Find Unforgettable Art In A Most Unlikely Place: A Pittsburgh Mattress Factory
The Mattress Factory hasn't been an actual mattress factory for a while now. Built on a hillside in the Central Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, back at the turn of the last century, it was used as a warehouse and showroom for Stearns & Foster until the 1960s.
Today, it's one of the country's more unusual art museums. Filled not with paintings or sculptures — and certainly not with mattresses — it is now, four stories of ... well, of "stories" in a way. Installations that take you places you don't expect to go in an art museum.
A recent fourth-floor exhibit called Damn everything but the circus, for instance, was inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem that reads "damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won't get into the circle, that won't enjoy." Artist and Zany Umbrella Circus founder Ben Sota arranged a canvas-draped, room-sized installation where visitors could walk a very low tightrope, drape themselves on a trapeze, even roll around in one of those giant metal acrobat wheels.
Across the hall is Ryder Henry's Diaspora, a futuristic city-in-miniature (with one house small enough that you could hold it in your hand, that opened to reveal its furnishings including a tiny mirror that reduced the viewer to the right scale) and what looked like a space station receding toward the next galaxy.
Also on this level, in a locked room, there's a permanent exhibit — Sarah Oppenheimer's oddly titled 610-3356 — a molded plywood-sheathed hole in the floor that lets you see straight out the side of the building one floor below. For some reason, birds don't fly in. The museum keeps the room locked so kids won't fall out.
Other permanent exhibits include Yayoi Kusama's pair of mirrored, polka-dotted rooms that give new meaning to the notion of infinity for anyone who steps inside them; the hauntingly exquisite light sculptures of James Turrell; and Greer Lankton's heartbreaking It's all about ME, Not You, which, in re-creating her bedroom, offers a window into this transgender artist's struggles with addiction and anorexia.
All of these are examples of "site-specific installation art," meaning art that's tied to the space it's in, and it's the only thing you'll find at The Mattress Factory now, though that was not true when the building began its new life in 1977.
"We opened a food co-op on the first floor, with vegetarian cooking," remembers Mattress Factory founder Barbara Luderowski. "People just came. Everybody says, 'You had great vision' and so on. The hell I did. It was an evolutionary process, built originally on desire for myself: a place to work, a place to live, and a community in which I could thrive as a person."
Others thrived there, too, including a young artist whose work was included in the first crop of site-specific installations: Michael Olijnyk, who's now co-director of the museum.
"He always refers to himself as the nightmare dinner guest who never went home," chuckles Luderowski.
Today, "going home" just means going upstairs. The two co-directors share a huge open living space on the top two floors of the museum, and preside jointly over an arts complex that now includes the main building plus artists' residences and workshop areas in several other buildings.
One of them — a three-story Victorian townhouse down the street — has been taken over by what Olijnyk says is "literally miles of black yarn" for Trace of Memory, an enormous, townhouse-filling spiderweb of sorts created by Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota.
"We wanted her to do the whole building," explains Olijnyk, "so this idea is in the whole building, so when the visitors are coming, they're opening door by door and finding this piece."
What they're finding is basically three floors' worth of memory befogged. The installation makes the objects in the rooms hard to focus on: A bed, a pile of suitcases, a wedding dress that floats in mid-air, all rendered fuzzy and indistinct by hundreds of angled, irregular strands of yarn stretched wall to wall.
"It took 13 people 10 days," marvels Olijnyk. "And when they said 10 days we thought, 'No way,' because we saw them working on one room and it was very, very labor-intensive. But they would start early in the morning, and sometimes work until 2 in the morning, then get up the next day and do the same thing."
The effect of their labors, and the latticework of black yarn they've created, is that you see this century-old rooming house through a haze of memory ... an effect that had special resonance for one attendee.
"Someone came and visited us," says Olijnyk, "who was actually born on the second floor. And when he walked down the steps — you see those three brass mailboxes? — his mother moved into the building in 1932 and her name is still penciled in on that brass mailbox."
Trace of Memory, like many of the Mattress Factory's installations, is a complicated idea, rendered in spare, minimalist form. That contrasts with the directors' private residence, up above the museum, which is wildly maximalist, crammed with thousands of objects the two have collected — Luderowski's tchotchke-filled cabinets (including dozens of 1930s Mickey Mice (artisanal figures created from patterns that ran in Vogue magazine), Olijnyk's midcentury modern furniture.
"Living with him is a little like having Christmas all the time," says Luderowski. "He brings home these treasures."
Treasures that he's artfully arranged with a curator's eye. Her treasures tend toward the hand-crafted ... the worn and lived-with.
"I can't afford top-of-the-line," she explains. "If I were a doll collector, you'd be after the perfect dress, the perfect shoes, the perfect mechanics and so on. I love the mechanics, I don't give a damn about the exterior particularly. I look for bargains, I look for broken, which I can readily repair and it gives me that hands-on thing again."
"Again" because Luderowski and Olijnyk are artists, not just arts administrators — devoted enough to site-specific creativity, that they live atop their own creation: this beehive of artistic activity.
"I love being even a peripheral part of the actual process," says Luderowski. "The thinking process, the flexibility, and the problem solving, and all those things which to me are so important in terms of what art does for you."
That's why the four floors below their apartment are devoted to art that is collaborative and interactive, that asks artists to respond to the space they're given — whether with fogs of memory or do-it-yourself circuses — and that asks visitors to inhabit the art, not just look at it.
"One of the reasons we decided on doing installation art, both of us, was 'pedestal art' was a limiting thing to do, and installation really involves different mediums: some sound, building wombs out of wax, a variety of materials and challenges that ... " Luderowski pauses just a second, "makes my life richer."
And, with any luck, the lives of those who venture into Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.