Sulkowicz vowed to carry the mattress to classes until the school expelled Paul Nungesser, the man she says raped her in August 2012 on the first day of her sophomore year, in a provocative art piece which she titled “Carry That Weight.”
The rules that she decided for her piece, which also served as her senior thesis, were that she had to carry the mattress everywhere she went on campus, but was allowed to accept help carrying it if it was offered.
The bold statement made global headlines, was the recipient of an award from the National Organization for Women, and also landed Sulkowicz an invitation from Senator Gillibrand to attend the State of the Union address in January. Hillary Clinton even commented on the piece, saying “that image should haunt us all.”
A complaint was filed by Sulkowicz during her sophomore year reporting the alleged rape, and the school found that Nungesser was “not responsible.” A subsequent complaint with the NYPD also resulted in no actions being taken against him.
Nungesser has described the art piece as “bullying” and “harassment” and in April 2015 he filed a lawsuit against the university, their board of trustees, the university president, and the supervisor of the thesis claiming they exposed him to “gender-based harassment.”
“Columbia University’s effective sponsorship of the gender-based harassment and defamation of Paul resulted in an intimidating, hostile, demeaning learning and living environment,” the lawsuit read.
“It’s ridiculous that he would read it as a ‘bullying strategy,’ especially given his continued public attempts to smear my reputation, when really it’s just an artistic expression of the personal trauma I’ve experienced at Columbia. If artists are not allowed to make art that reflect on our experiences, then how are we to heal?” Sulkowicz told the Guardian in response to Nungesser’s lawsuit.
It had been unclear whether or not Sulkowicz would bring the mattress to the graduation ceremony as on Monday, the school circulated an email reminding students that large objects which may interfere with the crowd would not be permitted.
Undeterred, Sulkowicz finished her education and her performance, to loud applause, as she carried the mattress across the stage — with a little help from her friends.