ISSUE 26  News & opinion |  November 2001 | updated 2/3/03   

  Design : Pittsburgh

Last Friday five students & I drove to Pittsburgh for a terrific workshop sponsored by the AIGA chapter there. Called Experience Design : Design Experience, it was just about everything you could hope for: fun, interesting, enjoyable, and a good learning experience.

Among the highlights: the renovated buildings where events took place (The Icehouse and the Terminal Building); Friday night's performance by Squonk Opera; and Saturday's participatory free-for-all with game designers, web designers, sonic architects, researchers, and students.

One of our favorites was Ze Frank, whose website is our Pick of the Month. Ze is not only tremendously creative and talented, but gracious and approachable — making him an inspiration for students.

Thanks to the Pittsburgh AIGA for presenting such a well-planned and organized event. This alone would have made the trip worthwhile. But a more profound experience followed...

Without Sanctuary
After the Saturday morning workshop we drove to the Andy Warhol Museum, known for its permanent collection of Warhol's familiar Pop Art paintings & prints. This fall it also features a special exhibition that is breathtaking in more ways than one.

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America is nearly too horrible to look at. As I walked around the gallery looking at photographs of bodies — most of them African American — hanging from trees, sometimes burning on piles of wood, I could barely comprehend what was before my eyes. I felt horror — there is no other word for it — from seeing twisted and mutilated bodies, often in twos and threes, dangling from ropes. I still can hardly believe the images that show crowds gathered around to view the lynchings, crowds of white people that appear to be in good humor, dressed for a social event, occasionally including young boys and girls.

On September 11th, terror from a foreign land visited America. The Warhol's Without Sanctuary shows terror that lived among us not all that long ago. Most photos are dated 1890s-1920s, yet the most recent was from 1960. As on September 11th, I could hardly stand to look at the images, yet I couldn't walk away. I had to see so that perhaps I could begin to understand.

The museum tries to help us understand by displaying articles from newspapers of the period, some quite matter of fact, others expressing outrage at the lynch mobs. Next to the gallery is a study room where visitors can research the history of the events.

Different ways of interacting with this history are found in another small gallery. You can sit down in a booth and videotape three minutes of your comments. The resulting videos are shown on a nearby monitor faced by two chairs. I sat down to watch and saw a middle-aged African American man describing how the exhibit stirred his memories of nearly being lynched by a mob in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was 11 — because he had hit a white girl with a paddle. The photos in the gallery didn't seem quite so remote.

Finally, there's a group of chairs in front of a large wall display about Billie Holliday's song Strange Fruit. You put on headphones and listen:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
and the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
for the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Only when it ends do you remember to breathe.

Without Sanctuary runs until December 31, 2001. Please see it.

For mounting this show, the Warhol, one of the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, gets my vote as the most courageous museum in the country. With the uneasy racial truce that exists in many American cities (remember the Rodney King riots in L.A.? the Over-the-Rhine violence in Cincinnati?) there must have been concerns in Pittsburgh about the reactions such a show might stir up. Sponsors and funders run from potential controversy like this as fast as they can.

Despite this, the museum chose to fulfill its mission to be:

a vital forum in which diverse audiences of artists, scholars and the general public are galvanized through creative interaction with the art and life of Andy Warhol...using its unique collections and dynamic, interactive programming as tools.

It succeeds admirably.

Looking at sound
The Mattress Factory, yet another renovated industrial building, is a museum that commissions and displays site-specific installations. If your experience with this type of art is like mine, you may not be enthused. Much installation art seems to be deliberately obscure and often frustrating.

Not so with the current Visual Sound installations at The Mattress Factory. Four floors are filled with large-scale installations that you both see and hear. My favorites: the colorful and threatening Beautiful Violence by Qin Yufen; the industrial elegance of Scanner by Hans Peter Kuhn; and the grotto-like Wall Blue / Wall Red by Christina Kubisch.

See and hear samples from Visual Sound at the Mattress Factory's excellent website. The show runs through December 30, 2001

-Al Wasco, November 12, 2001

Notes & student reactions to the Pittsburgh trip
(temporarily unavailable)

At Ze Frank's website you can learn how to
Stir the Pot,
of Love





Return to TOP




Best known for his Pop Art images, Andy Warhol also created prints showing harsh realities:
car accidents,
race riots,
the electric chair.

Without Sanctuary is not at all out of place in the Warhol Museum.




Return to TOP










Return to TOP