When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.
Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.
But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.
Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.
Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?
“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.
Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.