Mattress Factory gets in your head with HalfDream: Another Room exhibition | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mattress Factory gets in your head with HalfDream: Another Room exhibition

click to enlarge Close-up of a video on a tablet showing how to make a cocktail at the art exhibition HalfDream: Another Room.
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
HalfDream: Another Room
One of my favorite tweets in recent memory came from Arseny, a user who dreamed of a totally made-up food item called a "King's Hand." Not satisfied to leave it in his subconscious, he made the King's Hand a reality, producing a hollow, hand-shaped M&M cookie overflowing with oily Greek salad. He then put it out in the Twitterverse, along with a selfie of him smiling as he bites into this culinary abomination. 

I thought of this while viewing HalfDream: Another Room, a new show at the Mattress Factory. The first solo exhibition from Hong Kong and U.S.-based artist, Doreen Chan, is described in a press release as an ongoing "participatory art project" through which users around the world contribute to a database and get matched with others who have similar dreams.

On view through fall 2023, the show offers an engaging denunciation of the notion nothing is more boring than hearing someone talk about their dreams, with Chan viewing them as a medium to connect people all over the world "facing similar but differing turbulence."

Described as coming out of the political friction between Hong Kong and the U.S., and the social distancing of COVID-19, HalfDream uses dreams as an unexpected alternative to the "typical ways in which society would group and identify people."

The goal becomes all the more interesting when considering how dreams manifested during the most intense and isolating days of the pandemic. One Scientific American article from October 2020 examined the increase of "vivid, bizarre dreams" affecting people from all over the world. A year later, the New York Times reported that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, thousands of people shared their COVID dreams on Twitter, many of them under the hashtag #coronadreams.

Experts speculate that these pandemic dreams were a way of processing stress related to the virus, even serving as sort-of rehearsals for surviving dangerous or traumatic situations. For example, one person featured in the NYT article wrote “I dreamed of never returning to life-as-normal, of being old and quarantined with my future grandchildren."

Throughout 2022, Chan and the Mattress Factory called for Pittsburgh residents to submit their dreams to HalfDream’s website. From these submissions, Chan "transformed a selection of them into artworks, becoming integrated into the installation itself." Chan also connected with a number of community partners, collaborating with VaultArt Studio in Garfield to create textiles featuring drawings of dream scenes by participating artists. The textiles are now on display and for sale at MF and VaultArt.

One component  the one responsible for my recalling the King's Hand collects cocktail recipes created in the dream world. These cocktails range from the mundane to the bizarre, with one containing bitter melon, soy sauce, and an entire clove of garlic. Guests can view looped videos on small tablets documenting each cocktail being made as voice-over conversations play in the background. There are also crudely drawn illustrations describing the cocktails and how each ingredient should be prepared or added.

At the Dec. 3 opening reception, the cocktails were also made and distributed at the bar in MF's Boxspring Cafe.
click to enlarge People gather round a kiosk outfitted with two computers at the art exhibition HalfDream: Another Room.
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
HalfDream: Another Room
The sparse installation, decorated with clear, glass-like strips and a few randomly displayed objects, depends largely on technology, existing, much like dreams themselves, in metaphysical space. In one corner of the room, guests can type their dreams into a database and add drawings or upload photos to enhance the description. From there, stickers featuring QR codes are printed and distributed, enabling anyone with a smartphone to scan them and learn about the user's submitted dream.

While the dependence on non-physical elements makes sense given the show's subject matter, my eye craved some kind of visual stimulation in the gallery's stark white environment. The dream cocktails would have worked well in this regard. Hunching over the tablets, all of which were placed on a low table, while trying to make sense of the loose cocktail booklets prevents a truly immersive experience of the piece.  A more cohesive and accessible display could be achieved by displaying videos on large, wall-mounted TVs along with blown-up photos of the illustrations.

Over the course of the exhibition's run, Chan will return to Pittsburgh to revisit the dream submissions and create artworks based on them in the gallery. Those interested in participating can share their dreams at
HalfDream: Another Room. Continues through fall 2023. Mattress Factory. 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. Included with museum admission.