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Sculpture of near-naked man at Wellesley has its critics

A sculpture of a man sleepwalking in his underpants is surrounded by snow on the campus of Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., on Feb. 5. (Steven Senne/AP)

The mostly-naked man appeared on the Wellesley College campus Monday, clad only in white underwear briefs, barefoot, standing with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched.

He looked like a problem for the campus police.

He turned out to be art.

The figure — which was set beside a road on the all-female college campus near Boston — is actually a very lifelike sculpture from artist Tony Matelli. The sculpture, called “Sleepwalker,” was intended to draw attention to a new exhibit by Matelli at the campus museum.

It did that.

The sculpture entitled “Sleepwalker” is part of an exhibit by sculptor Tony Matelli at the college's Davis Museum. (Steven Senne/AP)

“There’s no way you can miss this thing,” said Lauren Walsh, 22, a senior from Danvers, Mass. She said the sculpture was placed in a busy area near both academic and residential quads. “I looked at it for a few minutes, and it didn’t move,” she said. Which meant it was art.

Some students dressed the statue up in winter clothing, apparently worried that the man would catch cold (the students returned to take their clothes back in the morning).

Walsh worked on a petition to get rid of it. She thought that the appearance of an almost-nude male stranger — especially at night — would bring added stress for students, especially those who had suffered sexual assault in the past.

“The statue of the nearly naked man on the Wellesley College campus is an entirely inappropriate and potentially harmful addition to our community that we, as members of the student body, would like removed immediately,” Walsh wrote, in a petition posted at the Web site under the name of another student, Zoe Magid. There are now 300 signatures in favor of getting rid of it.

That petition — and the oddball statue itself — were reported by the Boston Globe. On Wednesday, as a winter storm hit Massachusetts, the Globe’s Web site showed a photo of the Sleepwalker with snow accumulating on his head.

So far, Wellesley officials have said they will not get rid of the statue. It is supposed to remain in place until July 20, for the duration of the Matelli exhibit.

“The very best works of art have the power to stimulate deeply personal emotions and to provoke unexpected new ideas, and this sculpture is no exception,” the university’s president and its museum director said Wednesday in a joint statement. They said the sculpture “has started an impassioned conversation about art, gender, sexuality, and individual experience, both on campus and on social media.”

Some students dressed the statue up in winter clothing, apparently worried that the man would catch cold. (Alexa Lee)

Lisa Fischman, the museum director, also responded to a criticism from students: If they had to put up a very realistic statue of a near-naked person on a women’s college campus, why did it have to be a near-naked man? Fischman said that a statue of a lost, scantily clad woman would have brought its own risks.

“Would it have been better to think that someone was lost out of the dorms?” Fischman said.

Matelli, the Brooklyn-based sculptor, said in a telephone interview that the statue is made of painted bronze. He said there is a placard that explains it. “The placard is inside the museum,” Matelli said. “So there is a placard. But it’s not next to the figure right now.

So what, exactly, does the sculpture mean?

“It can mean many things. I mean, art is open. Each person comes to an artwork with their own history, their own politics, their own hopes and fears and all that stuff,” he said. “To me, it’s a sculpture about being lost. It’s about being displaced. It’s literally being about asleep at the wheel.”

A follow-up question. What was the reason he chose tight white briefs?

“It just seemed like a natural thing for him to get out of bed in. So, narratively it works,” Matelli said. Also, he said, “The tighty-whites are — in and of themselves — kind of iconic.”

The Sleepwalker statue is actually one of two placed around campus to promote the exhibit. The other is called “Stray Dog,” and it sounds almost as unsettling. “Basially, it looks like a seeing-eye dog without its master,” said Wellesley spokeswoman Sofiya Cabalquinto. Nobody has called to complain about that one yet, she said.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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