How to Recount History?

May 2014

Monika Sosnowska on the bent truth
Untitled, 2012. © The artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
Rapt by the mélange of built references to the powerful communist past and the overzealous structures of the present, Monika Sosnowska has every intention of eking out the meaning inherent within the effective clash that exists in the built environment during the on-going massive transition Warsaw is currently experiencing. Through the fabricating and forming of distinct architectural elements at a large scale, and the subsequent contorting thereof, the artist creates works that pierce the viewer’s heart with a sensation that communicates this disjuncture and the unpleasantness it holds. DAMN° spent time with Sosnowska in her Warsaw studio, where there was much to be gleaned.
A conversation with Monika Sosnowska circles around comparisons between the former communist era and present day life in Poland's capital, Warsaw. For Sosnowska the modernist legacy is the inspiration for her large-scale sculptures and installations. The works are monumental and impressive, while also appearing to be damaged, if not melancholic, ideals in steel. In 2000, after attending art school in Poznan, Sosnowska moved to Warsaw, a city where, at the time, commercial galleries were non-existent and a career in the arts hardly seemed realistic. In the meantime, however, she has become an internationally recognised artist, having exhibited her work at New York's MoMA and represented Poland at the Venice Biennale. For some years she worked abroad, in Amsterdam and Berlin, but then realised that Warsaw was the place for her to be. After 1989, people in Poland were eager to rid themselves of the traces of the old regime. This could be seen in the rapidly changing architecture of the city, where corporate towers with shiny façades replaced modernist residential buildings from the 1960s. Twenty-five years later, the result is like a kind of wild outcrop. During the communist era, residential buildings were planned alongside shops, schools, and other services that were needed for a neighbourhood to function. Nowadays, investors just want to sell plots of land and property, without thinking further about the required infrastructure. "They are basically not interested in the development of the city", says Sosnowska, and it is precisely this development that informs her work as an artist. One could say that she observes the way certain styles of building are appreciated and how this appreciation has drastically changed with the transformation of the system. "Nowadays, Warsaw looks like a collage”, she says. It is indeed an eclectic mix of building styles and functions.
Through her work, the artist questions the changes that have taken place since 1989. Even if most people are happy that communism is over, it seems to her important that there is an awareness of what the city used to be like and to look like, and how life was organised back then. Some interesting architecture had been produced, like Supersam, the self-servic store in Warsaw awarded an architecture prize in Sao Paolo in 1963, the first building in Warsaw to have received such an accolade. But alas, in 2006 the store had to make way for another building. This happens too easily, Sosnowska's work seems to say. Other artists in Warsaw share Sosnowska's concern. In different programmes and exhibitions, one can see that the younger generation is focusing on creating some kind of collective memory and researching the communist era. It's in the digestion of the past that they find their mission and urgency, not because they want to return to old values, but because they want involvement in how the city evolves, and they think that reflection on the past is necessary for the country. "Things need to be done here", one can hear several artists saying, against the background of a population that hardly seems interested in visual arts. Slowly, the climate for artists is changing for the better. For instance, the development of the new Museum of Modern Art, still waiting for a building of its own, has had a mobilising effect, feeding the reflection on modernism in Poland. Sosnowska's sculptures are often based on architectural elements she has observed somewhere in or around a building about to disappear. Part of this is linked to her home country and its specific form of modernism, but, as a global, traveling artist, she also finds examples in modernist architecture elsewhere. Currently, she is developing a huge sculpture related to Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. She took a fragment of the façade’s sophisticated grid as a point of departure, thereby designing a steel grid that will be rolled out in the form of a tower, though not one that is erect, but one that is horizontal, lying on the floor, damaged, as though it has fallen down. During our visit to Sosnowska's studio, a model of the piece simulated the situation in the gallery where the show will take place in New York later this year. Because of its size, approximately 35-metres-long, the work will have to be delivered in pieces and can only be assembled once it's inside the exhibition space. It will probably create an echo in New York, vis à vis the twin towers trauma, but the damaged minimal art piece will also be shown in other locations. It is not only the artist’s work that defines itself; it's also the surroundings that add a historic layer, keeping the piece within a purely aesthetic realm.
Another work is Stairway (2010), based on the spiraling emergency staircase of a museum building in Israel awaiting demolition. Sosnowska developed the idea for a sculpture that looks like a heavily damaged emergency staircase that should not be used, since it is strangely bent so as not to allow a person to escape. Stairway was first constructed life-size, as a functional, actual stairway. But afterwards the object was bent in the way that Sosnowska had pictured it. Only then does architecture turn into sculpture. The feeling of being trapped that comes with Stairway is an essential aspect that recurs in other spatial, labyrinthine works by the artist, works that lead the visitor into claustrophobic or 'impossible' situations, such as Corridor (2011), which is too small to enter, and Untitled (2002), made for Manifesta in Frankfurt, which is formed of a grid of nine identical, connected rooms that, once inside, induce the feeling of being enclosed in a bureaucratic labyrinth.
One can hardly think of a city more appropriate for Sosnowska's interests than Warsaw, with all of its historic layers and contradictions. A specific city-related work is Untitled (2012), consisting of contorted vendor stands. Here the inspiration came from market stalls in the former Decades stadium, where the largest bazaar in Europe used to take place, the so-called Jarmark Europa, where you could buy fake Nikes, second hand phones, and every other possible thing. The stadium had to make room for a new structure for the UEFA European Football Championship in 2012, propelling another questionable case of renewal, since the new stadium is not a very special building and the popular market had to disappear and be partially relocated. In Sosnowska's version, the market stalls have become abstract bent objects, without a clear function, serving, for the receptive viewer, to transport a history.
A lot of Sosnowska's works revolve around ideals of modernism. One could see them as broken or affected memories, pieces of architecture that have somehow lost value over the course of history. The artist charges the material with new values by paradoxically stressing the fact that they are lost and worthless, by damaging them and exaggerating their loss of function. Her concern is the city and its appearance, and the life that takes place between buildings and that is formed by the city. Viewing the sculptures, one ends up thinking about systems and the everyday aesthetics that define a society, about the kind of beauty desired by a society and then suddenly rejected by it, and about ideology and values that are implicit in façades and buildings through the choice of materials and attention to detail. Buildings shape a city, and in doing so, also define a mental space. ‹
Tower block in Warsaw © Monika Sosnowska
Vendor stands in Warsaw © Monika Sosnowska
Supersam fa çade during demolition © Monika Sosnowska
Stairway , 2010. Metal, PVC handrail 565 x 250 cm Photo: Jens Ziehe © The artist; courtesy of Capitain Petzel, Berlin.
Polish Pavilion La Biennale di Venezia, 52nd edition © The artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
This article appeared in DAM44. Order your personal copy.