Sleepwalker

“Quantum physics tells us that nothing that is observed is unaffected by the observer. That statement, from science holds an enormous and powerful insight. It means that everyone sees a different truth, because everyone is creating what they see”. (Neale Donald Walsch)

“There is no such thing as bad publicity”. (P.T. Barnum)

As some of you may be aware, I am both art historian and social traumatologist, and while this is a somewhat unusual combination of professions, there are a number of trauma specialists with degrees in psychology, history, and the creative arts; out and about in various parts of the world. I found my way toward a study of social trauma by way of medicine and also art, and the history of art, which is an earlier story, included as a chapter of my first book: Relative Balance in an Unstable World.

Perhaps you are familiar with the time-worn expression, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. In truth, many of us actually only “like what we know”. As a result, any and all unfamiliar art is likely to be met with suspicion, derision and outright attempts of censorship. While this is somewhat of a tired old story, ongoing examples continue to present themselves, and I don’t expect that this familiar dynamic is likely to change any time soon.

During my art historical studies, serious questions of concern included, “what is art, who decides, and how do they know?” Here, one also wonders how to distinguish art from craft, given the fact that they often overlap. As best I understand this distinction, the practice of craft, entails a knowing of exactly why and preciously how a piece will be constructed, its specific purpose, as well as its appearance upon completion. By contrast, with the creation of art, the final result may remain unknown until completion, and perhaps not even then; since one might expect that multiple revisions of both form and meaning may ensue, often for centuries afterward. One might also add that there is more mystery to be found in art than craft, although I could imagine that there is room for argument there, as well.

The best working definition of art that I have found, so far, is, “ Art is a visual record of man’s changing perception of himself and his world, over time.” I like this one, because it includes history, context, all media including architecture, and a psychological reality of individual and culturally-relative, changing perceptions; which are, after all, only subjective. If you are still with me here and wondering why I am going into all of this, the short version is that, a recent sculptural installation at Wellesley College, entitled Sleepwalker, has ignited something of a local and international media-firestorm which I find fascinating for any number of reasons; having to do with art, craft and the rest of us concerned with art, craft, and contemporary gender issues.

Tony Matelli’s (b.1971) hyper-realistic, and apparently provocative Sleepwalker, was created very much in the social-realism tradition of Duane Hanson (1925-1996) who according to many, was one of the 20th century’s preeminent sculptors; primarily known for his startlingly life-like, full-size figures. Born and raised in the American Midwest, Hanson’s pieces reflect a contemporary view of our ever changing human condition. Hanson was fond of quoting New England philosopher Henry David Thoreau on the subject: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. As an American, the artist drew subject material from his own Middle-American culture. A majority of his pieces focus on specific depictions of ordinary modest, working-class, borderline boring folk. Hanson’s so-called “invisible” or marginalized citizens, appear to us in a variety of guises. For those willing to see, they evoke an uncomprehending loneliness, melancholic isolation and despair carried on daily, by our seemingly sleepwalking, trance-induced, masses. Some people have managed to find humor, and even derision in his simulacra of overweight, sunburned sunbathers, garish tourists, and supermarket and strip-mall shoppers; as disturbingly self-unaware icons of mindless consumerism. (Michael Kimmelman, ”Art View: “Is Duane Hanson the Phidias of Our Time?”, NY Times, February 27,1994)

In the mid- seventies, there was a Duane Hanson exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, when I was a graduate student in the art history department; and I served as one of the docents for this event. Much later in Switzerland, at the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich, having changed careers, I brought along a group of social trauma students as a part of a lecture series along my ongoing theme: Trauma and the Human Condition. Just outside and to the right of the main entrance we paused to examine a bronze cast of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. In this monumental work, one can see a range of archetypal, timeless and mythopoeic figures in various states of inescapable despair.

In sharp contrast, we soon found that the provocative Hanson figures, inside and around the museum, represented very specific individual personalities and professions; set within a contemporary context. His signature medium of bronze combined with fiberglass resin, polyvinyl and Bondo, created an illusion of lifelike flesh tones. Each figure was carefully detailed with hair and nails and dressed in outfits often found in second-hand shops. The result was so startling, and eerily life-like, that we found ourselves not always certain which figures were sculptures and which were visitors; and these illusions were re-enforced by a piece entitled “Museum Guard”.

While Hanson’s hyper-realism often bordered on the surreal, and some found his works strangely disturbing, that was nothing like the uproar resulting from the recent installation of Matelli’s Hansonesque, Sleepwalker. As far as I am aware, none of Hanson’s pieces were exhibited outdoors, and this it seems, marks an important difference in viewer perceptions.

