As you walk down Robertson Street in the city centre, between the pawnbrokers on the corner and the office block that houses The Modern Institute, there’s a scrappy plot of land on the right. It’s been empty and fenced off for years and years, the sign promising imminent redevelopment failing to deliver while weeds grow, and passers by use it as a great big litter bin.
Now, it looks like a construction company has finally sprung into action on the disused site. Foundations have been struck, concrete has been poured, and two huge steel beams, seven metres tall cast a shadow over the building site.
That’s probably what the new activity looks like to a passer by glancing over their shoulder, at least, but the metal and concrete forms are part of a new sculpture by Monica Sosnowska. A closer look reveals that, though the materials are authentic, there’s something not quite right about this structure. For one thing, the ground around it hasn’t been cleared, and there’s no sign of the usual scaffolding. For another, you don’t need to know much about the construction industry to guess that plonking two girders into a pile of concrete probably isn’t the best or safest way to make a start on a tower block.
There’s something funny about the scale of the piece, too. For all its imposing heft, the thing looks like a model for something much larger, thanks to a sort of pathway shaped into the side of the rounded-off pyramid of concrete at the base of the piece which.
Sosnowska isn’t building, then, she’s borrowing forms from the building trade and doing away with their usual function. To what end? I’m not sure. Towers are usually optimistic things, and they often result in unintended consequences, from Babel to the Le Corbusier-inspired social housing of post-war Britain, and Sosnowska’s edifice, reaching up the heavens only to be abandoned midway through its making, certainly fits that pattern. More prosaically, the piece seems prescient - given the current economic climate, it isn’t hard to imagine unfinished buildings becoming a familiar sight.
This ambiguity is typical of Sosnowska’s work, which began with an interest in the standardised reconstruction of her native Poland after World War II, and now takes a more general investigative approach to buildings, in terms of the forms they take, the stuff they are made of, and their capacity to trigger intellectual and emotional responses. Sometimes, these investigations are little short of aggressive. Late last year, Sosnowska filled the upper floor of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery with strips of industrial rubber sheeting that hung densely from the ceiling, treating visitors brave enough to enter the work to a claustrophobic, confusing journey through the space. The last time she exhibited at The Modern Institute, back in 2004, the gallery was filled with a strange, roving tube-like structure finished in municipal brown paint and dotted with small entranceways, which forced viewers to find routes through and around it. In the Polish Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Bienale, her work 1:1 was a huge model of a building’s skeleton, forced into too small a space, and buckling under its own weight.
Inside the gallery Grill is a continuation of the themes explored in these past works, an architectural feature that runs amok. At its centre, there’s a perfectly functional, rather pretty security grill set into a window frame. But it has gone to seed, sprouting a tangle of intersecting steel wire tendrils that thrust out into space, embedding themselves into the floor, walls and ceiling. Like those rubber strips at Talbot Rice, or the large scale installation that once graced this gallery, Grill is an infestation, something that is growing out of control in the room, making the space worse than useless - to reach the sheets of paper listing the works on show, visitors have to gingerly step over and duck under the work. This is a fairly unpleasant experience, and a fraught one - the piece is a valuable work of art, after all, not something you want to trip on or bash into - but Grill is also a beautiful piece. That conflict is at the heart of this strand of Sosnowska’s practice, which she has described as ‘anti-architecture’: her work does everything that architecture shouldn’t do, making spaces that are aesthetically pleasing but that lack function or function actively against the people that inhabit them. This is more than a détournement of architectural language, it’s a critique of architectural failure, a prickly satire of the Modernist experiment, the Utopian vision which, diluted and misunderstood, resulted in grim housing schemes and crumbling prefabs, structures that worked on the drawing board but failed on site.
For all that, Sosnowska shows a fondness for the materials and structures that she appropriates, questions and satirises. The last two works here are small, controlled, less obviously site-specific, and far from aggressive. On a window ledge L Profile is a tiny three-pronged sculpture modelled after a device used in construction to control the right angles of a building. One of its edges is irregular, as if it has been teased apart, impossibly, by human hands, a suggestion reinforced by the presences of the small, shaped blobs of metal that lie beside it. A reminder, perhaps, that, for all the organic, uncontrolled nature of Grill, it has been precisely designed and built. Beside the entrance to the gallery sits Crates with Concrete, a group of three plastic crates that have been filled up with lumpy concrete. These are studies in the properties of two materials, to be looked at and appreciated, and they make no attempt to control the space around them. And there’s even a little joke embedded in the work: the crates bear the logo of the Barr brand, which inevitably calls to mind the Irn Bru slogan, ‘made in Scotland from girders’.
These quiet works may operate on a different level to the aborted building site outside in the street, or the uncomfortable reconfiguration of space offered by a work like Grill, but they further what seems to be Sosnowska’s main aim, to prompt her audience into considering architecture in new ways, questioning its purpose and examining its effects. She succeeds at this. After seeing this show, you won’t look at the buildings around you in the same way again.
Monica Sosnowska is at The Modern Institute until 8th November.
This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 17th October , 2008.