Wall of chairs at the entrance of the exhibition, photo by Kanney Wong.

Looking at Chairs Can Be Meditative

College is overwhelming. That’s an overused statement. But it is an overused statement because the feeling is true. Transitioning from a kid into a young adult, pleasing your professors, but trying to maintain a social life? It can feel as if your head is constantly up in the air.

My remedy for this phenomenon: visiting museums. Particularly the Carnegie Museum of Art on 4400 Forbes Avenue. The museum is nestled right in the middle of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and welcomes you right in with a grand open entrance. Walking amongst pieces of work grounds me because I only have to focus on two things—myself and the thoughts that arise when I look at the pieces. However, when I speak to my friends about this meditative activity, the majority of them are turned off by the sheer thought of going to a museum. They presume that it will be a bore or that they just don’t have the capacity for deciphering a canvas painted abstractly. 

I think what makes art museums daunting is how it allots you space to be alone in your thoughts. “How Looking at Art Can Help Your Brain” written by the University of Arizona staff reports that “each time you look at a piece of art, your brain is working to make sense of the visual information it’s receiving. From highly lifelike portraits to abstract collections of rectangles, looking at art stimulates the brain and puts our innate knack for organizing patterns and making sense of shapes to use.” (University of Arizona). Perhaps, the mind’s process of interpreting a piece of art contradicts with the million other responsibilities and deadlines running through people’s heads. This can be daunting. How do you make sense of an abstract canvas when you are also trying not to think of the eight page paper you have been putting off? I suggest looking towards a specific exhibit.

If you make your way to the end of the main art galleries, you can see a bonus one through the glass of the exit door. It is the exhibition in Bruce Galleries titled Extraordinary Ordinary Things. Walk across the marble stairs and into the exhibition. You are greeted with the smell of wood and a wall of chairs to your right. It is both fascinating and familiar. Extraordinary and ordinary. 

Photo by Kanney Wong.

The exhibit consists of more than 300 objects “spanning some of the most significant design developments of the past three centuries, the works on view offer boundless inspiration and endless possibilities for functional design for visitors to learn about, consider, and enjoy,” According to the Carnegie Museum of Art website.

If you make your way deeper into the room, objects you would find at your home are displayed like at a much-more-organized antique store. They range from a simple stool to extravagantly designed glass lamps. There is also a chronology to the exhibit as it shows the development of carpentry and design over the years. The museum website explains that “many people’s relationships to their homes and the objects within them take on increased relevance and deeper meaning, this timely and dynamic exhibition showcases all facets of material and product design.” (Carnegie Museum of Art). 

When I revisited the exhibition to refresh my memory, I found this statement to be true. I happened to go during what seemed like a school’s “bring a parent to the art museum” day. There were more people than usual, and middle schoolers paired with a parent roamed the halls.

In the Extraordinary Ordinary Things exhibit, I observed something especially interesting. Visitors were spending more time investigating each piece. They would spend long moments at the displays, discussing and chuckling under their breath with each other.

Research from Art Critique shows that “the average person spends just over 27 seconds looking at a great work of art.” Only 27 seconds is still longer than what I have heard of typically 10 seconds. That day, people were mesmerized or having full on conversations about the work in front of them.I was fascinated with seeing how intrigued people were with these ordinary objects. 

Photo by Kanney Wong.

The wall of chairs is not some random collection of a 3-D shape we consider sittable. It is a curated attention grabber for visitors. It asks us to consider, what constitutes a chair? How do we know it is a chair? How were these chairs crafted? These questions that come up challenge our assumptions and allow us to understand how we perceive day to day life. Now what if we replaced the word “chair” with “art”? What constitutes art? How do we know it is art? How was this art crafted? It is the same concept, but with a more abstract medium.

I believe that the Extraordinary Ordinary Things is a space that allows people who may be initially turned off by art museums to warm up to the idea. Utilizing familiar objects, that also require skilled artistry, people can more readily see their reflection in the piece. Something that can calm the mind on any given day. From an avid museum goer to you, I highly recommend utilizing the free pass into the Carnegie Museum of Art (or any Pittsburgh museum) and experience the exhibit yourself. Just remember the museum does not open on Tuesday. 

The exhibition is curated by Rachel Delphia, Alan G. and Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, Jane A. Lehman alongside Alyssa Velazquez the Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts and Design at the museum. More information can be found here.