Wellesley’s “Triggering” ‘Sleepwalker’ Sculpture Makes For Genuinely Meaningful Public Art

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in January, 2016. 

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Sometimes art ends up being more meaningful and resonant than it was intended to be because of the way the public responds to it — and when that happens, the work becomes all the more powerful and dynamic. A small but very of-the-moment example of this phenomenon can be found in the artist Tony Matelli’s sculpture Sleepwalker, which will be arriving on NYC’s High Line in April as part of a group exhibition called Wanderlust. Sleepwalker is a very realistic, life-size depiction of a sleepwalking man, arms outstretched and clad in only tighty-whities, designed to be shown out of doors and exposed to the elements and the eyes of onlookers.

But thanks to its previous home on the campus of a women’s college, it’s ended up being quite controversial, even notorious among a certain set. When I read this morning that it was arriving in New York, I already knew what it looked like, since it has become a prime example of the way controversial expression is sometimes viewed as “triggering” by a younger generation. Sleepwalker has become a symbol of overwrought feminist reaction when it was originally conceived as a way of pushing back on other ideas of masculinity.

In an interview with VICE, artist Matelli explained that the idea behind this artwork, one of several sleepwalker sculptures in his oeuvre, was to undercut traditional notions of monumental masculinity in sculpture. “Typically when you think of outdoor sculpture, you think of big, blocky, kind-of-alien, modern artwork that feels like a real exertion of machismo — like a real exertion of corporate identity,” he said. “I wanted to make something that felt really vulnerable outside and felt very lost and fragile, because outdoor sculptures never ever do that.”

It’s a brilliant idea, and when you look at the sculpture and think of that intent, it can even be moving. Not only does the sculpture provide a counterpoint to that male monumentality that has pervaded sculpture from Ancient Greece to our national’s capital, but it also reverses the classic male gaze — as this sculpture represents an unseeing, unknowing man, his normal body (dadbod?) unwittingly laid bare for our consumption.

But this attempt at a visual reversal of power dynamics provoked reactions that neither Matelli nor the curators of the Wellesley College show that originally hosted the artwork anticipated from many students (besides the ones who took silly selfies with it). A large group immediately found Sleepwalker creepy — both uncanny, which is perhaps intended, and also genuinely threatening, “triggering,” and reminiscent of images and ideas about rapists and predators. Consequently, they wanted the sculpture moved indoors, to a place where they wouldn’t be confronted with it every day. “While it may appear humorous, or thought provoking to some, the Sleepwalker has already become a source of undue stress for a number of Wellesley College students, the majority of whom live, study, and work on campus,” one student petition read. Alumni and students debated the sculpture’s placement fiercely online, and the petition touched off a media firestorm, with many deriding the students’ reactions as “coddled” or ill-thought-out, while students said the feelings of their peers were being ignored in favor of a high-minded discussion about free expression.

But that’s the wonder of art, isn’t it? Because that sense of uneasiness that the sculpture provoked on a women’s college campus during the height of a campus rape discussion adds compelling new meaning to the sculpture: in our world, even images that suggest extreme male vulnerability are viewed through a lens of fear, even terror by some women, in some contexts. I have to wonder whether the image will have an entirely different meaning on the High Line, a promenade thronged by tourists and (I generalize here) often well-heeled New Yorkers on their way to art galleries. Among these elegant folks, the vulnerability of the sculpture and the intent of the artist may come through more clearly — or an entirely different meaning might emerge. Maybe he’ll evoke the presence of New York’s underfed and underserved in the midst of a gentrified neighborhood, for instance. Or the opposite could be true; he could symbolize predatory white people buying up real estate.

Mattelli doesn’t see himself as “that type” of artist who lives to create dramatic reactions. “Sleepwalker itself is a very quiet work; it’s the sculpture of a man who is utterly passive,” he told VICE. “He is asleep in public, in a fugue state. It is not a work that, to my mind, elicits any kind of violence or threat in any way, so I don’t see this as anything that should be construed as controversial.” But the public exhibition of artworks gives them new contexts that are exciting and sometimes even scary. And at this point, the meaning of the sculpture has transcended the artist’s quiet intention. The fact that an image meant to evoke pity and fragility can be so easily interpreted as a menacing threat says quite a bit about our cultural moment — and the consequences for everyone of living under a patriarchy. No matter what you think of the sculpture, you have to acknowledge that the brouhaha has made for art that literally and figuratively does what the form is supposed to do: reaches out to us.