Photo courtesy of Tony Matelli.
He stands at about 5'9'' with his eyes closed, and he wears nothing besides underwear. He is known as the Sleepwalker, and he’s disturbing the student body at the all-girls Wellesley College. I’m not referring to the main character in a Neil Gaiman comic. I’m referring to artist Tony Matelli’s outdoor, bronze sculpture that’s part of the New Gravity exhibit at Wellesley’s Davis Museum.
This week, a Wellesley College junior wrote a petition for the college to remove the sculpture, because she believed it had the potential to trigger sexual assault survivors’ traumatic memories. The uproar surprised Tony, and it didn't stop the museum from showcasing his art. Davis Museum director Lisa Fischman stood by Tony’s decision to place the sculpture where it is, saying that it provokes dialogue in a meaningful manner.
“Matelli's Sleepwalker—considered up close—is a man in deep sleep. Arms outstretched, eyes closed, he appears vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him. He is not naked,” Lisa said in response to the petition.
The day before the exhibit’s debut, I spoke to Tony to hear his side of the story and see how he felt about the fervor his work has created on Wellesley’s campus.
VICE: What did you think of the petition when you read it?
Tony Matelli: No one made the claim that it was triggering. No first-person account came forward to say, “I am fearful of this sculpture.” It was a speculative petition signed on behalf of some speculative victim. The petition said a bunch of other things about art and where art should be. I guess people are focusing on this triggering idea, which I’m sympathetic to. I have some empathy towards that, and I can even understand that position. I can’t put myself into someone else’s head and imagine what scares them and what doesn’t.
What was your original intention for Sleepwalker?
This is not the first time that I’ve made a sculpture similar to this. I’ve made a couple other sleepwalkers. One was a sculpture of a woman, and one was a sculpture of a much younger man. When I was planning for this show, I knew that I was going to do the ground floor, and I knew that I was going to do the top floor. I thought it would be cool to do something outside also. 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. I wanted to make something that felt really vulnerable outside and felt very lost and fragile, because outdoor sculptures never ever do that.
How does the statue’s placement outdoors tie into the exhibit?
The show takes place in the museum on two floors: the ground floor and the fifth floor. There are two sculptures outdoors, including this one. The reason it’s in that location is that from the upstairs of the exhibition, on the fifth floor, there’s one window that looks out over the campus. I wanted the sculpture to be visible from that window so that you could be on the top floor of the show, seeing the very last room of the show, and through the window you could see the figure in this really vast, snowy landscape from above.
How has the museum responded?
It’s a college; it’s a learning institution. People should be talking about all sorts of things, and I think that’s the position of the museum right now.
Has any of your past work generated this kind of a response?
I have never had this visceral of a response. I think it’s been really interesting to see that develop over social media and to see how quickly it can get blown out of proportion. Also, the level of discourse is so bad because everyone’s communicating over Twitter—it becomes really difficult to have a nuanced position. I think once everyone calms down a little bit about this, we’ll be able to move past it.
Do you want your work to elicit these responses?
No, I don’t. I’m not that type of artist. I think the show for one thing is a very quiet show. The works are somewhat solemn, and they don’t have the volume you might expect them to have. Sleepwalker itself is a very quiet work; it’s the sculpture of a man who is utterly passive. 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.