MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
When you think of Pittsburgh, you may think of steel, coal, the Pirates or the Steelers. Well, critic Bob Mondello thinks of art - specifically, of one of the country's more unusual art museums, the Mattress Factory, which has no paintings, no sculptures and no mattresses.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The Mattress Factory hasn't been a mattress factory for quite a while. Built back at the turn of the last century and used as a warehouse and showroom for Stearns and Foster until the 1960s, 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.
I'm in a circus.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONDELLO: Canvas-draped and room-sized, the recent exhibit called "Damn Everything But The Circus" was inspired by an E. E. Cummings poem that reads - damn everything that is unrisking (ph), inward-turning - everything that won't enjoy. So in this room, you could walk a very low tight rope, drape yourself on a trapeze, even rolled around in one of those giant, metal acrobat wheels. Across the hall, there was a futuristic city in miniature 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 - a 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. They keep the room locked so kids won't fall out. This is called site-specific installation art, meaning it's 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.
BARBARA LUDEROWSKI: We opened a food co-op on the first floor, so vegetarian cooking.
MONDELLO: Mattress Factory founder Barbara Luderowski.
LUDEROWSKI: People just came. Everyone said, you have a great vision, and so on. The hell I did. It was an evolutionary process, built initially on desire for myself - a place to work, a place to live and a community in which I can thrive as a person.
MONDELLO: 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.
LUDEROWSKI: He always refers to himself as the nightmare dinner guest who never went home, you know, so (laughter)...
MONDELLO: Today, going home just means going upstairs. They share a huge, open living space on the top two floors of the museum and preside jointly over an arts complex that now includes several buildings. One of them, a three-story, Victorian townhouse down the street, has been taken over by...
MICHAEL OLIJNYK: Literally miles of black yarn.
MONDELLO: This is Michael Olijnyk, co-director of the Mattress Factory, walking through "Trace Of Memory," an enormous, townhouse-filling spider web of sorts created by Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota.
OLIJNYK: We wanted her to do the whole building, so this idea is in the whole building. So when a visitor is coming, they're opening door by door and finding this piece.
MONDELLO: The idea, they're finding, is basically three floors worth of memory befogged. The installation makes the objects in the room hard to focus on - a bed, a pile of suitcases, a wedding dress that floats in midair, all rendered fuzzy and indistinct by hundreds of angled, irregular strands of yarn stretched wall-to-wall.
OLIJNYK: It took 13 people 10 days. And when they said 10 days, we thought no way 'cause 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 two in the morning and then get up the next day and do the same thing.
MONDELLO: The effect of their labors and the lattice work of black yarn they've created is that you're seeing this century-old rooming house through a haze of memory - an affect that had special resonance for one attendee.
OLIJNYK: Someone came and visited us who was actually born on the second floor. 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.
MONDELLO: "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 - Barbara's tchotchke-filled cabinets, Michael's midcentury modern furniture.
LUDEROWSKI: Living with him is like having Christmas all the time 'cause he brings home these treasures.
MONDELLO: Treasures that he's artfully arranged with a curator's eye. Her treasures tend toward the handcrafted, the worn and lived with.
LUDEROWSKI: I can't afford top-of-the-line. If I were a doll collector, you would be after the perfect dress, the perfect shoes, the perfect mechanics. And so 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.
MONDELLO: Again because Barbara Luderowski, like her co-director Michael Olijnyk, is an artist - not just an arts administrator - devoted enough to site-specific creativity that they live atop their own creation.
LUDEROWSKI: And I love being at least even a peripheral part of the actual process - you know, so the thinking process and the flexibility and the problem solving and all of those things which, to me, are so important, in terms of what art does for you.
MONDELLO: Which is 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.
LUDEROWSKI: One of the reasons we decided on doing installation - both of us - was that pedestal art was a limiting thing to do and installation really involves different medium - some sound, some, you know, building rooms out of wax, a variety of materials and challenges that makes my life richer.
MONDELLO: And with any luck, the lives of those who venture into Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory. I'm Bob Mondello.
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