Sue Scott Gallery

"Neighbo(u)rhood" Explores Identity in a Pittsburgh Way

Kurt Shaw
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 2011

It's fitting that an exhibit such as the Mattress Factory's latest effort "Neighbo(u)rhood" be presented in Pittsburgh. And especially at the Mattress Factory itself, a museum that germinated in a North Side neighborhood nearly 35 years ago and has since grown to become an internationally recognized incubator of installation art.

After all, Pittsburgh, with its long-standing ethnic neighborhoods, spawned Mister Rogers' "Won't you be my neighbor?" moniker. And the friendly legacy of neighbor helping neighbor has led to Pittsburgh being dubbed "America's Most Livable City" more than once by Places Rated Almanac.

So it is that many of the pieces in "Neighbo(u)rhood" focus on Pittsburgh. That's saying a lot because only two of the eight artists represented in the exhibit are from here. The rest are from such far-flung places as Ireland, England and Turkey.

Even the curator of this exhibit is from another country. "Neighbo(u)rhood" is the second and final exhibit Georgina Jackson of Dublin, Ireland, has produced during her two-year curatorial residency with the museum.

Jackson says that today in Pittsburgh, it is common for people to define their home not by city limits, but by neighborhood boundaries.

"When I first came to Pittsburgh I was amazed by how much people seemed to identify with their neighborhoods, as opposed to (the focus being on) community or Pittsburgh," she says. "It's neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods. And that struck me as something quite different to where I came from."

In this way, Jackson says, this idea of neighborhood not only informs a sense of belonging, but an identity beyond that of any cultural, ethnic or religious associations. The pieces in this exhibit aren't so much about personal identity as they are about what is common among people, especially in association with their specific neighborhoods.

Take, for example, the video piece "Lost Tribes and Promised Lands" by Elizabeth Subrin of New York City.

In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, Subrin took a battered 16mm Bolex camera out into her neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shooting houses and storefronts that had become suddenly and compulsively festooned with American flags and other patriotic paraphernalia.

Nearly a decade later, with the same camera, on the same date and at the same approximate hour of the day, she attempted to retrace her own steps. She combined the two reels into a double-screen loop, allowing for a visual comparison between then and now.

The resultant compilation expresses a longing to go backward, to hold on to the past as a way of making sense of (or perhaps to stop) the ongoing flow of time. But there is a difference: some buildings remain largely the same, many have changed only superficially, while others have completely disappeared in a decade of aggressive gentrification.

It's interesting to note that many of the buildings Subrin shot in Brooklyn look very much like places here in Pittsburgh, making the piece all the more poignant and speaking to the sense of community we all share, especially post 9/11.

Artist Diane Samuels knows well that communities can be both local and global at the same time. Samuels is co-founder of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, an organization that provides sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of death, imprisonment or persecution in their native countries, and is also a neighbor of the Mattress Factory, having lived on Sampsonia Way since 1980.

Central to her practice is an investigation of the details or remnants of human presence within place, particularly in context of history and how memories -- as personal, artistic and social artifacts -- are made, evolve and are consumed.

Her installation "Five neighbors, Five countries" uses the voices and experiences of the area's residents to create a visual recollection of the artist's neighborhood.

On handmade paper, Samuels has written out the constitutions of the five native countries — Burma, El Salvador, Guatemala, China and the U.S. — of her five neighbors. The paper they are written on also was made in their respective countries. They are housed under glass. Etched on the glass are writings from five authors: Khet Mar, Henry Reese, Silvia Duarte, Horacio Castellanos Moya and Huang Xiang. Since the show opened, Samuels has been etching visitor's comments about the piece onto the glass. In this way, reading them, along with the constitutions, pulls the visitor into a global dialogue that is locally based. An audio poem — "Sky" by Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe — accompanies the piece. The poem reflects on how we all live under one sky.

The remaining works are just as engaging. John Smith of London immerses the visitor in a fascinating narrative with "The Girl Chewing Gum," a film in which a commanding voiceover appears to direct the action in a busy London street during the 1970s.

In similar fashion, Sarah Pierce of Dublin, Ireland, directs visitors by way of a labyrinth into a collection of various quotes from student protests associated with the Black Action Society at the University of Pittsburgh that date back to 1959 to 1969.

And Seamus Nolan, also of Dublin, makes Pittsburgh, especially the Mexican War Streets around the museum, available to the world via a listing on Zillow.com of a rowhouse located at 310-12 Sampsonia Way that is not only for sale, but has been altered inside almost entirely by the artist. For a sneak peek of his piece "310-312 Sampsonia Way, For Sale by Owner, Great Opportunity" just enter the address on Zillow.com, and voila, you are already viewing part of this amazing exhibit.
Kurt Shaw can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com or .

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