Deutschtown photography exhibit memorializes Pittsburgh’s steel industry
In the early 1980s, German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher photographed several of the blast furnaces inside Pittsburgh-area steel mills for their book “Blast Furnaces” (MIT Press Massachusetts, 1990).
They described the blast furnace “like a body without skin. Its insides are visible from the outside; organs, arteries and skeleton create its form.”
New Zealand artist Fiona Amundsen took part of the Bechers’ description as the title for her latest solo exhibit, “Like a Body Without Skin.”
It’s on display at Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center, housed in the former First Immanuel Evangelical Church in Deutschtown on the North Side.
Amundsen was invited by Neu Kirche executive director Lee Parker, who lived in New Zealand for 20 years and was quite involved in the art scene there.
Parker asked Amundsen to come here in the fall to spend two months as the center’s first artist in residence. In actuality, Amundsen had started her research process for this specific project nearly two years ago.
“I was lucky enough in the sense that Lee Parker really supported me before I even left New Zealand in terms of ‘feeding’ me information about Pittsburgh,” she says.
“Lee knows my practice and, therefore, knew the things I might be interested in; however, it was up to me to develop visual strategies in terms of what kind of project I would make while in Pittsburgh,” Amundsen says. “This involved extensive research, critical thinking and reflecting on links and information that Lee was sending my way.”
Amundsen’s art practice focused on historical traumas, as well as how they are memorialized. So, one of the first things Parker did when Amundsen came to town was take her to Carrie Furnace, a derelict former blast furnace located along the Monongahela River in Rankin.
“I took her to the Carrie Furnace to indoctrinate her to the Pittsburgh scene,” Parker says. “She was very interested in the Carrie Furnace as a place that, during World War II, created munitions.”
“I knew that Pittsburgh had been a major producer of steel, and I was also aware of how important this had been in terms of America’s World War II victory,” Amundsen says.
She was interested in how the steel industries were “essentially mobilized into a kind of nationalistic effort of capitalist production. … How steel had produced everything from helmets to bombs during the war.”
“For this project, I was interested in finding a way to think about war, production and memorial,” Amundsen says. “Carrie Furnace provided the perfect site to test out this thinking visually.”
The first thing visitors will notice in the exhibit are five large photographs of blast furnaces at Carrie Furnace, displayed next to each another on one of the gallery’s walls.
“I was fascinated with how Carrie Furnace could be thought of as a kind of unofficial memorial to America’s industrial past,” Amundsen says. “I found the brutality of the furnace’s architecture, all rusted and decrepit, became a potentially strong way to speak to the horrors of warfare, both past and present. I kept thinking what it would mean culturally to think of Carrie Furnace as a memorial. … In other words, what is it that would be memorialized? Industrial capitalism? Ideology? Labor?”
For this exhibit, Amundsen created the two-channel video piece “To Each Other.” It plays on two monitors adjacent to the photographs and features more photographs Amundsen took at Carrie Furnace with quotes from a Japanese woman named Kayoko Ebina, a survivor of the Tokyo air raids of World War II.
“I met and interviewed her in October 2014 on a research trip to Tokyo,” Amundsen says. “The Centre for the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage helped put me in touch with her, as well as a Japanese friend who is staunchly anti-war.”
As evidenced from the audio portion of Amundsen’s video, Ebina is active in terms of remembering and reflecting on the effects of warfare, in particular the American B-29 fire bombings of Tokyo where 100,000 civilians were killed in one raid.
In Japanese, Ebina describes the effects of the 1945 incendiary bombing of Tokyo, where civilians were reduced to “bodies without skin” because of the intensity of fire produced from the steel-clad cluster munitions.
“It’s interesting to note that there is no official memorial for the Tokyo air raids — for me this raises the question of who gets the right to remember,” Amundsen says.
While this exhibit addresses the relationships between steel-manufacturing industries and their mobilization during World War II, the focus here concerns how the remnants of these industries might operate as a form of memorial to the past.
Given Pittsburgh’s steelmaking history, this makes for an altogether reflective experience, making this exhibit a perfect fit for an art center housed in a former church.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at [email protected].