States of Alert
A strong mood of impending disaster permeates each of the works in India: New Installations, Part II, at the Mattress Factory. The sensation doesn't strike the viewer immediately, but instead grows organically, through experience of the spaces themselves and through the quiet, conceptual revelations in the accompanying artists' statements.
Anita Dube's work "5 Words" is, in fact, highly conceptual. The New Dehli native has created five "word avatars" or sculptural abstractions: Waste, Wound, Woman, Wisdom and War. "Waste" appears as a white wire-mesh fabrication, as tall as the average adult. It is filled with various forms of colorless garbage, and it is enormous. In her statement, Dube writes, "The logic of capitalism is to have more...therefore also to create more waste."
In front of "Waste," the word "Wound" has been cut into the fiberboard of a temporary white wall with almost palpable vigor and precision. "Woman" appears as a series of 2-foot-high letter-candles, intended for burning. "Wisdom" is a bench, the word spelled out using flayed book spines and salt, an historical form of currency. Meanwhile, outside the building, "War" is suspended over Sampsonia Way like a movie marquee, belting out its message in bright white rope-lights.
Likewise, Mumbai's Hema Upadhyay creates a sense of cataclysm with her multimedia installation "Derelict," its title alluding to Pittsburgh's many abandoned row homes and the possessions of their former occupants. Three enormous chandeliers, made of combustible fiberboard and matchsticks, hang suspended in the fourth-floor gallery, each captured a moment before its destruction. One hangs sideways by a single wire, an inch from the floor; another is partially shattered by an arrested collision with the wall. Part of the sculpture already lies in splinters on the floor.
Matches appear again in Upadhyay's "Untitled," a multimedia installation constructed in an adjacent darkened room. Projected onto a heaping tumble of white matchboxes is an endless loop of Tom & Jerry cartoons. The sound of toes throbbing audibly, of hammer strikes and piercing cartoon screams fills the tiny space, making the sense of violence -- despite the sugary animated coating -- painfully evident.
In another gallery is displayed the work of Dehli-based Raqs Media Collective, comprising Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. The group is named for a word recognized in Persian, Arabic and Urdu as the ecstatic state whirling dervishes enter during dances.
Raqs' "Time Book" explores the resonant hollows of memory and the impermanence of seeming absolutes. The artists deliver a universal message through a subject bearing immediate local significance: Pittsburgh's once-robust steel industry. At the windows, rust patterns, broken casements and industrial ductwork appear on the windows like silk-screened specters. On a smooth, wall-mounted sheet of steel appears a slide show of circa-1930 photographs of the Homestead Steel Works and its Carrie Furnace. Meanwhile, the motionless hands of four faux punch-clock faces collectively specify the year Homestead Works closed. But it is the telephone pole that suggests the greatest level of foreboding: Leaning at a 60-degree angle, like Upadhyay's simulated chandeliers it seems to have been arrested a moment before its terminal collision. On impact, it will doubtlessly crush the single burning light bulb that hangs from it.
As in the museum's India: New Installations Part I, the artists in Part II were chosen after studio visits by Mattress Factory curator Michael Olijnyk and executive artistic director Barbara Luderowski. Also like Part I, participating artists marginalize color and forego traditional cultural iconography. What differs in Part II is that each artist subtly engages the viewer's anxiety mechanisms, through means both intellectual and physical. And while they seem to reject traditional aesthetic concerns, these largely concept-driven works speak directly to the intellect and have much to say about the inherent disquiet of contemporary human experience.
India: New Installations, Part II continues through Jan. 20. Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org