Artists explore identity, space in ‘Factory Installed 2021’

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Image via the Mattress Factory

“Open Square” by Luftwerk is one of the works on display at the Mattress Factory’s new exhibition called “Factory Installed 2021.” Luftwerk is one of five resident artists featured in the exhibit, which opens Friday.

By Beatrice McDermott, Staff Writer

A secret society of 23 men with the same face, colorful rooms that test the boundary of human perception and an upside-down horse are all featured in the Mattress Factory’s new exhibition, “Factory Installed 2021.”

The Mattress Factory’s residency program provides new artists every year with the resources to create “site-specific” works at the museum, located in Pittsburgh’s North Side. For up to two months, the artists live in Pittsburgh and work with museum staff to bring their creative visions to life. “FI21” will open on Friday and continue through Nov. 14, and features work by five resident artists — Jeffrey Augustine Songco, Andréa Stanislav, Luftwerk, Meir Tati and Sarawut Chutiwongpeti. Tati’s installation will open in April.

Hayley Haldeman, the interim executive director of the Mattress Factory, said the museum is excited for the new installations and is continuing to follow COVID precautions to make sure the space is as safe as possible for visitors.

“This exhibition really showcases what the Mattress Factory does best,” Haldeman said. “These installations from the five different artists are a diverse, really dynamic set … we really think, particularly given [COVID-19], will really engage audiences who are returning to the museum for the first time, and really bring curiosity, delight and introspection.”

Songco, one of the resident artists featured in “FI21,” said he had to take a virtual approach to the residency program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of working on-site at the Mattress Factory, Songco completed his installation, “Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room” completely virtually from Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I’m happy to say that it’s quite conceptual, and conceptual art is very much about rules and instructions,” Songco said. “I love the number 23, so we’ve used number 23 as a measurement for some shelves, for some distances … it helps with making decisions, and the complicated nature of working remotely on such a large project.”

Songco’s artwork is a continuation of his multimedia art project themed around a secret brotherhood organization called the Society of 23. Drawing on his background in theater, as well as his fraternity experience at Carnegie Mellon University, Songco acts as each brother, manipulating images of himself to create photographic copies.

“I get to perform each individual as I see them, and I use art to guide me in the construction of their own identities,” Songco said. “In a way, the Society of 23 then is a metaphor for how a culture is constructed, or how the American society has been constructed.”

Songco’s work often deals with controversial symbols — in 2011, he created the “GayGayGay robe”, which contains a rainbow-colored Ku Klux Klan robe that he describes as the “the ritual robe of the Society of 23.” “Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room” focuses on red hats, usually associated with the Trump campaign. Songco said he encourages visitors to be aware of their reactions to and possible discomfort with his work.

“I hope that [visitors] are able to be present, move around the space and allow the multiple layers of meaning within the space to sit with them, and they are present with that anxiety, and that confusion, so perhaps new meaning can be made,” Songco said.

Andréa Stanislav, an artist who combines sculpture and video, was meeting the Mattress Factory staff in March 2020 when the governor ordered a state shutdown. As the COVID-19 situation escalated, the museum offered Stanislav a “marathon run,” extending the residency program’s length so Stanislav could work and quarantine at the Mattress Factory.

“The work being there, in this unexpected residency at that time, gave me the time and this solitude to completely recreate the project as it is now,” Stanislav said. “I think that’s also one of the opportunities of the Mattress Factory, and the uniqueness of this kind of institution that is dedicated to installation art. It gives the artist a kind of freedom.”

Inspired by Pittsburgh’s history and her own family ancestry, Stanislav collaborated with the Tamburitzans, a local folk dance and music group, to include Slavic culture in her installation. Stanislav filmed the Tamburitzans performing at the Carrie Blast Furnaces in nearby Rankin when it was safe to meet outside as a socially distanced group. 

“Usually, a bright sunny day is not ideal for shooting outside — you want a diffused light, or overcast — but I went with the shadows,” Stanislav said. “The shadows became part of the video. They really become a kind of subject matter. Shadows are, metaphorically, in film, TV and literature, the proof that we are alive.”

Stanislav said working with the Tamburitzans allowed her to pay tribute to her Slavic family, even though the COVID-19 pandemic had forced her to cancel her trip to the Czech Republic to visit the town where her grandparents had lived. Filming at the Carrie Blast Furnaces was also meaningful because the steel industry historically employed many Slavic workers.

“As you’re walking through the installation, you’re slowly going up this ramp, so architecturally there’s … a kind of ascent through the entire work. And this concept of ascent continues in the video as well. There’s an ascent to Mars, to the next question mark,” Stanislav said.

“Factory Installed 2021” also features the work of Luftwerk, the “artistic collaboration” of Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero. The duo creates immersive experiences out of light and color, often incorporating the story of the space into their work.

“The historical context of the museum being founded on installation art, and immersive art, was a very important direction for us to create our work,” Gallero said. “It really inspired our work to be this color, light and sound, immersive installation.”

Luftwerk said they drew inspiration from the 19th-century book, “Sound And Colour: Their Relations, Analogies, And Harmonies.” Their “FI21” installation combines color theory and sonic elements to create the perception that the boundaries of the room are constantly changing, and sometimes even becoming nonexistent.

“It’s a paint environment with a geometric perspective pattern. It’s executed in two different color families, a warm family of color and a cool family of color. Theoretically, those two spaces are the same, they mirror each other, but they have a different color composition,” Bachmaier said. “It’s a very dynamic, color shifting, perspective shifting experience.” 

Luftwerk said they hope that the installation will challenge the expectation of space, creating rooms where visitors can feel “transported” and question the limits of their own senses. 

“Even with four walls and two rooms, you create an almost amorphous environment, something you cannot hold on to. The corners blur out, the lines blur out,” Gallero said. “I think, for the viewer, it’s a pretty jarring space with the two colors…You have to accommodate your eyes to this environment.”

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