This interview is accompanied with an Instagram story takeover by Emma Sulkowicz, which you can watch by following @Broadly.
On Saturday, March 10th, Emma Sulkowicz, a performance artist born and raised in New York who prefers the pronouns they/them, held their first gallery show in the city. Titled The Floating World, Sulkowicz’s show is their first that doesn't include performance art, and instead consists of five beautiful orbs—each filled with objects representing the people who matter most to Sulkowicz, suspended in silicone—hung up from the rafters of a glass atrium with Japanese fishing ropes reminiscent of Sulkowicz's last BDSM-inspired performance project, The Ship is Sinking.
Sulkowicz says they derived The Floating World's title from the Japanese word "ukiyo," which literally translates to "the floating world." They explained that while "ukiyo" is most often used to describe the hedonistic urban lifestyle of Japan’s Edo period, best known for its kabuki theater, geisha culture, and pleasure quarters, it’s also a Buddhist term for "this world of sorrow and grief." For Sulkowicz, these floating orbs are an exploration into the often unseen side of pain and trauma: the support one receives from their loved ones and community.
One orb containing a cup of iced coffee and an everything bagel with lox and cream cheese is aptly named "Bagel Meets Coffee" and dedicated to Sulkowicz's Jewish father. Unlike the others, the silicone surrounding the objects in this orb is shattered. "I decided to keep it as it, with all the fault lines to symbolize the fragility of masculinity," Sulkowicz explained. On the other side of the room, "Tea Ceremony" holds two teapots—one Chinese, the other Japanese—in perfectly clear silicone, devoid of any fault lines. Strands of pearls, some real, others fake, swirl around on the bottom. This orb symbolizes Sulkowicz’s mother, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent.
Another orb nestled closer to the back of the room is titled "No Sugar, No Ice" and features a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, an iced milk tea, and a set of chopsticks delicately gripping a single cheeto. The Cheetos and chopsticks represent a childhood friend of Sulkowicz’s named May, who, like Sulkowicz, is of Chinese and Japanese descent. "May's the only person I’ve ever seen eating Cheetos with a pair of chopsticks," said Sulkowicz. The iced milk tea represents Sulkowicz's favorite snack. Together, the foodstuffs "encompass what it’s like growing up as two little mixed Asian kids in New York City," they explained. "Of course, if I’m going to incorporate my experience growing up in the city, there’s going to be a lot of junk food involved."
Broadly sat down with Sulkowicz to discuss creating a physical representation of pain and support with The Floating World.
BROADLY: Why did you decide to suspend the orbs from the ceiling with rope?
EMMA SULKOWICZ: While it’s painful to be tied up, it’s actually when you’re receiving the most support. I thought ropes were a good metaphor for my relationships with everyone represented in this room because when someone is in pain, I try to lift them up and support them and obviously vice versa. I used Shibari rope ties to suspend the orbs from the ground and the actual netting of the sculpture is based off of Japanese fisherman ties from when they used to throw out glass orbs in the ocean to keep their fishing nets afloat.
Describe what it was like to approach your first show without a performance element.
I think that a lot of my performances come from reactive places. They’re because I’m angry, or I’m sad. For the first time ever, I was feeling quite stable. After graduating the Whitney [Independent Study Program], I was thinking wow, I have such good friends and support. Really, I think I was able to make The Floating World because I was feeling so solid in my network. While this is most certainly now how the rest of my life will be like, being in a calm place allowed me to make these sculptures that are really dissecting the strains of feminism in my DNA, my race, and my culture. It’s a very nice experience.
While you created a life-size version of yourself called "Emmatron" for your Self-Portrait show in LA, you've never presented sculptures before—what was that process like?Everything is self-taught. With the ropes, I learned from going to antiques stores and looking at ropes that had been already made. For the food that’s inside the orbs, such as the banana and the bagel, I learned off of YouTube. There was a lot of trial and error. If anyone wants to learn, I can direct them to the best videos out there.
Which orb do viewers seem most captivated by?
At the opening this Saturday, everyone crowded around the orb which represents my sister. People were actually waiting on line to see it and of course when my sister saw that, she was like, "Yeah, I know. I’m the best." In her orb, there’s a knife slicing a banana down the middle. I chose those objects for two reasons. First, she’s a YouTube addict and she’ll watch every video of how to make banana bread, then go through a banana bread phase where she makes hundreds of banana breads. Secondly, she’s also a belligerent feminist and will post videos on her Instagram of her slicing bananas while saying, "Yeah, fuck dicks." So I combined both of those things. Once I put the banana in the orb, I turned it on the side so it could be sliced by the knife. It symbolizes a lot of anger, also love.
This piece is about your network of support after trauma. In the past, we've discussed social networks and your digital art—can you describe the different ways your network of support manifests and how you chose to represent it in a physical way for this show?
The imagery that I’m using in The Floating World is of a net, and now we’re talking about social networks. But often what we see on the internet is that social networks are quite cold; you’re really only presented with very flat representations of people on social media. For this show, I was thinking, if a social network is a bunch of digital connections, what is a really labored-over handmade community? So what I was quite literally doing was making more rounded out portraits of my network, showing not just a network but a community and support system.
Sort of like an analog Instagram.
Exactly. I also forgot all of that until you brought it up. But that’s something I actually talked about with my mom a lot. And she used that phrase, "It’s like an analog Instagram." Adding on to that, Instagram is all about squares. While The Floating World is all about spheres. But there are also shout-outs to digital culture. I chose blue as a rope color, not just because blue is obviously the best color right now, but because blue is the color of the internet. When there’s a glitched out computer screen, it’s a blue screen. When you turn on a monitor, the HDMI screen is blue. However, blue is also the color of the water, which ties back to the fishing nets. But then, we’re always talking about "surfing" the web.
While the orbs and nets are like an analog Instagram, has the real Instagram network influenced The Floating World?
It’s crazy having a show. In the past, I’ll do a performance and people will put photos or videos of it up on Instagram and tag me maybe the night of the performance or maybe the day later. But now, because this show is open to the public, people are walking by the gallery every day and taking photos of the show and tagging me. In a way, the show is quite Instagrammable—people are really interested in the banana.