Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 7, 2008

Venue Vetting: The Pipe Building

The post-industrial Pipe Building, in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, ain’t no MoMA – which is, perhaps, why it’s perfect for Gravity of Light.


Mark Burgess and Drew Pavelchak are affixing Homasote to the walls inside the Pipe Building, part of the Gage Building complex, in the Strip District. Employees of the Wood Street Galleries in Downtown Pittsburgh, these two are familiar with their current process: Building a gallery setting in which to display the upcoming Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts’ North American debut exhibition of Gravity of Light, featuring works by famed New York City artists Douglas and Michael Starn. The venue, however, seems more “brownfield” than “high art” – even my directions (“Right next to [shuttered gentleman’s club] Bare Elegance – park in the alley”) were more mid-‘90s rave party than MoMA.

Once inside, that high-art-in-low-places contrast becomes strikingly clear: Cracked floors, a rusting and inexplicable pot-bellied stove, light beaming dustily through unkempt windows. It’s a contrast that Wood Street Galleries (and Gravity of Light) curator Murray Horne revels in. “The building’s a real contrast to the artwork,” says Horne, “but that’s what sets up this sense of mystery and adventure – the anticipation of what’s going to come!”

Built in 1907, the Pipe Building was – essentially – a warehouse for pipes and other scrap-like Gage Co. products. Through the center of the room run railroad tracks: large hooked cranes, still visible to some extent, would then lift the products into the railroad cars brought straight into the building. A gritty, steel-and-cement psyched to complement a show that Horne says will surely be, “a major event for Pittsburgh. This will be once that you see something like this.”

It’s the kind of place that we Pittsburghers have grown used to as limited-use artistic and performance venues, particularly over the past decade, from large-scale brown-field reuse events such as Flux and Hothouse. It’s also a place that Mark Burgess knows well, in one of those psychogeographical “six degrees of separation” moments so common to our fair city.

“When Murray explained the building to me – the wood, the cranes, the tracks,” says Burgess, “I thought, ‘oh yeah, I know that place.’ I actually helped clean this building out [when Gage left], about 10 years ago!”

Mark Burgess

Mark Burgess

Looking at the Starn brothers’ Gravity of Light work, one can’t help but feel that the Pipe Building–and its post-industrial gravitational pull–is the work’s perfect setting. Against one wall, Burgess points out, will be a 22-foot-tall portrait of Ganjin, the 8th-century Zen monk, softly looking down upon his cracked and muddled purview. Against another, portraits of the moths that inhabit that world–light-loving lepidopterans, not that unlike their Starn-attracted viewers.

And providing the only light, the Starns’ single, self-invented and unique carbon-arc lamp–a massive sculptural structure in and of itself, standing at least two-men tall, and emitting thousands of watts of, as Horne puts it, “the purest white light you’ve ever seen.”

If the Starns’ work is, to some degree, about, “the coincidences and convergences of fact and metaphor in the gravity of light,” as their website describes, then the Pipe Building is its perfect Pittsburgh setting. A space at once physically empty and psychologically filled with the ghosts of our industrial past; a space whose very floors and ceilings are built for a purpose they no longer serve. This is space constructed of historical convergence, and repurposed by equally experienced hands–as if art were no more or less important than the storage and dissemination of the manifold pieces from which our world is assembled.



  1. […] the far wall of the Strip District’s beautifully decrepit Pipe Building, Ganjin stands, as it seems he always has. Twenty-two feet tall, the iconic photo-sculpture might […]

  2. I visited the first time on Thursday, Oct.16th arriving at noon & staying until 2

    I climbed in cautiously
    entered the arc ness

    blind feet
    found the first corner

    walked across wooden bricks
    through the sand
    the pasture
    the barn

    the hook

    the chains

    a pearl

  3. […] seeing Doug and Mike Starn’s Gravity of Light, in its debut American exhibition at the Pipe Building in the Strip District through Oct. 30, I’ve noticed a change in my own sensitivity to light. […]

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