The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh creates a world of immersive, interactive installation art

The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh is a museum dedicated to installation art.

But to put it that succinctly doesn’t nearly do it justice. More fittingly, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh is a singular cultural experience, one that is nearly impossible to replicate (and not just for the fact that it is one of the few museums of its kind anywhere in the world), and one that is guaranteed to stay with you long after you leave. There are pieces that will delight you, pieces that will disturb you, pieces that will haunt you, pieces that will have a profound effect on you. The installations are not simply large-format art pieces on display; they are fully immersive, taking up whole rooms, even nearly whole floors, so visitors are physically submerged within the artist’s work and the artist’s vision. The Mattress Factory isn’t something that you see; it’s something that you experience.

Founded in 1977 by Barbara Luderowski, who continues to serve as Co-Director and Board President, the Mattress Factory is located at 500 Sampsonia Way on Pittsburgh’s Central Northside in a former Stearns & Foster mattress warehouse. It was the first museum of its kind completely dedicated to installation art, holding its first exhibition of installation art in 1982.

“We chose to commission new installation works by artists in 1981 because the art form can, and often does, contain all of the senses. It’s never limiting. It could be musicians, photographers, sculptors or others that are making works,” explains Michael Olijnyk, the museum’s Co-Director with Luderowski.

The Mattress Factory has since grown to encompass several buildings, including artist residences and two additional buildings for exhibition space (at 1414 Monterrey and 516 Sampsonia). The collections on display are a mix of permanent installations and rotating exhibits commissioned by the Mattress Factory as part of their world-renowned artist residency program.

The permanent collection includes works from Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell, and Greer Lankton.

Turrell’s mind-bending light sculptures take up a floor of their own in the main building, and while visitors in a hurry might not be patient enough to allow their eyes to adjust to the light in each room individually as suggested, in order to properly experience these pieces it is necessary to do so. (A little pro tip: don’t be in a hurry when you visit the Mattress Factory.)

Kusama’s permanent pieces include Infinity Dots Mirrored Room, a piece that reflects the artist’s obsession with visual motifs (frequently polka dots) repeated again and again and again, reflected into infinity, obliterating the self in the process.

Lankton’s piece, It’s all about ME, Not You, is the most heartbreaking of all. A deeply – for some perhaps even disturbingly – personal work, the installation examines on issues of identity and addiction that had personal implications for Lankton, a transgender female who had long struggled with drug addiction and anorexia, through a space modeled after her own home featuring dolls she had made that are “engrossed in glamour and self-abuse.” She died one month after the exhibit opening for this piece, which was later donated by her family to the Mattress Factory.

“We’ve only chosen installations after they existed at the museum and we recognized the importance of them,” Olijnyk says of how they choose to dedicate limited permanent space to specific installations. “For instance, we saw how spectacular Yayoi Kusama’s works were and knew there were no permanent Kusama works in the United States. With James Turrell, we saw how incredible his pieces were and also realized we would have some of the first permanently installed works of his in the country.”

In the permanent collection as well as in the residency program, there is no central theme, no overarching narrative to the installations that are on display or the artists that are invited to participate as residents; generally artists creating unique, interesting, and provocative work could be invited for a residency. This freedom from a specific narrative has allowed the museum to explore a wide range of cultural themes, issues, aesthetics, and processes over the last several decades.

Since 1977, the Mattress Factory has supported over 600 artists through its residency program, for which artists come to Pittsburgh and live in a museum-owned residence located in the museum’s neighborhood, spending their time in the city creating new site-specific works for the museum. The artists are completely supported by the museum with housing, a living stipend, and all materials provided while they experiment, take risks, and explore the creative process while engaging the community in their practice. The museum is there for them to facilitate their vision – whether that means sourcing one hundred pounds of human hair or knocking down walls and drilling holes in the floors.

Because audience engagement is such a huge component of the Mattress Factory’s mission and identity, they have several different educational and outreach programs that further foster new ways for museum visitors to think about and experience art. This includes programs for schools and teachers that include museum visit and professional development programs; adult programming like workshops, performances, and artist lectures; family and community days, an interactive learning program designed for children ages 3-5, and the all-ages, hands-on ArtLab held the first and third Saturdays of the month.

While residencies bring artists to Pittsburgh from all over the world, the current exhibition, called Artists in Residence, features five Pittsburgh-based artists. It opened in September and will be on display through Spring 2015 in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Biennial, and features interactive ArtLab programs with exhibition artists twice a month through the duration of the exhibition.