sometimes.we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies, a recent installation at the Mattress Factory by Pittsburgh artist, poet and activist Vanessa German, opens to the viewer like a flower or a gift. It reveals itself layer by layer, step by step, room by room, building incrementally to a glory that’s almost too much to take. The journey through it is visceral, mighty and moving. While speaking of detachment, it connects fully and purely.
The detachment the work confronts is the kind that is self-imposed and necessary to preserve one’s own sanity; it is so one does not fall apart in the face of all that is inconceivable and unbearable and right in front of us more and more in the world today. It might be this word here, and that word there, but it translates across the board to hate, or at least the absence of love.
The experience begins on the cement outside of the Factory’s converted row house, with windows filled top to bottom with text that speaks to our blood as much as our thoughts. Once inside, we are first in a front room filled with disembodied heads, placed higher than our own. Painted a flat, plaster-like white, they support the weight of other things — branches, birds, porcelain figurines of either posh Europeans meant for the parlor or exaggerated Africans kept in the kitchen. Still but sentient, these heads aren’t mounted on the wall like trophies, the spoils of war against nature, but rest quietly on platforms, dormant, waiting.
Venturing a room further, we see what is to come. In procession are the bodies, screaming with color, jubilance, shine and light. Bedecked with bright, vibrant fabrics, sequins, mirrors, pearls, beads, gold and jewels, they stand, ready for when it’s time again for joy, promising that there will be time again of joy. Because although it is too much right this minute; and the thought of everything is too much right this minute; and for their own protection, the extraordinary measures of putting their heads, with their brains inside them away, is essential right this minute — this minute is surely going to pass.
The figures German sets up here are familiar to those with even the most cursory experience with the local art community, but well worth revisiting in this installation. And while German’s creations have traveled to thrill viewers over the world, she is still home here, which improves this region a thousandfold more than an Amazon HQ ever could. As artist and activist German frequently addresses hate, but she never lets us forget hope.