The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh is a small museum devoted entirely to contemporary art. Despite its relatively diminutive size, anyone with interest in boundary-stretching art should make a pilgrimage and spend some time roaming its collection. Nearly all of the works alter one’s perceptions of space, delighting viewers by forcing us to question the accuracy of our brain’s visual processing. Light becomes shape, small spaces stretch into infinity, inside and outside switch places in your perception.
The permanent installations include several works, any of which would be worth the trip in their own right. Rolf Julius’s two pieces might be of particular interest to musicians: Music for a Garden creates a musical soundscape for the outdoor area while Red is comprised of two suspended speakers that emit an intermittent low-frequency hum and vibrate sympathetically. Meanwhile, on the second floor you can enter into the mirrored rooms of Yayoi Kusama, which joyfully reflect into infinity. From the third floor, Sarah Oppenheimer’s 610-3356 appears to be an airplane wing slicing through the room, but from the fourth floor, this piece instead reveals an aperture through which one views the neighboring yard.
However, it’s the second floor, devoted entirely to three pieces by James Turrell, that make visiting this museum a categorical imperative and a sublime experience. When you step onto the second floor, a guide greets you and directs you towards Castro, Red. As you walk from the lit atrium into a dark space, the floor slopes slightly, upsetting your sense of balance and slowing your walking pace. This subtle touch becomes absolutely necessary as you enter a dark room with a sculpture of a glowing red cube suspended on the far wall. Without having slowed, there might be nothing remarkable about this sculpture. However, as you walk very carefully towards it, you sense that there’s something special about this particular cube. It gradually becomes apparent that what you initially perceived to be a weighty three-dimensional object is truly projected light. There is no sculpture on the wall, only light projected from the ceiling in such a way that your brain processes the information to create a sculptural object that doesn’t truly exist. Thus, the ephemeral becomes real.
When you return to the atrium, the guide points you towards Danaë. Again, the floor slows you as you move from light to dark. And again, you enter a room with a glowing sculpture projecting from the far wall. As you walk in, it appears that the main differences between these first two pieces are that the first work is red while this is blue, and the first is a cube while this is a huge rectangle that only projects a few inches into the room. Nearing this second source of light, your perception again adjusts so that what you first saw as a three-dimensional object you realize instead is ephemeral light. Only you gradually realize that perhaps even this re-contextualization has led you astray. Instead of light projected onto a wall, there is a gaping hole in the wall and a light-filled room revealed behind it. It’s difficult to describe the visceral joy created by the endorphins released by the brain as it solves these complex perceptual puzzles, except to say that the feeling is very similar to that experienced by a listener who suddenly begins to hear the underlying music in what was initially perceived as noise.
Before you enter Pleiades, the final installation on this floor, the guide tells you that it takes several minutes to experience it fully. You walk up a pitch-black ramp, grasping the railings to either side for support. At the top of the ramp, you grope towards one of the two chairs placed to either side of you, and sit in utter darkness. After a short while, you realize that you’re not in complete darkness: there are thousands of tiny white lights. Over time, as you try to focus on these lights, they merge into a single light source, then fragment again, then begin swirling all around you. This sculpting of light through time becomes a transcendent mystical experience.
In many ways, Turrell’s pieces are the sculptural equivalent of music. They can only be experienced through time. The audience must approach the works in a specified order for them to have their intended effect. They are about perception and time, without any specific denotative representation ameliorating between the viewer and an emotional experience of the art. Because of this, they are able to convey the transcendent emotional qualities normally reserved for music.