Suppose a group of people decided to "occupy" a patch of Downtown real estate. Each is concerned with a different social issue, but they band together. They build signs and structures, many of them clever, to broadcast their outrage. They interact freely with the public, and vice versa, and they encourage this interaction. Their message is fierce, but also open-ended. Are they artists? Are they activists? Or are they a little of both?
You would be excused for confusing Extraction, an exhibit at SPACE Gallery, with Occupy Pittsburgh. Better yet, you'd be savvy to associate the two. Extraction is an interactive group show, but don't let the gimmicks distract you. This is an exhibit about serious problems in modern American life, from sprawl and alienation to 9/11 and unbridled capitalism.
SPACE specializes in large-scale installations, and guest curator Jill Larson ably situates these creations, giving each the room it requires. One particularly ambitious project is "The Universe Hangs in the Balance," a group of resin blocks that hang from the ceiling. Each board is colorful and tiered, like a three-dimensional chessboard. An army of action figures stands at attention on each block, as if ready for battle. Artist Matthew Paul Isaacson uses the tiny, abstract soldiers to satirize our understanding of armed conflict.
"Who will win, Good or Evil?" Isaacson says in his artist's statement. "Is there such a thing in War …"
Like the Occupy protesters, each artist expresses anxiety in a different way. Some exhibits are technical, in the tinkered way of many Carnegie Mellon University art projects. All are relatively high-concept. But each piece is also sharp and accessible. These messages are as easy to read as an activist's sign. There is nothing ambiguous here, nothing "arty" about this art. The 17 artists or teams are drawn to different predicaments, and they use a variety of media, but their purposes are transparent.
"Death By a Thousand Cuts," by Karen Rich Beall, is one example of a clear, provocative agenda. The sculpture is an ovular dome, about the size of a basketball. Originally, the dome was covered in tiny "trees," represented by green blobs on metal threads; the trees look like jelly beans with wiry tails. Visitors are encouraged to remove the trees from the dome, one by one, until the entire sculpture is deforested. The effect is powerful: The forest is replaced by gray grids, signifying roads and urban development. The trees lie dead at the bottom of the balding hill.
Beall's sculpture asks a silent question: Why don't visitors place the trees back on the hill? Nothing prevents them from doing so. A patron could replant the trees all day, until the sculpture is once more a dense forest. But the plaque instructs visitors only to remove trees, never to replace them. We are only following orders. And ever since September, when the exhibit opened, the woods have dwindled to a weary copse.
One of the smartest exhibits is "The Gold Standard, or Cash for Gold." Originally, the sculpture was a pile of "gold" bars, stacked evenly on a pallet. Artists Tommy Bones and Thommy Conroy sculpted each piece to look like an actual gold brick, albeit much smaller than those found in Fort Knox. Visitors are invited to "buy" a brick by placing $5 in a donation box. They can walk away with their souvenir without a second thought.
Like Beall, Conroy and Bones offer an unasked question: What prevents you from just taking a brick? Why is the brick "worth" five dollars? If five, why not a thousand? What, after all, is money, and why do we so casually obey an arbitrary exchange rate? Again, we are following instructions, just as we're asked. By listening to the artists, we're proving their unwritten point.
One artist, it seems, intends no irony, and although "Access Restricted" is more straightforward than most, it packs a visceral punch. Gail Heidel pieced together a tall tapestry of ceramic chain links, which are fastened together by plastic ties. Hanging over a makeshift doorway, the chains originally formed a barrier for anyone who tried to pass. But the project has changed over time. Using a small set of shears, patrons have snipped the ties, releasing one link at a time. The broken chains have formed a rust-colored pile on SPACE's floor. Heidel has invited us to protest. We have nothing to loosen but her chains.
EXTRACTION continues through Nov. 20. SPACE Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723 or spacepittsburgh.org.