Upon entering what once served as the cooling tower of the former brewery, the visitor encounters a black, hulking shape suspended at the ceiling, much like a snake slithering from wall to wall, its head coiled around a steel bar at the top. Stairs (2016-17), a massive deconstructed staircase that weights nearly one tonne and stands 14 metres high, cutting across all floors, is the first commission for Muzeum Susch prepared by artist Monika Sosnowska.
Having received her master’s degree in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań in 1998, Sosnowska – whose practice straddles the line between sculpture and architecture – was quick to abandon working with canvas. Developing a distance to two-dimensional image while studying under professor Jarosław Kozłowski, one of the champions of conceptual art in Poland, she pursued this approach as a post-graduate student at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam where she graduated in 2000.
“When I prepare a project I always ask myself how much I have to say to be understandable, but not to create any narratives. I have been testing the communication between myself and others. My works became more minimal, at least in my consciousness. I thought that less information leaves more place for the imagination.
I was never interested in dividing art between male and female. I never wanted to express my sex through my works and I think that by looking at my art it’s hard to say which sex I am. But it is true that women’s artistic practice was rare in modernism.”
For over 15 years Sosnowska has been exploring what, essentially, is an Eastern-European strain of architectural modernism in works that either allude to, or sample directly from existing structures. Her position, however, is devoid of nostalgia. Instead, she is drawn to flaws, glitches, and deficiencies and deploys those to question the fundamental tenets of modernism such as function, stability and geometry.
Her M10 (2004), a sequence of tiny spaces connected with doors, was a comment on how centralised planning, pushed to the limits under People’s Republic of Poland, provided a reality check to the modernist utopia of widely- accessible, affordable homes. With a classification system used in the housing industry based on a number of rooms (M) rather than size meant that a typical two-room flat could be easily divided into smaller elements, thus becoming an M4. In Sosnowska’s work, the array of claustrophobic cubicles proudly bears the name of a ten-room unit.
Regardless of scale, Sosnowska’s works are typically immersive, relying on space, scale as well as the presence of the viewer. For 1:1 (2007), the Polish presentation at the 52nd Venice Biennale, the artist introduced a massive steel architectural frame into the art-deco pavilion designed by Brenno Del Giudice. The work, based on the existing architectural solutions used for commercial structures in Poland throughout the 1960s and 70s, was intentionally conceived in a scale that exceeded the pavilion’s capacity and subsequently compressed so as to fit into the exhibition space. The resulting twisted and warped black frame created the impression of a malformed parasite growing inside its host, with no clear indication if it would adapt to its confines or eventually to burst the pavilion from the inside. Created in Warsaw by the former staff of now defunct major state enterprise tasked with producing prefabricated components used in the housing industry, 1:1 was as much a comment on the ubiquitous and misconceived standardisation of the bygone era as on the contemporary fate of this past architecture.
“The transcendence of scale in Sosnowska’s sculpture is akin to the possibilities of a musical passage. A piece of sheet music is essentially a set of guidelines for a musician. If a score indicates an A-note and a musician plays it correctly, an A-note will sound from the musician’s instrument, for example. However, it’s unlikely that any two musicians would ever play the same piece of music exactly the same way(...)”
While the inventory of materials and motifs that recur throughout Sosnowska’s works – with steel, rebar and concrete materialising in the shapes of structural frameworks, hand rails, fire escapes or stairs – can be traced back to a specific geography and period, what lies at the heart of her practice are the gestures of deformation and displacement that take those elements beyond their original context and into the realm of the uncanny or psychedelic: often seeming to leave behind function along with the laws of physics.
Sosnowska’s Stairs (2016-17), with its strings of black rectangular plates affixed to thin, strips that wind down from the ceiling does not immediately betray its original function. Mangled almost beyond recognition and fastened to the walls like a ribbon it can be read not as much as impractical passageway, but a centrepiece for the blend of local architecture, traditional craftsmanship and new engineering, a contorted spine that holds the labyrinthine and diverse spaces of the main museum building together.
“There’s something odd, however, about the relationship of this monumental sculpture to the gallery space; echoing the girders above and sitting deferentially in one corner of the immense room, “Tower” modestly refers you to the surrounding architecture instead of flaunting its own aesthetic of ruined modernism.”
“She collaborates with an engineer to design the structures and ensure that they are mechanically feasible before moving on to make miniature models. Then follows a long search for the right materials and the equipment required to bend, break, and modify them. ‘In my works there’s no trace of the artist’s hand,’ she once said in an interview. ‘My role is limited to the concept, the choice of the proper means, and checking the final stage – seeing to what degree the product is in line with what I imagined.’ In making her role invisible, Sosnowska reveals the hidden bones of the buildings around us and makes us see them more clearly.”