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Art & Museums

Mattress Factory installation artists use living matter, trash to get to the point

| Saturday, May 30, 2015, 8:15 p.m.
Julie Schenkelberg  “The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy.”
Mattress Factory
Julie Schenkelberg “The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy.”
John Morris' “Life, Afterlife”
Mattress Factory
John Morris' “Life, Afterlife”
'Living Things' by Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier
Mattress Factory
'Living Things' by Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier
“shift lens” by Anne Lindberg
Mattress Factory
“shift lens” by Anne Lindberg

For “Factory Installed, Part 1,” the latest exhibit to open at the Mattress Factory, eight artists were chosen from a pool of more than 500 applicants from 27 countries and 35 states to create new site-specific installations.

This first group figures in only half of the exhibit, with the rest coming in September. The exhibits at the installation-art museum on the North Side include an architecture/biology project by recent Carnegie Mellon University grads Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier, along with new room-size installations by Anne Lindberg from Ancramdale, N.Y., Lawrenceville's John Morris and Brooklyn-based artist Julie Schenkelberg.

The installation “Living Things” — by Douenias, a School of Architecture grad, and Frier, who graduated from the School of Design — features futuristic-looking furniture that holds large glass containers filled with green liquid. It represents a future, the pair says, where “the symbiosis between human beings and micro-organisms is externalized and celebrated in the built environment.”

This is made most evident by the green liquid, which is actually water containing microalgae, some of the most ancient and prolific organisms on Earth. Microalgae are single-celled proto-plants without roots, stalks or leaves.

“Despite accounting for less than 1 percent of the Earth's total biomass, microalgae drive the biological pump, which maintains our atmosphere and the balance of carboniferous matter therein,” Douenias says. “The energy-dense and nutrient-rich material left behind by these microorganisms remains an almost entirely untapped renewable resource by humans.

“We have begun to harness the power of other micro-organisms in industries such as waste management, alcoholic-beverage production, agriculture, medicine and, more recently, biofuels.”

Microalgae, however, present a unique opportunity to designers, contends the pair.

“The absence of a superstructure to organize their anatomy allows the liquid suspension in which they live to be treated more like a material than a plant,” Frier says. “In the hands of an architect, industrial designer, engineer or systems designer, this liquid plant becomes a living material, which can be integrated symbiotically into the architectural environment. The plasticity of this living material allows us to create living structures.”

These living structures recycle light, heat and carbon dioxide from buildings and their inhabitants into rich, green biomass, which can be consumed as sustenance, used as agricultural fertilizer or converted to biofuel.

This installation reveals the phenomenological qualities of the highly beneficial micro-algae and challenges visitors to consider what the future of the domestic environment may become in the context of the precarious agricultural and energy needs of a ballooning population.

On the second floor, Schenkelberg has altered two rooms with her installation “The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy.”

Including furniture, flatware and linens, the piece is a tour de force of domestic interiors turned inside out, as if a whole home has imploded and one is walking through the aftermath.

“The piece at the Mattress Factory is materials sourced directly from the area,” Schenkelberg says. “I create installations to envelope the viewer in my memories as well as their own.”

Having shades of blue throughout to hint at what she says are “healing powers of the earth and sky,” Schenkelberg says the whole purpose is to have a shared experience with the viewer, transporting us into a fictional, magical space.

“I take domestic memory of a decaying home environment, physically and psychologically, and convert it into something beautiful,” she says. “The items I choose are transformed from discarded materials to a fantasy environment.”

On the third floor, “shift lens” by Lindberg offers a response to the room it is in, which she surmises was likely originally used as a bedroom, with two sash windows, woodwork and a painted wooden floor.

“I was particularly taken with how the windows are like a lens, as though you are on the inside of a camera,” Lindberg says. That is why, she says, she decided to stretch taut thread in vertical and horizontal directions within the architecture — in cool and warm tones — in front of the windows to “filter the natural light that obscures your vision and creates a floating volume of color,” Lindberg says.

“I made the work in scale to your body, with its bottom edge near your knees and its top at the reach of your hand as it reaches overhead,” Lindberg says. “This is the zone of your body's primal and physiological understanding of space.”

Finally, Morris has filled the room next to Lindberg's installation with “Life, Afterlife,” an installation composed of ghosts of individual objects in the form of acrylic casts or painted coverings of everyday household items such as utensils, soda cans and combs.

“I paint on and peel stuff in a process that merges, painting, casting, drawing and sculpture,” Morris says.

The “results” blur the lines between life and death; handmade and ready-made; precious objects and “worthless trash.”

“I rarely have full control or know what to expect. Hopefully, the viewer shares moments of surprise and discovery,” he says.

The second half of the exhibit, which showcases works by Lisa Sigal of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Bill Smith of O'Fallon, Ill.; Rob Voerman of Arnhem, The Netherlands; and Marnie Weber of Los Angeles, won't open until Sept. 18 in the museum's galleries at 500 Sampsonia Way, with the entirety of the exhibit remaining on view through winter 2016.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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