Monday, 10 February 2014



Photo by Nikki A. Green from Twitter (source)

This week's post is about a recent controversy at Wellesley College, a women's liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Tony Matelli: New Gravity opened on February 5 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, the exhibit showcases the sculpture art of Tony Matelli.

Tony Matelli, Arrangement, 2012 (source)

The Davis Museum website describes the exhibit: "the selection focuses on the artist’s discursive use of time, ambivalence, banality, and wonder. In these works, the three material states—solid, liquid, and vapor—are inextricably conflated with their existential equivalents. In Matelli’s work, the physical laws of objects are often reversed, upended or atomized, and with these deft manipulations of matter and gravity come profound reorientations in perspective and ultimately, states of being."

Tony Matelli, Josh, 2010 (source)

The art of Matelli is not really controversial in and of itself. What was problematic for students of Wellesley College was the museums efforts to engage the public with the art and start a conversation about the current exhibit. To do this the museum director, Lisa Fischman, and the artist installed Sleepwalker next to the roadside on campus. Fishman wrote on the website: "Art has an extraordinary power to evoke personal response, and to elicit the unexpected. We placed Tony Matelli’s new hyper-realistic sculpture, Sleepwalker, on the roadside just beyond the Davis to connect the exhibition--Tony Matelli: New Gravity on view within the museum— to the campus world beyond our walls."


In a petition on students requested that the sculpture be removed from its location and put inside the exhibit in the museum. A part of the petition reads: "the highly lifelike sculpture by Tony Matelli, entitled “Sleepwalker,” has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community. 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."

In a Boston Globe article, Zoe Magid, a Wellesley College student involved in the petition to have the artwork moved, stated that she felt "disappointed that [Fischman] seemed to articulate that she was glad it was starting discussion, but didn’t respond to the fact that it's making students on campus feel unsafe, which is not appropriate." Fischman wrote a reply on the petition which can be viewed on its web page.


One of the problems noted with the sculpture was not just its unnerving presence on campus, as any image of a mostly naked man might be, but also its proximity to the road which has the potential to cause a road collision.

If Fischman's response isn't enough, there is a facebook thread discussing the work. It appears that many responders are failing to recognize the fact that the issue is not Matelli's work itself, but rather its location. Many supporters of the piece reference the "good" of art but fail to note the real concerns that students have brought forward.

Matelli himself mentions nothing of the work being site specific, rather the exhibit is a collection of his work from the past 5 years, this would imply the work would be equally as artistic inside the gallery as outside. In an article in New York Daily News Matelli states that students are misinterpreting the work and seeing something in it which does not exist. He said "this is a person who is an outsider, he’s displaced...So I thought the reaction would be empathy."

In reference to art generally, part of the student petition reads: "We also stand firm that art, particularly outdoor art installations, are valuable parts of our community. We welcome outdoor art that is provocative without being a site of unnecessary distress for members of the Wellesley College community"

This relates to much broader issues that surface when public sensibilities collide with "experts" who seek to disseminate art to a wider sphere and to start a conversation about art in general. It seems in this type of situation that the conversation becomes art vs. public which is a simplification of a more complex dialogue.

I think that talking about art is a great thing, art has a lot to offer. But I don't agree that an art piece must be controversial to get a conversation going nor should it spark a conversation at the expense of others' safety. It would appear from the Davis Museum website that the choice of work was quite deliberately supposed to be provocative. The other two works shown on the site are not nearly so alarming as Sleepwalker. Would the statement of art escaping the gallery walls be any less if it was a different piece that was placed on campus? It seems to me that the museum could have chosen to install a different sculpture and still started a conversation about art without causing any anxiety in students.

What are your thoughts on the Sleepwalker? Should it stay or go? Should it be moved to the gallery so that only those who want to see it can? Should it be left to continue the conversation?

If you are interested reading the reasons that people give for signing the petition is incredibly interesting as are the comments on the facebook thread.

1 comment:

  1. Alex, I could not agree with you more - when you frame something to be controversial, the result is often artificial and rather than producing a discussion about the content of the art work, this so called controversy will become the topic of discussion itself. The work of art, its cultural significance and symbolism become secondary to the narrative of controversy itself.