Factory Installed tests viewers' perceptions of art

Tucked away from view on residential Sampsonia Way in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory hardly seems like an artistic gem at first glance. But on the inside, the museum is a sanctuary of contemporary installation art — “art you can get into,” as the museum literature says.

It is important to note that the Mattress Factory is no ordinary art museum. The most fascinating part of visiting the Mattress Factory is the way in which the works of art incorporate the physical space surrounding them: walls, windows, ceilings, and floors. In this way, the art literally surrounds viewers and seeps into their environment. Ultimately, the museum has proven that art does not have to be confined to a gilded frame on a wall, testing its viewers’ understanding of the physical limitations of art.

The Factory Installed exhibit is no exception to this motif of environmental art. All of the works are site-specific; each artist hand-picked an area of the museum for his or her installation. Veronica Ryan’s “The Weather Inside,” for instance, features literal cutouts from the factory’s walls displayed throughout the room, and Pablo Valbuena’s “Para-Site [mattress factory]” creates optical illusions by projecting black-and-white patterns onto a pair of factory windows.

Despite the physical scale of the installations, however, some of the pieces seemed bland or hard to grasp. Ryan’s composition, though it spans the entire room, features relatively small pieces and a white and gray color palette. Though this certainly creates an ambiance of its own, the piece seems reluctant to take up the space it is given and does not appear to embody the description of “powerful experiences” which the museum has assigned to the exhibit.

Other pieces in the exhibit also seem either too lofty or too simplistic for some viewers to understand. Nika Kupyrova’s “Roadkill” consists of a few unidentifiable objects laid out across a white tiled floor. The white-and-pastel color palette creates an interesting aesthetic, but the strange objects lining the floor and the incongruous title of the work leaves some viewers confused. Likewise, Mariana Manhaes’s “Thesethose,” in which wired machinery connected to large inflating and deflating plastic bags create strange whirring and breathing noises, also may puzzle viewers with its odd array of objects and sounds.

On the other hand, several pieces in the exhibit offers powerful messages and captivating perspectives. Than Htay Maung’s “My Offering” portrays the hungry hands of victims of the 2008 cyclone in Burma; dozens of plaster hands holding bread lined the walls in a powerful appeal for donations. Also fascinating, though for a very different reason, is Valbuena’s light-projection piece, which creates black-and-white illusions using the structure of the museum windows — a somewhat eerie yet entrancing visual experience.

Despite minor drawbacks, the Factory Installed exhibit — and the entire museum, for that matter — is a captivating and thought-provoking atmosphere that can only be done justice by personal experience. The contemporary art at the Mattress Factory succeeds not only in challenging viewers’ perceptions of reality, but also their perceptions of art as a medium to express that reality. The Mattress Factory is an excellent place for those who want to expand their artistic palates and be exposed to new and interesting forms.