Disputed Scantily Clad ‘Sleepwalker’ Sculpture Comes to the High Line

The 'man in briefs' was vandalized in its previous public outing.

Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker (2014) Photo: courtesy Friend of the Highline
Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker (2014)
Photo: courtesy Friend of the Highline

Tony Matelli‘s underwear-clad sculpture of a sleepwalking man was at the center of controversy on a college campus in 2014, with outraged students launching a petition for its removal. Now, the eerily lifelike figure of a man in white briefs wandering in his sleep with outstretched arms is coming to the High Line as part of the group show “Wanderlust,” opening in April, Hilarie M. Sheets reports in the New York Times.

The work, simply titled Sleepwalker, was created by the Brooklyn-based Matelli for his 2014 solo exhibition “New Gravity” at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, but was installed on campus, outside the museum, DNAinfo recalls.

However, some students at the all-women’s college felt that the sleepwalker was an “inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to [the] community,” as stated in the petition launched against it, demanding it be moved inside the museum. The petition calls the sculpture “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.”

“I know people who have had triggering responses to the statue,” a student who signed the petition explained in an interview, adding that “the statue was put in a public place without students’ consent.”

Despite the outcry, museum director Lisa Fischman decided to leave the sculpture in place until July 2014. “I was completely taken aback by this response,” she told the NYT, adding that her intention was to show a vulnerable depiction of a man, as opposed to the typically monumental representations of men in statues.

Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker in its current, vandalized state. Photo via Huffington Post

Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker after being vandalized.
Photo: via Huffington Post.

“What they see in the sculpture is not in the sculpture,” Matelli commented about the debate. “If you have bad feelings toward this and it’s triggering you, you need to seek sympathy, you need to seek help,” he added.

But not everyone was convinced. The sleepwalker was vandalized with yellow paint splashed on its face, left arm, left leg, and foot. (Matelli’s realistic sculptures seem to inspire strong feelings in their viewers; his Stray Dog piece was vandalized in Manhattan last spring).

How will visitors to the High Line react to the man in white briefs? If the show’s title “Wanderlust” is anything to go by, they might just walk past it without giving it a second thought. “It’s a space always in motion, both because you have to walk from one end to the other and because the city is changing so quickly around you,” said Cecilia Alemani, who is responsible for the High Line’s art program.

It seems more likely that visitors will jump at the opportunity to participate in Marie Lorenz’s project “Tide and Current Taxi,” which will lower water-taxi rowboats from the High Line to the Hudson River. Other artists in the group show include Roman Ondák, Barbara Kruger, Nari Ward, and Kathryn Andrews.

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