Wellesley College Art Exhibit Has Some Students Creeped Out

Tony Matelli’s sculpture the Sleepwalker is just art, the curator claims.

For students at Wellesley College, the sight of a nearly naked man lingering on the school’s campus has caused a bit of a stir.

An incredibly life-like model, called the Sleepwalker, was put on display to tease the latest exhibit  “New Gravity” at the school’s Davis Museum, featuring artist Tony Matelli.

The exhibit is meant to upend expectations, and challenge people’s perceptions of what art is by taking over two floors of the gallery space, and extending outside of the building with the models on display, according to museum curators. But the “hyper-realistic” human figure that looks as though it’s lazily creeping along the roadway like a zombie with nothing but white underwear on had students raising their eyebrows on Tuesday.

“So this is what happens when guys come to Wellesley,” one person tweeted, after taking a photo of the Sleepwalker model. “What will the Wellesley townsfolk think?”

Kate Leonard called it “a bizarre choice for outdoor art at a women’s college,” while another person wondered on the museum’s Facebook page, “how many people have called the police?” already.

Some students even went as far as creating a petition demanding the president of the women’s college immediately remove the figure from the campus, calling it inappropriate, and citing its potential to possibly trigger thoughts about sexual assault. More than 183 students signed the Change.org petition as of Tuesday night.

Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum on the school’s campus, who curated the display, responded to the criticism that was floating around social media, as they started setting up the statues on Tuesday in the snow. Her response? The Tony Matelli exhibit is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

“I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside and what we expect to be outside,” she wrote in a post on the museum’s website. “Reaction to the Sleepwalker’s presence has been varied.”

Here’s how she describes the Sleepwalker that all the students were talking about:

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. He is profoundly passive. He is inert, as sculpture. But he does inspire narrative. He appears to have drifted away from wherever he belongs and one wonders why; one wonders also how he has gotten so lost, so off course. He is a figure of pathos, and one that warrants our measured consideration. Perhaps he carries metaphorical weight.

Fischman said all day, after the installation went up outside, she closely watched from the fifth floor windows of one of the school’s buildings, “as students [stopped] to interact playfully with the sculpture.”

She said they were taking “selfies,” stopping to gawk at it, and sharing pictures via Twitter. But some were also perturbed. “I have also heard the opinions of others who find the sculpture troubling,” she admitted.

But it seems as though for Fischman evoking strong feelings of wonder, disapproval, or even fear, is exactly what was intended. “As the best art does, Tony Matelli’s work provokes dialogue, and discourse is at the core of education,” she said, adding that the museum set up stations at the school where students can write open letters about how they feel about the Sleepwalker, and weigh in. Students are also being encouraged to respond online.

However, some students still asked that the Sleepwalker at least remain indoors. “While art holds a valuable place in our community, we are particularly concerned that the student body was not consulted on such a sensitive and potentially upsetting matter, particularly given that this installation was placed in a highly trafficked location, with no real option for students to avoid it,” students wrote on the Change.org petition.

The exhibit, which was supposed to open Wednesday, February 5, was postponed because of the wintry weather barreling down on the Bay State. But Fischman said those that are curious to catch what else Matelli has to offer through his work can attend the gallery opening Thursday.


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com


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