Matthew “Levee” Chavez arrived at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on Thursday with a ziplock bag full of hundreds of neon sticky notes.
About two hours later, the New York City artist had finished transplanting his viral Subway Therapy exhibit from the 14th Street–Union Square station to Ithaca’s Ivy League campus.
Sticky notes describing anatomical appendages, insulting President Donald Trump, promoting equality and honoring the late gorilla Harambe covered a museum wall, part of a new exhibit called Empathy Academy: Social Practice and the Problem of Object.
Beginning on Nov. 9, the day after the presidential election, Chavez carried pencils, pens, markers and sticky notes underground to the 14th Street / Sixth Avenue station and encouraged passersby to express any thought they could fit on the 3-by-3-inch adhesives.
“While there are some nasty ones, many of them, surprisingly, were about being together and hope and about being there for people that don’t have a voice,” Chavez told The Sun as he greeted museum attendees in front of his installation on Thursday night.
Thousands of people contributed to the piece on the first day, he said, and even more came the next day after pictures of the subway wall plastered in sticky notes exploded on social media and on the news.
But Chavez had been holding Subway Therapy sessions for months before Election Day, he said, although it took a much different form.
Beginning in spring, Chavez, donning a brown suit and tie, sat in a chair behind a table in the subway and, with a sign that said “secret keeper,” encouraged commuters to sit in the empty chair across the table from him and spill their deepest thoughts — or just chat.
“There are lots of ways that people passively accrue stress,” he said. “There are not a lot of ways to passively relieve stress.”
The pop-up shrink office was complete with a $1 certificate of achievement and a picture of a dragonfly and some plants — things one might expect to see in a therapist’s office, Chavez said.
Some people sat down at the table and didn’t get up to catch a train for three hours, Chavez said, instead venting to the California native about work stress, eating disorders, relationship issues and the isolation that can come with being an immigrant in America.
After Trump was elected president, however, Chavez decided he needed to reach more people than the one-on-one format allowed, so he marched into the station with the sticky notes and writing supplies.
The interactive artwork attracted so much attention that Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement declaring that a selection of the stickies would be preserved by the New York Historical Society.
“Over the last six weeks, New Yorkers have proved that we will not let fear and division define us,” Cuomo said in December. “Today, we preserve a powerful symbol that shows how New Yorkers of all ages, races and religions came together to say we are one family, one community and we will not be torn apart.”
Andrea Inselmann, curator of modern art and photography at the Johnson, contacted Chavez to bring hundreds of the sticky notes to the museum for part of an exhibit on how art can incorporate social interaction. The title of the exhibition, “Empathy Academy,” is the same as a class Inselmann is co-teaching with Stephanie Owens, a visiting professor of art.
Aside from the wall of transplanted subway sticky notes, there are also two walls in the museum where Cornell students and community members can contribute their own thoughts.
“Usually in a museum we ask people not to touch, but here we ask people to participate,” Inselmann said.
Chavez created a similar, temporary wall in Willard Straight Hall as well, where students complained about the weather, praised caprese salad and encouraged Cornellians to “Make America Kind Again.”
Although many people perceive the installation as politically motivated, Chavez said, it was actually the people who contributed to it that gave the work a political tone.
“It really has nothing to do with politics at all,” he said. “It has to do with exploring the human condition and doing it together.”
Subway Therapy, Chavez said, is a structure that he created so that when something divisive occurs, such as electing a new president, people could use the sticky note wall “as a way to channel their energy into something that was different than just spewing poison out on their family and friends.”
The exhibit, Empathy Academy: Social Practice and the Problem of Object, will be at the Johnson, in various forms, until May 28.