Dark basement or newfound conscious awareness?

Photo by Tom Little | Courtesy of The Mattress Factory | Earlier this month, motion-activated lampshades in the lobby level of the Mattress Factory triggered patterns of light in the basement below.

Kaitlyn Hughes | Staff Writer

The dark basement of the Mattress Factory filled with a musty scent, flickering light, creaking floorboards and eerie moaning that came from the lower level.

Located in the North Side of Pittsburgh, the contemporary art museum has been hosting Shohei Katayama’s art exhibition, “As Below, So Above.”

According to the short hermetic text on which installation is based, the saying expresses the interconnectedness between the different planes of existence: the larger universe and the self.

Through different sensory inputs, his goal was to create awareness around the impacts of our actions as our society increasingly becomes desensitized to the importance of community.

“By unveiling the consequences of these systems and their role in shaping our world, I aspire to impart a sense of gestalt — an understanding that the world is an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts and, in fact, is dependent on all of those parts,” Katayama said in his artist statement with the Mattress Factory.

To embody this connection, the exhibit was created using two levels of the museum. Floorboards were removed from the lobby and replaced with transparent panels creating patches of light in the basement below, where shadows would appear as museumgoers crossed the glass boards. Coupled with the sounds of footsteps from above to create a disturbing feeling.

“People don’t notice the slats on the floor until they are down there, and they have a new appreciation of [the upper level] when they come back up,” said visitor experience coordinator Wilma Daughters.

To add to the uneasiness, a spinning orb was placed in the back of the exhibit hidden by the darkness. At first, the only sign of the orb was the moaning coming from it as it spun counter-clockwise. The irregular shape was not revealed until attendees were standing only a few feet away.

According to Katayama, the orb was a last minute addition. His father was diagnosed with terminal cancer during his residency which drove his inspiration.

“I was imagining the museum as a human body and there is like this constant growth that’s unseen to the eye lurking in the basement,” Katayama told The Duke. “Cancer for me was the vanishing point or unknown territory in life, but we always have to confront those unknown entities to have transformative experiences.”

The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum that enjoys including pieces that are unusual or off putting. There are three main ways the museum brings in artists: through the international open call, the regional open call and by invitation. In the case of Katayama, the director of exhibitions invited him to be an artist in residence. They knew Katayama’s artwork would fit into the uncanny theme the museum upholds.

Katayama’s piece shares aspects of other artwork in the museum including “610-3356” by Sarah Oppenheimer which includes a hole through the fourth floor. It also contrasts artwork such as “Infinity Dots Mirrored Room” by Yayoi Kusama. Both Kusama and Katayama’s pieces are challenges of perception, but “As Below, So Above” encompasses a darker and scarier theme.

Katayama’s installation diverts itself from other pieces in the Mattress Factory because of the unavoidable level of involvement with the museum’s structure.

Manager Joe Praksti explained that Katayama was entangled in the process of creating the exhibit, spending entire weekends dedicating his time to constructing the space.

“In the time I have been here I haven’t seen anybody really put in that much effort by themselves,” Praksti said.

The oddities of Katayama’s exhibit left staff and museumgoers with a variety of emotions and thoughts, and the realization that not everything is always as it seems.

AJ Malkiewicz, Thom Harr and Milo Harr were not aware of the piece prior to coming to the museum. While looking through the exhibit, Harr was focused on the glass revealing the lobby above until his son pointed out the orb located in the back of the exhibit.

“Something’s form might show itself to you over time,” Malkiewicz said, “you’re not going to assess it right up front, but it will reveal itself in time.”

The atmosphere created by the installation leaves people feeling strange, yet curious. Praksti described the installation as “ominous” and “compelling.” He said that during the artist walk-through, Katayama explained he wanted people to be drawn to the piece, but also be hesitant due to the uneasy feeling that was created.

“There is more than meets the eye,” Praksti said. “The more you focus on something the more obscure it actually becomes.”