Algae Ecosystems & Noodle Soup

Mattress Factory, Current Exhibitions, Pittsburgh, PA 

Detail from  Trace of Memory  by Chiharu Shiota.

Detail from Trace of Memory by Chiharu Shiota.

I recently went to Pittsburgh to visit my sister, and I made the decision to visit the Mattress Factory without even knowing what exhibitions were currently showing there.  I have fan girl responses to this institution, discovered the first time I saw the permanent installations by Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, and these feelings are reinforced every additional time I visit.  The institution spans several buildings, rather than showing work in one large and imposing environment, and the specific nature of this spatial presentation seemed to be particularly important during my most recent visit.  The outdoor walks to individual structures stood out, and not just because it was raining and then a strange sort of freezing rain, almost hail-like, started falling from the sky the minute we decided to drive to Squirrel Hill for lunch.  This did happen, and it was strange because I visited Pittsburgh in October, and the retelling of the story creates a memorable image.

The Mattress Factory is an institution that repurposes buildings, spreading art through former domestic and industrial spaces that are distributed in the surrounding community, and during this visit the particular relationship between repurposed space and the resulting artworks really stood out.  My sister made a comment about the installations we saw that day, wondering aloud why we hadn’t seen works like this in other museums in other cities, and I think a large part of it is linked to the impulse to show work in a space that offers clues about its former use.  There is a memory of history that artists can respond to in such a space, and an inclination to alter the structure because the institution has already made the decision to embrace that.  This resulted in several installations currently on view that alter, subvert, and comment on domestic or repurposed space in a way that just wouldn’t be the same in a different kind of institution. 

I was blown away by the installation at the newly acquired 516 Sampsonia Way, a house that was transformed into a gallery that is currently showing an enormous installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.  The installation spanned several floors of the space, and consisted of incredibly intricate webs of yarn that covered the walls in elaborate and hauntingly beautiful structures.  The yarn webs highlighted the domestic architecture, which was preserved but not pristine, capturing carefully selected pieces of isolated furniture and objects that were selectively lit.  The space was spooky and lovely at the same time, recalling a frozen moment or absent history, and the piece would only have this emotive power in such a space.  Here, the absent memory or the dusty bits of history were as much a part of the piece as the yarn fastened to the walls and the carefully placed domestic objects.   

From there I walked with my sisters and brother-in-law to Factory Installed @ 1414 Monterey Street, a huge exhibition that included room-sized installations by eight different artists.  There was a gorgeous piece by Anne Lindberg that involved an intricate system of colored thread, and an assortment of beautiful furniture and complex glass pieces filled with microalgae in an ambitious installation by Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier.  The impulse to alter space was clearly present Julie Schenkelberg’s piece entitled The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy, where the artist pulled an imagined domestic space to bits in a colorful, ordered chaos.  Schenkelberg’s walls were turned inside out, painted and covered with material, and the scene was littered with broken objects that ordered themselves in clean lines just often enough to keep you looking. 

Schenkelberg describes her work as an attempt to document forgotten history, and her work on display at the Mattress Factory had an effortless synergy that reminded me of seeing Mike Kelley’s work at PS1, a former school building in New York.  At the end of my visit I waited near the windows downstairs at 1414 Monterey, hoping that the blobs of freezing rain would stop falling onto the sidewalk, all while standing next to the glowing microalgae structures that were hanging from the ceiling.

It was, all in all, an incredibly interesting afternoon, culminating with a bowl of really delicious noodle soup that we found in Squirrel Hill, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.