My first encounter with Monika Sosnowska’s art was a couple of years ago in London’s Tate Modern, where her large work Pavilion (2016) was included in the Living Cities exhibit. Pavilion looked like an uninviting squashed mass of black metal. It is a large distorted model of a steel shopping pavilion from one of housing estates in Lubin, Poland which was built in 1960s. After my initial reaction I found myself walking around the work and observing it from different angles for quite a long time and came to conclusion that I actually liked it. Perhaps Sosnowska’s creations are not something that you fall in love with immediately, but she is definitely one of the most interesting contemporary Polish artists.
Currently exhibited at the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw is the largest and most ambitious monographic exhibition of Sosnowska’s works in Poland. A playful black-and-red Handrail (2016-2020) leads the visitors from the main hall through the central staircase towards the exhibition rooms. The Handrail made of PVC is a replica of this characteristic element of buildings built in Poland during the 1960s and 1970s. Spread across seven gallery rooms is a selection of older and recent works by Sosnowska.
The artist has been researching the architecture of 20th and 21st century in Poland and beyond including buildings designed by Zofia and Oskar Hansen in Poland (for example the work Pavilion mentioned earlier), or by Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. More recently Sosnowska explored the work of the pioneering Russian architect and engineer Vladimir Shukhov, as well as the colonial and post-colonial architecture in Bangladesh. Her sculptures and site-specific installations are often a critique of the architectural sources. Although built using the same construction materials as the originals, Sosnowska’s metal and concrete pieces are distorted and non-functioning, they exist purely as works of art. The artist experiments with the properties of materials, she calls these experiments ‘structural exercises’.
You can see several of such exercises in the exhibition, such as the recent series Krzyżulce/ Cross Brace (2019) inspired by Shukov’s engineering solutions. Cross braces were subjected to enormous pressure, which distorted these structural elements to resemble black and shiny rubber objects with no apparent function. The series Pręty żebrowane/Rebars (created between 2017-2020) was created as a response to the perceived as chaotic mixture of modern and contemporary architecture that the artist saw recently in Bangladesh. Sosnowska’s Rebars are large steel bars, which resemble vegetation as they chaotically sprout up from concrete blobs.
Another work defying gravity and material logic is the installation titled Targowisko/Market (2013), a metal grid construction suspended from the ceiling as if it was swept into the air by a tornado. Market is a life-size model of a steel market stall, based on the ones from Jarmark Europa, the famous bazaar, which existed between 1989 and 2008, and was located at the now demolished 10th-Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw (now the site of the new National Stadium). For some visitors, reading about the inspirations behind some of the works on display, might evoke a certain nostalgia, or on the contrary, bring back difficult memories of the past era.
Sosnowska (born 1972 in Ryki, Poland) is known for works inspired by dialogue with modernist architecture in its characteristic communist version of Polish People’s Republic (1947-1989). Some of the most recognizable features of that period are modular blocks of flats built of steel elements and reinforced concrete, which many people perceive as uncomfortable reminders of Poland’s communist past. Built during post-war building boom, grey and uniform housing estates remain a common sight throughout Polish cities and towns. Relatively cheap and quick to build high rises were once seen as modern and practical solution to housing crisis, but many did not pass the test of time. I have to add that in recent years many of those previously grim-looking housing estates have been renovated and painted in pleasant colour combinations, which is a big improvement, at least on the outside.
Many of Sosnowska’s works comment not only on the material side of architecture but also it’s psychological aspects. The utopian and egalitarian ideas behind many buildings were given a totalitarian twist during the Soviet period in Poland and other countries of the Eastern bloc. The system caused dehumanization and psychological damage of millions of citizens, who were forced to live in challenging conditions . Generations of Poles grew up in almost identical soulless blocks of flats with cramped living spaces. Sosnowska’s work Przedpokój/Antechamber (2011-2020) addresses some of these problems (the English term antechamber sounds too grandiose as a description for this awkward semi-functional space, which main purpose was to lead towards other ‘proper’ rooms). The artist created a hostile-looking room, or some sort of an ‘anti-chamber’ rather than antechamber. Laid out across two rooms, the installation was built on an angular star-shaped plan. This illogical space, full of sharp angles and almost psychedelic wallpaper, which wouldn’t feel out of place in one of 1970s flats, was designed to have a disorienting effect on the visitor. It is essentially an art satire illustrating the unlivable quality of those spaces.
Looking at some of Sosnowska’s sculptures and installations, particularly those referencing the architecture of the communist period I remembered the title of a 2006 book by Alexei Yurchak Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: the last Soviet generation. The collapse of USSR caused unexpected changes for the last Soviet generation from Yurchak’s book. Works by Monika Sosnowska address and challenge the idea of architecture as something permanent and stable. As it turns out, styles of architecture, just like the systems that created them, are anything but permanent.
Exhibition Monika Sosnowska at the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw runs from 24/07/20 until 25/10/20.
Exhibition website: https://zacheta.art.pl/pl/wystawy/monika-sosnowska
 Transformacja. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej po 1989 roku. Andrzej Szczerski, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2018, p.76
A fascinating read. Really engaged with Sosnowska’s work. Maybe it’s because I’m viewing it at this particular moment in time but the tangled shapes and disorientation seem so apt in these Covid days
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Thank you. I also think Sosnowska’s works are now more relevant than ever.