Under construction

Industry and history inform nine artists in the Soap Factory’s newest exhibition, R.U.R.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

Building debris and unearthed rocks lie exposed in a deep pit next to the Soap Factory. As construction crews finish up work on another high-end apartment complex, continuing to mask the former industry of Northeast Minneapolis, the 25-year-old art collective next door examines the past.

R.U.R., the latest group exhibition at the Soap Factory, unveils a tangled web of ecology, manufacturing and more in the 12,000 square foot gallery space of the building, first built in 1882. The title of the show stems from Karel Capek’s 1921 “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” a Czech play that coined the word “robot.” Although the nine artists aren’t trying to create artificial intelligence, they’re cognizant of the mechanical history of the Soap Factory.

Housing everything from railroad storage to jelly preserves production and finally industrial soap, the building ceased formal manufacturing in 1991, when the National Purity Soap and Chemical Company moved out.

“Earlier in the century, in the 1930s, they also produced insecticides and lots of other chemicals,” said Lillian Egner, Program Manager at the Soap Factory.

Before Grand Metropolitan passed the building to the No Name Collective in 1995, the future of the building remained uncertain.

“It was being prepped for demolition, they had removed the infrastructure, and then they passed it to the gallery,” Egner said. “And we got it for a dollar.”

Now a sculpture pays tribute to the past. Judith Hoffman’s replica of the Soap Factory hangs suspended from a beam in the building, containing symbols from its industrial past — jars of soap and railroad ties.

“The thing that interested me was what was here before the building,” Hoffman said. “Given that, what kind of history did the building contain, and how could you find ways to deal with that?”

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The Brooklyn-based artist’s prior work includes a reproduction of the Quark Art Gallery in Detroit. With local artists, she covered the life-size replica in blue paper. The piece’s urban surroundings quickly led to its disintegration, a time lapse she documented over a period of a month.

“I was out of town, and a janitor from a nearby building got so fed up with it and his city looking like trash that he came and took the sculpture off and cleaned it up,” Hoffman said. “It’s perfect.”

Montreal-based artist Isabelle Hayeur comments on industrial remnants and destruction through her series of photographs, “Underworlds.” Since 2008, she’s catalogued eerie semi-submerged shots of lakes and rivers across North America.

“The way I shoot the photos, it’s like you’re in the water. It’s almost like you’re a part of it,” Hayeur said. “I say it’s like sort of like an anxiety, like a lack of oxygen.”

Turbid images indicate the rapidly changing ecosystem she documents — polluted water or debris might obscure an ideal picturesque landscape. As a former member of Greenpeace, environmental issues form her core artistic motivations. One of the more dramatic images from “Underworlds” depicts a Navy graveyard in Staten Island, N.Y.

“It used to be the biggest landfill in North America. It’s a highly industrial area and very polluted,” Hayeur said. “It’s a kind of no man’s land.”

The inverted images show rusted ruins of buildings and ship wreckage — now at home on the walls of a building once ordered to be demolished.

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