In February, 2014, at Wellesley College‘s Davis Museum, preparations for the opening of Tony Matelli’s first solo exhibition, “New Gravity”, were proceeding with nothing out of the ordinary; until the artist decided to have two of his life-like sculptures installed in an outdoor setting on campus. The first, entitled “Stray Dog”, representing an apparently lost seeing-eye service dog, absent an owner, garnered little attention. The second however, was to set off a maelstrom of protest. This piece, known as Sleepwalker, portrays a 5’9’’, bald, white, slack-bodied male, arms outstretched in apparent deep sleep, clad only in graying tighty-whitey underpants; vulnerable and unaware of his snowy surroundings. Matelli describes this figure as an “outsider” and therefore felt that it would be appropriate to place him outside in the snowy, New England landscape. (Gideon Resnick, “Tony Matelli Doesn’t Believe His ‘Sleepwalker’ is Terrorizing Wellesley College, Vice.com, February 9, 2014)

Shortly thereafter, the Davis museum was presented with a change.org petition, replete with over 900 signatures, with maybe more forthcoming; from residents on campus and in the local community, demanding removal of this “offensive” piece. Objections to this sculpture are based upon a perception that, the scary image of an underwear-clad man, is creating discomfort; and should have no place at this elite, all female, private, liberal arts institution that was held, by some, to be intended as a safe place of sanctuary. In all fairness, not all of the 2,400 member student body hold this cloistered viewpoint, and prefer to see their time at Wellesley as an educational, rather than a convent-oriented experience.

Nevertheless, Sleepwalker’s awkward, zombie-like presence has been deemed especially threatening, at twilight and nightfall, with a potential to trigger memories of sexual -harassment, assault, women assaulted while sleeping, male streakers, flashers, creepy peeping-toms, and so on. In response, Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly, and Museum Director and exhibition curator Lisa Fischman, issued a joint statement: “the sculpture has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality and individual experience, both on campus and social media”. In a separate response, Lisa Fischman offered: “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 of now, the sculpture will remain in public view until the exhibition closes on July 20, 2014.9 (http://boston.cbslocal, “Artist Defends Wellesley College statue”, February 6, 2014)

In defense of Sleepwalker, Washington Post’s art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott maintains that this sculpture “works”.

“(The statue) shows us how easily we can undo ourselves and our reputations, if we start sleepwalking through life, unaware or unconcerned with how we look, how people read us, and how our bodies are interpreted by total strangers. Men are onstage too, all the time, in our image based society.” (February 5, 2014).

As the debate rages on, some found this statue humorous and suggested alternative titles such as “Mark Wahlberg at the Christmas Party” and “Ghost of Your Future Sex Life”. Other pranksters conspired to dress this inert, schlumpy, “sexual-harassment scarecrow” in warm hats, scarves and gloves, replacing his pale skivvies with a colorful pair of Valentine boxer shorts; in keeping with the season. The artist, who has responded in total amazement at the maelstrom surrounding Sleepwalker, welcomed this interaction, as well as the firestorm of publicity, the likes of which most artists can only dream of. Not only has the image gone viral on media and YouTube, Sleepwalker was even featured on The Weather Channel.

While I am well aware and deeply sympathetic to the sensitivities of sexual trauma survivors, of any gender, I don’t equate discomfort or trigger-images with assault. With sexual and other forms of trauma survivors, there are innumerable images and situations which are likely to promote discomfort, triggers and flashbacks. What may or may not be considered offensive in the history of art, is and has been an ongoing debate, and varies widely within various cultures and historical context. Despite an advanced degree in Renaissance Studies, I find those horrific images of saintly people tortured in iconically specific ways “offensive”, yet they are both historically and artistically relevant and worthy of study; and admittedly, not for the faint of heart. Here, it is probably important to add, that such explicitly obscene horrors are usually displayed only within a socially, politically or religiously sanctioned, indoor container, or architectural context; such as creative-arts and history institutions, private galleries, anthropology and archeology museums, or religious settings with viewers choosing to be there and observe for any number of reasons.

The question of censorship is long standing, ongoing and culturally as well as historically relative. As both a historian and social traumatologist, I am all too aware of the myriad ways in which artistic, literary, political, military, religious or other forms of censorship have, and will open the doors to many a slippery slope. In recent memory we have witnessed the unfortunate consequences of Soviet style censorship, and the Nazi condemnation of all artistic efforts that they considered “decadent”. Having said all that, in this instance, I find myself in support of the petitioner’s recommendation that Sleepwalker be removed from his outdoor installation. The best option for this, now notorious, artist and his controversial creation may be to have it carefully relocated indoors within the relative safety of the Davis museum exhibition-space. To my mind, this sculptural depiction of a helpless, lost and wandering soul deserves protection; vandalism is likely. Ours is a violent country, and our gender wars continue to escalate.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.