Statue of naked, sleepwalking man provokes controversy at women’s college

BY Ruth Tam  February 7, 2014 at 6:16 PM EDT

A nearly naked older man has been lurking around Wellesley College for a week.

Perhaps ‘lurking’ is the wrong word because the man is completely stationary. In fact, the man is a sculpture by the artist Tony Matelli on display until July 20.

The realistic sculpture depicts an older white male sleepwalking in white underwear with eyes closed and arms outstretched. While some students found it funny, if not totally strange, others called for it to be moved in a Change.org petition.

Petitioners called it “tacky,” “threatening,” “inappropriate” and potentially “traumatizing” to female students and Wellesley residents who have suffered sexual assaults.

It’s art, argued Lisa Fischman, the director of the Wellesley museum hosting a Matelli exhibit.

“Art provokes dialogue, and discourse is the core of education,” said Fischman in her response to the petition.

While the college administration seems to have sided with Fischman for now, the debate continues online.

“Artists and museums and curators are only ever half the equation. The other half is the viewer and the milieu in which they perceive the art,” wrote Alix West, a former employee of the college who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual assault. “This is not a censorship issue. This is a safety issue.”

“Yes, the initial sight of a nearly naked man is disturbing, but why should it continue to unsettle and cause offense after everyone on campus has learnt that this is a statue of a sleepwalker?” asked New Republic’s Mira Sethi.

In defense of the statue’s provocation of gender norms, The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott said the statue “works.”

“(The statue) shows us how easily we can undo ourselves and our reputations, if we start sleepwalking through life, unaware or unconcerned with how we look, how people read us, and how our bodies are interpreted by total strangers,” he wrote Wednesday. “Men are onstage too, all the time, in our image-obsessed society.”

The sculpture’s accompanying show, “Tony Matelli: New Gravity” will be on display at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum until July 20.