Gestures exhibit experiments with space

Museum visitors gather outdoors for a balloon-
releasing ceremony as part of “Wish exchange 
dandelion” by artist and activist Ling He.  (credit: Susie Ferrell/) Museum visitors gather outdoors for a balloon- releasing ceremony as part of “Wish exchange dandelion” by artist and activist Ling He. (credit: Susie Ferrell/)

The Mexican War Streets district of Pittsburgh’s North Side is the unlikely host of many small artistic treasures. Along Sampsonia Way, the fenced-in backyards and cratered streets stand alongside historic row houses painted with colorful murals. Among these hidden treasures is the Mattress Factory, a museum that specializes in installation art.

Despite its modest location, the museum attracted a significant crowd for the opening of its newest exhibit on Friday night. Gestures: Intimate Friction, guest curated by Carnegie Mellon adjunct associate professor of architecture Mary-Lou Arscott, showcases an intersection of the work of artists, architects, and activists. Keeping true to the museum’s focus on installation art, the exhibit features engaging and interactive pieces that charm viewers and explore how art can expand into the spaces around us.

The exhibit is being displayed in a smaller building on Monterey Street, rather than the museum’s main building on Sampsonia Way, so the venue for the reception was very small. The turnout continued to grow over the course of the reception; the narrow hallways and small rooms were crammed with guests casually chatting, drinking beer, and viewing the art.

Adjunct assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture Nick Liadis’ “Space of Sound/Sound of Space” features hundreds of thin, white, braided ropes hanging from the ceiling. Viewers had to fight through them and oftentimes inadvertently thwacked each other in order to pass.

Artist and Carnegie Mellon Masters of Fine Arts alumna Jenn Gooch took a different approach to playing with the space in her work, “Home Splice: Doorway.” With a video projected onto a door-sized wall, Gooch created the illusion that viewers were glimpsing a woman from the other side of a door that had been left ajar. Even though the woman was an image on a wall, the piece evoked a sense of forced intimacy. Gooch’s and Liadis’ work, among others, enabled museum guests to physically engage in the art, simply by being part of the space around them.

While artists and architects have a large representation in the exhibit, activists have their voices too. One piece titled “Inside, Outside, Inside: walls are built” by Braddock initiative Transformazium was created to bring about change in a neighborhood that faces many social and economic challenges. Artfully arranged debris from a deconstructed Braddock parish house and other materials give viewers an artistic lens through which they can view a very real and tangible activist effort. This piece was a welcome contrast to some of the more abstract works featured in the exhibit.

The highlight of the exhibit was undoubtedly architect and activist Ling He’s “Wish exchange dandelion,” playfully showcased in a room filled with red and white balloons. Volunteers and museum staff encouraged people passing through to write their wishes on ribbons and attach them to the balloons. This piece was by far the most interactive in the exhibit, relying exclusively on the guests’ willingness to take part. “It is defined with how much each participant would like to give,” said the piece’s description in the gallery program. In a ceremony later that evening, museum guests took the red balloons outside and released them into the air.

While a nice idea, the balloon-releasing ceremony was less than practical. Several of the balloons made little progress before getting caught in telephone cables and trees. Despite these difficulties, however, the ceremony had the lovely effect of bringing all of the museum guests together. While museum-goers usually live in their own worlds, viewing the art at their own pace or socializing in small groups, this part of the exhibit created a rare, unifying set of circumstances: The art became a means through which people connected to each other, rather than merely connecting to the art.

The Gestures: Intimate Friction exhibit engages its audience in every sense of the word. By viewing this exhibit, guests of the Mattress Factory have the chance to physically experience art, rather than simply look at canvases mounted on a wall. This newest exhibit is a prime example of exactly what the Mattress Factory does best: expand the boundaries of art until the art literally inhabits the space around us.