Artist Responds to Wellesley College Students’ Concerns With Sculpture

But he's still not taking it down.

Photo by Alex Lee

Photo by Alex Lee

Artist Tony Matelli is shocked by the reaction that students at Wellesley College have had in response to a sculpture he installed on campus of a middle-aged man walking alone on the lawn in his underwear.

“I have never talked about a piece of art so much, and so thoroughly since a long time,” said Matelli, who is in Massachusetts to attend the grand opening of his latest exhibit, “New Gravity,” at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum.

On Tuesday, when Matelli and volunteers installed the incredibly lifelike sculpture, which is made from a bronze cast of an actual person and then painted, outrage immediately erupted  in the form of a petition demanding that the school’s president take down the statue. The petition lambasted the college, and claimed the art installation was inappropriate and could trigger thoughts about sexual assault—an accusation that caught Matelli off guard.

“I’m surprised by some of the things I am reading. I think there is a lot of projection going on and people are seeing things in this work that are simply not there. I think that that can happen, and I also think, if someone thinks about it again, carefully and slowly, they will maybe see this artwork more clearly,” said Matelli.

While some have been blasting the artist’s choice of location—an open walkway at a women’s college—others have embraced the new exhibit by dressing it up. And Matelli thinks that’s “cool.”

“I might put a hat on it myself,” he said.

Assuring his detractors that there’s more than meets the eye, Matelli said the Sleepwalker is just one piece of a larger project that took over the gallery space on campus this week, and it connects full-circle with the rest of the artwork that’s inside the building. He just hopes students take the time to come and see the rest of what he has to offer.

In the wake of the controversy, Matelli talked about his motivation behind the Sleepwalker, and how he feels about students begging him to take it down:

Everybody is talking about your Sleepwalker sculpture. What do you think about the response?

Well as you know, it’s one sculpture of many. There are two outside of the museum, and he is one of them. So, the show hasn’t even opened yet, so no one has seen anything that’s inside [the museum]. They’re mixing up some information about the Sleepwalker, and have been pretty quick to jump on this. What I think is, it’s actually been really fun—not fun, but interesting to see this response. I think it’s great that it has elicited so many strong views and debate on this. We have been talking about this all day long. Not about the controversy, but about the sculpture, and how it functions in its space. To see this type of engagement has been really interesting and kind of exciting. Not just for me and this sculpture, but for artwork in general. In that regard, I think it has been really great to see.

But that’s what art is supposed to do, right? Evoke response?

Art does lots of different things. Some of it’s provocative, and some is quiet. I think this is a quiet piece, to be honest. But art is supposed to—it’s nice to have reactions to things, and some art doesn’t do that. One of the students decided to say that it had very little art value to her. But to me it’s very clear this comes out of this tradition exemplified by a sculpture [called “Walking Man”] the school has had in their museum for years. Mine is not outside of any tradition or any history. It’s well situated within all of that.

We saw some people were putting clothes on the Sleepwalker. Do you mind?

I have seen some of that. It’s cool, too. It’s a counterpoint to negative criticism, which was about it eliciting a certain type of fear in people. But every person I have seen that has interacted with it has been playfully interacting with it. They have been touching it, putting clothes on it, dancing next to it. The reaction has been varied, which is exactly what it should be. I think it has been highly successful for an installation. I think it’s cool to put a hat on it or something like that. Maybe I’ll put a hat on it.

It’s so realistic. How did you make it?

It’s just painted bronze. You take a mold directly off a human body. You sculpt it from that, poor material into the mold, then you sculpt it to change it into what you want to change it to, and then you paint it.

Did you make it specifically for Wellesley’s exhibit?

I made it for two exhibitions at once. There’s another in Manhattan in a few months. But I wanted it for the landscape here in conjunction with the artwork inside. It was made with this exhibition in mind. There are others inside. I was excited about putting this on campus because it’s so beautiful and open. And I thought it would look great in the landscape. The reason he is there is because he is visible from the fifth floor of my exhibition. Through that window you see the figure and the landscape below. From there he feels more diminutive and fragile and lost in that way. You’re warm inside and it’s so cold outside, that it really becomes—his discomfort is palpable in a way. You can feel his desperation, his blankness.

Since it’s so out in the open, and so many people have reacted negatively, are you worried about vandalism?

It has crossed my mind. Yes. It would be a shame if that happened. I don’t think people will do that, though. They are putting clothes on it, and I think that’s fine. I don’t foresee vandalism happening. People just want to touch it and be next to it, and pose with it in weird ways, which I would call affectionate response. If anything it’s going to get damaged through too much affection.

Is it really going to be there until May?

It will. And I think it’ll take on a different feel from today. Right now he looks great because the contrast between his skin and the snow is great looking, and there’s a lot of contrast between him and the environment and the cold. As it warms up maybe it’ll feel like he’s out for a little stroll. The winter really helped this piece, though.

You said you’ve made other sculptures like this one before. Was the response to those the same?

No. This is surprising. It’s completely surprising. In a way I understand where it’s coming from. I’m not shocked or outraged or anything, but it has taken me by surprise. But it has been a peculiar thing. I find the whole thing peculiar.

In what way?

In the nature of the response. I see their position, but I don’t see it in the work. And I don’t see that an inert sculpture that stands still—I don’t know what could be triggering anything, therefore I find their concerns unfortunately misplaced. With an inert sculpture of a man sleeping, who is utterly passive as a figure, and literally passive as a piece of metal, I’m sympathetic to their concerns, but if in fact this is something that they are truly fearful of, then they should be able to deal with that in some way.