The Museum Collects Itself 2023

Lenka Clayton & Phillip Andrew Lewis
Monterey Annex 2023
All trash generated by the general operations of the Mattress Factory Museum during the exhibition period

Clayton and Lewis continue their ongoing exploration of archaeology in The Museum Collects Itself which focuses on the perceived antiseptic space of the museum...


Clayton and Lewis continue their ongoing exploration of archaeology in The Museum Collects Itself, which focuses on the perceived antiseptic space of the museum, one seemingly free of dust or garbage. For the 10-months of their exhibition, Clayton and Lewis reveal the white cube’s lack of pristine, by diverting the museum’s waste stream to the Monterey Annex first floor. The gallery begins empty, and as trash is accumulated, it is brought into the space. 91 trash and recycling bins are collected daily from the administrative and museum spaces of the Mattress Factory. All but biohazard and food waste will accrete in Clayton and Lewis’s exhibition to be sorted by the entire staff of the museum from the director to the docents, creating what the artists refer to as “an ever-evolving accumulation, forming piles into dunes, dunes into hills, slowly filling the space.”

By collecting 10-months of trash they make cultural waste evident, while aestheticizing the discarded in an installation – sorting, baling, and piling into the gallery, as visitors traverse the material via diminishing pathways. This conjures Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Dust Breeding (1920), in which the dust gathered on Duchamp’s “Large Glass” was photographed by Man Ray in a bird’s eye view. It is accumulation made visible, a nod to the Readymade, and an imaginary map of a forgotten city. After dust breeds and garbage piles up, Clayton and Lewis’s gallery ends as it started: empty. Perhaps we will be left with a deeper understanding of what happens behind the scenes or will imagine hovering above the installation to see the topography of the Mattress Factory’s waste, a place “under the last dust.”

-Denise Markonish

Artist Statement

For the duration of the exhibition, the trash generated by the normal operations of the Mattress Factory Museum will be redirected – stored, catalogued and displayed within the Monterey Annex Gallery – instead of being thrown away. The gallery will begin as an empty white space and will slowly fill up with the discarded materials of all aspects of institutional activities, including production waste from art installations, administrative office debris, deinstalled artworks, Kusama booty-covers, Turrell light bulbs, kids workshop debris (glitter), museum visitor detritus, obsolete office technology, staff memos, and other things.  

The Museum Collects Itself temporarily imposes a new system onto the Mattress Factory Museum that disrupts its usual behavior in order to bring into sight a flow of matter that has always been there but is only usually visible to one person, Ray Zarzeczny, Facilities Director and the museum’s longest serving staff member. This redirected system creates an accumulating portrait of the institution, a seemingly random and complex collection of the debris of its own varied labors. While the modern study of history is more usually organized along straight chronological lines, this work presents a more organic one, or something more akin to visiting an archeological dig, a junk yard, or a hoarder’s collection. Like a sand timer, this work will build and materially shift over time as single discarded materials become piles, that become drifts of garbage, sculpted by gravity through which museum visitors can walk. 

The Mattress Factory is an experimental museum, a renowned producer/presenter of site-specific installation art, and an ideal collaborator for this project. Spending time observing the museum’s behind the scenes administration, as well as the construction process of several installations and de-installations, we imagined a way to give form and attention to the mostly unseen part of the institution. Within this instructional artwork all of the museum staff are participants working in daily shifts to catalogue the contents that become the visible part of our installation as The Museum Collects Itself. 

The philosopher Walter Benjamin coined the term “irresistible decay” to describe ruin’s demand for narrative. Perhaps discarded objects of the recent past have more to say about our affective relationships to things and life than any preconceived and collected historical documents. In general, trash is awarded its status and meant to never be seen again. This work presents matter designated as “not useful”, “no longer needed”, or even “not art”, within the rarified frame of the museum galleries in order to reconsider the creative process and the institutional lens.

“I want to probe how waste comes to be resonant with significance, where a cigarette end on the street can conjure thoughts of lips and lungs and the precarious employment contracts of road-sweepers, the fabled powers of the PR industry, your schoolyard smoking spot and the late-night pleasures of other events, fantasies, memories, in ways that a yet-to-be smoked cigarette cannot.”  -William Viney, philosopher/writer

About the Artist

Lenka Clayton (b. 1977 Derbyshire, UK) and Phillip Andrew Lewis (b. 1973 Memphis, Tennessee) have solo and collaborative practices and have been working together since they met at Headlands Center for the Arts in 2017. The couple live and work in Pittsburgh, PA. Their collaborative projects include an ongoing video-based call and response conversation between one rock and one stone, a public gallery that is always closed, an 8ft long bronze plaque marking the history of their studio building over the last 600 million years, and most recently, the construction of a full-scale working lighthouse, encapsulated inside a dilapidated rowhouse.

Their solo and collaborative work has been supported by Creative Capital, Headlands Center for the Arts, Center for Creative Photography, Foundation for Contemporary Art in New York, Black Cube, Reach Projects, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, The Heinz Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Warhol Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Rothschild Foundation and Art Matters. Recent exhibitions include The Guggenheim Museum, The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, MU Eindhoven, The Broad Museum in Michigan, LifeSpace Gallery in Dundee, and The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Clayton’s work is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery.