Go and get thee to the Mattress Factory
If you are a student at Carnegie Mellon University and have never been to the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum on the North Side, you are seriously missing out. Even if you have been to the Mattress Factory before, there is a good chance you haven't seen the current installations as they bring in new artists to construct site-specific art. The collection of permanent exhibits — my favorite of which is doll creator Greer Lankton's It's all about ME, not you room of dolls and madness realized — is also worth the trek to the pioneering museum, whose gallery space inhabits three historic turn-of-the-century buildings. The buildings themselves are worth the visit, as it immerses you in the Pittsburgh architecture of a bygone day.
Because the gallery spaces aren't huge, it is more fun to go the museum when it is not flooded with patrons. This means either during the week or early in the morning on the weekends — the museum opens at 10 a.m. If you are like me and need a muffin or a caffeinated pick-me-up for an early morning museum visit, there is a café downstairs where museum-goers can buy La Prima coffee and food starting at 11:30 a.m.
The more temporary exhibits currently at the Mattress Factory are part of the museum's Factory Installed exhibition, one that stretches multiple buildings and a variety of artists. Gallery staff recommend starting at the top of the main building, the fourth floor, and working down when appreciating the art. The fourth floor is currently home to a couple pieces of work from the Factory Installed exhibition. The first piece that catches the eye after leaving the elevator is Faculty, a sculptural piece of art by Rob Voerman, filling the whole room. My initial impression of this piece was that of a cardboard box fort on steroids. According to the artist, the piece is reflective of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, and indeed the piece does look like a tower lying on its side. The piece is so large that there is space inside, in which there are some tables, a strong smell of epoxy, and an eerie green light shining in through cool makeshift stained glass windows at the "base" end. A nearby museum visitor noted that the inside looked like the interior of a house after rolling down a hill in an avalanche, leaning precariously in one direction and looking kind of smushed. It did feel like an eerily beautiful and ostentatious children's fort, and the artist himself encourages individuals to utilize [ITAL]Faculty[ITAL] for projects and meetings.
My other favorite work on the floor was a floating orb in a very dark room. Made primarily of high carbon spring steel wire, Bill Smith's Spherodendron used light that bounced off the acrylic beads on the structure to imitate naturally occurring structures. My initial reaction was that it looked a lot like a neuron. The artist himself defined a "Spherodendron" as an "idealized network," and a structure that becomes "increasingly structurally complex as the building process evolves," yet remains cohesive. The word "Spherodendron" itself translates to "round tree," which the art was definitely reminiscent of. In an explanation by Smith located near the piece, he likened Spherodendron to structures such as computer generated models of the universe, layered cell structures found in the brain cortex, and visual representations of the internet. The piece definitely provoked thought about the patterns of interconnectedness between various things in the scientific and social worlds. Bill Smith also had other components of his exhibition, including a video called chimpanzee, which is exactly what it sounds like. I love monkeys and apes — I think they are fascinating — but I think I was almost too distracted by the general cuteness of chimpanzee babies to think thoughtfully about the video's contribution to Smith's message.
In the basement of the main building was an exhibit titled The Ghost Train, by Marnie Weber. According to the artist, the art installation was designed to create "a metaphorical journey into another state of consciousness." It really seemed to me, however, to be more of a spooky Halloween trip. A giant train-like structure covered in torn white sheets that fluttered in a creepy way dominated half of the large basement room. The other half contained terrifying masks of various creatures and structures of their bodies. The "music" amplified in the room was a combination of train noises and other strange sounds, and in general I found the room kind of trippy and more haunted house-esque. This stood in stark contrast with the semi-demure art gallery experience I was expecting to have. It is definitely appropriate for Halloween, but given that it has a more enduring stay, it definitely seems out of place and it's hard to see past the theatrics. That being said, I kind of loved it.
In one of the other buildings with pieces from Factory Installed, visitors walk in to an art piece by two recent Carnegie Mellon graduates. Jacob Douenias (CFA '13) and Ethan Frier (CFA '13) created a piece called Living Things, which occupies a large space in front of the door. Their work uses live spirulina algae-filled containers to communicate an idealized future wherein "the symbiosis between human beings and microorganisms is externalized and celebrated in the built environment." The pieces both have a social message, and are incredibly beautiful; the central element of the Living Things consists of three beautiful orbs hanging over a table and chairs like a chandelier, the algae filled containers with a translucent and gorgeous green color. Not only were all elements of their pieces awesome and interesting, but it is impressive that individuals so young got the honor of having their work displayed at this critically acclaimed museum.
In the third and final building, all three floors were dedicated to work by a single artist. While this exhibition has been up since 2013 and is not technically part of Factory Installed, it will be gone this spring, so see it while you can! Chiharu Shiota's piece Trace of Memory has taken over the old Pittsburgh building with black yarn. Thousands and thousands of randomly crossing yarn strings line the walls, stapled to the floor and ceiling, forming a dense and mind-blowing web. On the upper floors objects are suspended or partially obscured by the yarn, depicting how memory works to trap things in the web of the mind, where it is never possible to totally access or view the memory in its complete and accurate state. After viewing other art where it was more tricky to pick out the intention behind the piece, Shiota's three story yarn frenzy seemed almost too easy to understand. I thought that the exhibit could have been a little smaller, because it didn't take three floors to understand. That being said, I could have missed something.
This is not a comprehensive list of all the art at the museum by any means, neither the permanent nor temporary exhibits, but I highly recommend heading out and making your own judgments. Enjoyment of certain kinds of contemporary art is always conditional on the type of person you are and what is important to you, and the museum certainly offers enough variety to intrigue almost anyone.
The Mattress Factory is located at 500 Sampsonia Way and admission is free with a valid Carnegie Mellon ID.