Yet the pair agreed to attend a roundtable discussion with student leaders, as well as the president and counselors from the university. “It seemed like the sculpture was beside the point,” Matelli recalled. “This really was about being listened to. They wanted to exercise their civic and political voices and this is how they chose to do it.”
Fischman also questioned just how much the outpouring was really about the artwork. She was initially confused by the ire, as the students’ response to the piece was so different from her own. “In the end, as I suspected, the matter was not just about art,” she said. “What the students really wanted was recognition of and dialogue around sexual assault. The piece activated the student body in ways that were entirely unexpected, but of course were germinating long before its installation, and remain in play today.”
Ultimately, Fischman decided to keep the artwork on view outside. The power of the sculpture, she thought, resided in its ability to provoke such disparate viewpoints and catalyze so much discussion. “Sleepwalker engages people viscerally at an emotional level,” she said. Even if they sometimes select the wrong targets, the growing student passion and activism around the country may yet lead to substantive change.
If the sculpture could withstand public debate, it wasn’t completely safe: In May 2014, a vandal threw yellow paint down Sleepwalker’s left side. Authorities mounted orange cones and “caution” tape around the artwork. Only then did the statue become part of any real crime scene. Insurance paid out, and Matelli bought the work back from the insurance company. He’s keeping it in his personal collection, in its vandalized state. “It is a historical document,” he said. “I’m not emotionally invested in the piece in the way the students obviously were.”
After the rage at Wellesley subsided, New York’s High Line
’s next major public debut, in 2016. This time, the context was strikingly different. Sleepwalker
was surrounded by tourists, in a neighborhood full of galleries and some of the city’s most expensive real estate. “Not only was there no pushback, there was almost a celebration about the piece being up there,” Matelli recalled. He’s collected about 1,000 images of people taking pictures with the sculpture. It was a hit on Instagram and Twitter. In two years, Sleepwalker
had transitioned from an alleged menace to a selfie prop.