, Catia Confortini, and Sima Shakhsari, assistant professors

We suggest that, rather than framing this event within a binary wherein the only possible positions are either to remove the Sleepwalker as an example of misogynistic artwork that offends all women alike, or to sacralize it as art and therefore beyond critique, this event should be used as an opportunity to create productive dialogue about visual culture, public/private spaces, feminism, race, class, militarization, and other issues that are often ignored in sensationalized coverage of this event.

Student thoughts written on a comment wall in the Wang Campus Center

“If something is very visible where you have to see it daily upsets people, ie a trigger for women, it should not be up in such a public place.”

“Our community hasn’t established safe-space norms as a whole except for the Honor Code. Don’t kid yourself—you’re not living in Utopia. “

More on the Sleepwalker Controversy, Feb. 14 memo from President H. Kim Bottomly

I met on Wednesday with a group of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to help advise me on how we can address most effectively the concerns that have been raised, support the students who have spoken publicly, and together move forward as a mutually supportive community. … The dialogue about the Sleepwalker sculpture has raised a number of issues about the nature of community—and our community members’ safety. The working group talked about the ways in which education, by design, introduces ideas that disturb, and that the fact that learning is often accompanied by a disruption of personal perspective. We talked at length about “triggering” and how Sleepwalker could be perceived as a trigger for more than just memories of sexual assault. We talked about academic and artistic freedom—and free speech. We also explored ideas of space: public vs. private space, academic vs. residential space, and the expectations associated with campus spaces. We talked about how we rejected public attacks on Wellesley and its students.

The Sleepwalker, Moving Forward, Feb. 20 memo from President H. Kim Bottomly

I have come to two conclusions: We cannot destroy the artistic integrity of this exhibition by moving the sculpture, and also, we must do everything we can to support those students who find themselves deeply affected by it.

Tony Matelli: New Gravity is open at the Davis until July 20.

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