By MYRA AHMAD ’17
Last week, on Monday afternoon, a statue of a sleepwalking man clad only in tight white underwear was intsalled near the center of Wellesley’s campus. The statue quickly became one of the most talked-about pieces in Wellesley history. The “Sleepwalker,” designed by artist Tony Matelli, is a promotional piece for the artist’s exhibit “New Gravity,” which will be shown in the Davis Museum until late July. Unfortunately, the exhibit itself has been vastly overshadowed by the “naked man on campus.” Major national media organizations, such as The New York Times, the Boston Globe, BBC News, ABC News and entertainment pages like Perez Hilton and Buzzfeed have covered the statue and its related controversies, but few have highlighted the exhibit itself.
Anger, frustration, fear, amusement—these are just a few of the emotions evoked in Wellesley students throughout this past week. Students on campus have approached the statue from a number of perspectives. Many have expressed amusment through the hundreds of selfies and memes posted on “Samuel Sleepwalker”’s new Facebook account, the WellesleySleepwalked Twitter account and students’ social media networks. Other forums, including Twitter, are seeing ongoing heated debates.
For some students, Samuel has threatened the safe spaces of Wellesley College. A petition created hours after the statue’s installation states, “This highly lifelike sculpture has, within just a few hours of its outdoor installation, become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community.”
President H. Kim Bottomly has responded to the potential threat to students’ mental health posed by the statue by stating, “We encourage students to join in dialogue, and we are working hard to ensure that Wellesley continues to remain the safe environment that students know and love. The safety, health, and well-being of our students are our top priority.”
The petition, which can be found on Change.org and now has over 800 supporters, initially called for the statue’s removal from campus but now asks the administration to move it into the Davis Museum.
The president of the Davis Museum Student Advisory Committee (DMSAC), an advisory board that serves as a liaison between the Davis Museum and the student body, further commented on the situation. “Matelli is an illusionist, and I think students are just trying to get at the truth,” she stated. “On the one hand, we’ve pulled together and had our voices heard on a topic that elicits a wide range of reactions. On the other hand, I think a lot of us feel disappointed in how the national press has depicted Wellesley in its coverage.” Her views capture some of the issues that are currently being debated by Wellesley students.
A spokeswoman for Metro said that, as of last Thursday, there were no plans to move the statue. Bottomly and Lisa Fischman, Director of the Davis Museum, issued a joint statement for the Metro shortly after the installation: “We are proud that ours is a campus where challenging issues can be explored in a supportive environment, with respect and sensitivity.” They added, “The very best works of art have the power to stimulate deeply personal emotions and to provoke unexpected new ideas, and this sculpture is no exception.”
Later last week, Bottomly released another statement, writing that “Powerful works of art can stir strong opinions and emotions, and the Sleepwalker is no exception.”
Bottomly and other administrators will create a “working gorup” of students, faculty and staff to figure out how the College can respond to students’ feedback on the statue. The group will begin meeting shortly, according to Sofiya Cabalquinto of the College’s public affairs office.
Due to increasing national media coverage, hordes of locals and students came to take pictures with the statue.
While the controversy over the statue drew coverage from the New York Times and the Boston Globe, as well as an opinions piece in the Wall Street Journal, many articles on the issue sensationalized the debate. An article on Perez Hilton carried the headline: “Lifelike Statue Of Man In Tighty-Whitey Undies Gets Erected At All-Girls College!”
The artist, Tony Matelli, said he was thrilled that the statue received so much attention.
At the opening of his “New Gravity” exhibit, Matelli responded to questions about whether he intended the Sleepwalker to be potentially triggering for victims of sexual assault.
“Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage,” he said. “I think people might be seeing things in that work that just aren’t there.”
He said believes that some students are misinterpreting the statue because he didn’t intend for it to trigger memories of sexual assault.
“I wanted to create something that feels misplaced and vulnerable, because that’s how I feel sometimes,” Matelli said. “Also, it was suited for the space. It was designed to be in a landscape.”