Mattress Factory – Nora Wildberg ’21

After a recent family move to Pittsburgh, I was looking forward to exploring the many art museums this new city had to offer. Upon recommendation from several Pittsburghers, I decided to visit the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum that houses some of the most wonderful installation exhibits I was soon to discover. 

Having done no research on the Mattress Factory’s exhibits prior to my visit to the museum, I was certainly pleasantly surprised to see not one, but two, of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms: Infinity Dots Mirrored Room (1996) and Repetitive Vision (1996). One floor below Kusama’s work is an artist who also plays with space and light in his works, but arguably in a more visceral and unearthly way.

James Turrell, Danaë, 1983. Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory Museum.

James Turrell, Catso, Red, 1994. Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory Museum.

The entire second floor of the building is transformed into a very dimly lit space with three of James Turrell’s installation pieces, the first being Danaë (1983) which upon first glance appears to be a glowing purple rectangle projected onto the wall. As one walks closer to the rectangle, it becomes clear that the form that once appeared solid and two-dimensional is actually a three-dimensional space, with blacklights illuminating the space behind the rectangular hole cut in the wall. The next room displayed a piece titled Catso, Red (1994) which presents a similar optical illusion as Danaë does. A two-dimensional square of red is projected onto the corner of a wall, which at first appears to be a solid, three-dimensional shape hanging weightlessly in the corner of the room. The illusions in both of these rooms are enhanced by the uncomfortably dark lighting. Perhaps the most striking installation piece in the museum was James Turrell’s next installation piece, Pleiades, finished in 1983. After exiting the room that houses Catso, Red and making a right, I was met with the entrance of a pitch-black room. Only two people were allowed into this exhibit at a time, and I was instructed to use the handrails to guide myself up the ramp, feel around for a chair, and then sit in the darkness for 15 minutes. After a few minutes of my eyes getting adjusted to the harsh darkness, a dimly glowing, amorphous light began to appear at the end of the room. The warm light was so faded that it was at times physically uncomfortable to try and focus my eyes on it, yet its shape and size continued to change the longer I stayed in the room, even though the incandescent bulb producing the light remained static and unaltered. The orb of light combined with the utter darkness of the room created an environment in which the space felt infinite and expansive. Consequently, Pleiades allows us to experience a space where, according to Turrell, “the realm of night-vision touches the realm of eyes-closed vision.” In this truly immersive, meditative work, the artist successfully eliminates any sense of duality and presents us with an unbelievably surreal environment. Turrell’s playful, yet eerie installation pieces all toy with the way we view two- and three-dimensional space, in addition to the way we experience physical space around his work. 

James Turrell, Plan for Pleiades, 1983. Photo courtesy of the Mattress Factory Museum.

Pleiades particularly interested me because of its inability to be photographed. “Instagram-able” artwork seems to be quickly rising in popularity because of its photogenic nature. Pop-up museums, such as the Museum of Ice Cream and the Color Museum in New York City, for example, promote these kinds of “Instagram-able” installation pieces, works of art that are aesthetically pleasing and physically interactive. Kusama’s infinity rooms serve as a strong example of this kind of artwork and as a good point of comparison to Turrell’s works; visitors enter Kusama’s rooms and most immediately begin to take pictures with the art, while Turrell makes it impossible to capture the full experience of his works in photograph, as the viewer’s experience of his works is reliant on our eyes’ ability to perceive optical illusions and grasp our physical relation to the spaces that he creates. In a way, Turrell’s works demand that we be more immersed into the realms of space the exhibits offer us without the presence of cameras or our phones. Perhaps this necessitated mental and physical immersion into Turrell’s works is a reason why people can react quiet strongly to Pleiades and the remainder of the rooms on the dark floor of the Mattress Factory.