by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Monica Sosnowska

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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.