Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

December 6, 2014 Mattress Factory





Thanks for all the wonderful and mainly humorous responses to the last post on husbonda. With all the possibilities that were suggested Wolfman included (explanation offline), I shall continue to use partner when I am writing about travel with rather than solo.

In spite of the years I have spent in the art world as a student, a gallery owner, a curator and an arts writer who covered artists, galleries, museums, exhibitions and projects related to the creative process, until my trip last October to the steel city I was unfamiliar with the Mattress Factory. As I read about it in a top ten sites to visit, my inner voice prompted me to “Go!” Not one to argue with the intuitive, I obeyed.

The museum, a composite of nine inner city, mainly old homes that have been restored and adapted specifically for the purpose of exhibit and hands on work by the artists is located on Pittsburgh’s North Side a few blocks from the very spot where I was born.

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In its brochure the Mattress Factory defines itself as “a museum of contemporary art that exhibits room-sized works called installations. (installation is a genre in which site-specific works are created that are intended to alter the viewers’ conception of a space.) Created on site by artists from across the country and around the world, our unique exhibitions feature a variety of media that engage all of the senses.”

On entering the museum I almost ran into two three dimensional word balloons by multi dimensional artist John Pena. Pena provided a thought provoking opener that tailed me through my entire visit.








The seriousness of the word balloons followed by its polar opposite “Damn Everything but the Circus” by Ben Sota was pure play! To attend a circus  is one thing, but here I actually became part of a social circus!













Next, some images from Diaspora by Ryder Henry.








More images follow, but first the Museum’s description of Ryder’’s work:

“Ryder Henry creates models of cities that replicate real places in his neighborhood (true to actual scale), combining fantasy sci-fi motifs like space ships and futuristic “Jetson-style” buildings with contemporary architecture. Henry’s preferred medium is recycled cardboard—often collecting boxes right off the street.

Outside the city are the brick towers that hold sentry across the suburban expanse. These buildings are the hubs of their own autonomies. What they lack in aesthetics, they make up for in utility. In the spaces between, the viewer may imagine farmlands and useful things, being looked after by the occupants of these structures.

Beyond the brick towers we see giant ringships in outer space. These are self-contained biospheres with variable gravity and other necessary space stuff.”













An exhibition that took me by surprise Traces of Memory by Chiharu Shiota, was an exemplary example of what Carl Jung must have meant when he said, “As a human being the artist may have many moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ (woman, too, Carl) in a higher sense – he is ‘collective man’ – one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind.”

As I walked through the site I became part and parcel of the installation – which is of course, the intention of the artist. With threaded mystery leading me, I found myself jockeying between timeworn rooms that led my consciousness as it were through a passage not unlike Alice’s rabbit hole into new dimensions.




With fascination I tripped through the knotted and woven caves and hollows that dominated each room. Loose woven cords like spider webs, crisscrossing, interconnecting interiors sets, and rooms were knitted together with the expertise of a craftsperson, the eye of a designer, the soul of a creative spirit, The giant weavings held me in their grip as a willing prisoner.







Enclosed old furniture, tattered paper remnants leaving exposed walls brought to mind the history of former occupants. As I gawked and gaped my way through their former space their spirits silently hiding in the shadows stalked my every move. A stranger in their midst I had been granted access to the hallowed space in which they had lived out their soulful journeys on earth.
















I felt like an astronaut visiting an unknown planet, a historian observing antiques long forgotten and leftover from another age, a dreamer caught between the real world I had just left and the ephemeral that threatened to disappear in and at any moment. I became a child tantalized, but fearful of what lay just beyond each doorway. I would get lost in the anxiety of the unknown only to return as a wayfarer giddy in unbounded space.













Completing my crawl I turned and made my way back in the opposite direction seeing the same from hindsight – something we rarely do in real life.

Over the years I have worked my way through various definitions of the purpose of art. “To make the invisible visible,” “to make the daily meaningful,” “to express abundance,” “to arouse consciousness,” “to decorate,” are but a few. Art happens in a studio, on a wall, in a public site, but art creates in here where I think, breathe, feel, contemplate.

Shiota reminded me that art and life art are not separate. I have often pointed to the fact that in Balinese there is no word for art as art and life are one.  What happens in here is reflected in the work of  artists who have the talent to replicate in here  out there.  Whatever the former space, boarding house, apartment, stripped down abandoned home, Shiota took it by hand and deftly wove a history with warp and weft that took this viewer from the external into the mythic dimension. I went in; I went out, and arrived at the same place.

A regular performer on the symbolic stage earlier Shiota studied with Marina Abramovich and assisted Rebecca Horn. With her sensitivity to how our bodies move through space and its potential to get trapped, her installations lead one to experience the untouchable: unbounded space,

If Shiota’s weavings drew me into dark and intimate spaces, the windows in the set of rooms following her installation opened into yet another dimension where windows framed outdoor scenes of paintings that cannot be framed.


















1 Comment

  1. Veronica McClufe

    December 8, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Wow, thanks for sharing this experience which is very palplable….I loved your intimations abut different feelings that arose in you while going “into the unknown” 🙂

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