Monika Sosnowska (b. 1972) creates large, site-specific architectural installations which transform the physical space into a mental space that playfully distorts the viewer's perceptions.
Visual artist, author of site-specific architectural structures.
Monika Sosnowska studied at the Schola Posnaniensis (a private art academy in Poznań) between 1992 and 1993, then spent five years at Poznań's Academy of Fine Arts in the painting department. In 1999 she went on to complete a year of postgraduate studies in Amsterdam, at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten.
In 2003 Sosnowska was awarded the prestigious Baloise Art Prize in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the Polityka's Passport award given by Poland's most influential weekly. Today she lives and works in Warsaw, where she is represented by the Foksal Gallery Foundation.
Sosnowska spent most of her time in Poznań painting. During her final years at the academy, she realized that the 'painting started to escape her canvas'. She began to create works that played with both two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional space, finally giving up the canvas altogether and instead using the space itself as a sort of 3D painting.
Sosnowska treats space as a medium for her works, which are only displayed for a limited time before being destroyed. She always designs her projects to fit into a specific space. In 2000 she created a piece called The Additional Illumination in Amsterdam, which involved placing hundreds of lamps on the highest rooftop of the Royal Academy of Art. The lamps lit up the sky from dawn to dusk during the summer solstice, lending a helping hand to the sun. Her next artwork that year was Partly Non-Existent Space, in which Sosnowska obscured part of a room in total darkness, depriving it of its materiality; the illusion was enhanced by the fact that the viewer could only peer into the room through a glass door.
Sosnowska's work also involves modifying pre-existing or purpose-built architectural forms, transforming the physical space into mental space and playing with the viewers' perceptions. Her works are always intriguing and incorporate an element of surprise, so that the viewer wandering through them begins to lose his sense of orientation and to wonder whether his surroundings are real or fictional. One of the formal tricks the artist uses is to play with scale, most often in the context of the human body. With Little Alice, created in 2001 at the Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Sosnowska makes precisely this type of joke - the artist, inspired by the adventures of Alice in Wonderland, decided to build four rooms, each corresponding to Alice's changing height as she shrinks. She designed them as an enfilade and painted them in Victorian style, with each room getting smaller and smaller until the last one was just big enough for a mouse. At the project's showing at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in 2001 Sosnowska remarked that she was 'especially interested in the moments when architectural space begins to take on the characteristics of mental space' (www.csw.art.pl).
For the 2001 group exhibition Painting Competition in Bielska BWA Gallery, Sosnowska painted a gigantic folk paper cut-out on the exterior wall of the building. It took the form of an old peasant women in long, broad skirts with hens growing out of their hands, and the fact that the painting was done in psychedelic pink contributed to its playful character. With Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt am Main (2002), Sosnowska built a labyrinth-like row of claustrophobic, square rooms, each of which contained two or three doors leading to identical white cells. The viewer could circle endlessly through the labyrinth looking for the exit. For the 2003 exhibition Hidden in Daylight, organised by the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Cieszyn, Sosnowska chose Łowicz folk stripes as the theme of her work. Using the stripes' traditionally bold colours, she created a curtain of thin, plastic strips that divided the gallery space in half. After passing through the curtain, the viewer would see a colourful, spiral composition on the ceiling reminiscent of a spinning Łowicz skirt. Invited to relate to the newly-opened gallery space at New York City's Sculpture Center in 2003, she proposed a small booth in the gallery yard containing a succession of proportionally diminishing doors, each the perfect miniature of the previous door. The installation, which looked very small from the outside in the context of the large side lot, was actually quite dense. It forced the curious viewer to bend forward or to squat to get inside, only to discover another door just behind the one that was just opened. The enfilade ended with a light-box.
The architectural structures that Sosnowska creates are based on uncertain premises, confusing the viewer and scrambling his powers of perception. As she was quoted in the exhibition catalogue for the Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland exhibition at the Sculpture Center:
It happens that we are accustomed to recognising reality and to classifying it according to comprehensible systems. Even looking at art becomes a part of this scheme. We feel safer when an object corresponds to the norms and is called art. It is much more difficult to take a position on something that may be intriguing, but exists outside conventional categories. There comes a illusory moment when the object is categorised and appears to be understood. We have no idea that what we are denying ourselves is the pleasure of sensing things just the way they are, without the need to name them.
In 2003 Monika Sosnowska took part in the 50th Venice Biennale exhibition with Clandestini, curated by Biennale Director Francesco Bonami. In the Arsenale she built a corridor over a dozen meters long, covering the bottom half of the walls with green panels. The corridor appeared to be much longer than it was, but it was simply an optical illusion, a practical joke played with the laws of perspective adapted to three dimensions. In reality, the distance was short, and upon entering the corridor the viewer quickly realised that the space became lower and narrower until, approaching the doors at the end, it was impossible to even remain upright.
That same year in Basel, Sosnowska represented the Foksal Gallery Foundation, gaining overnight recognition after winning one of the two awards given annually to the most promising young artists at the prestigious art fair. The award-winning piece comprised a narrow corridor six meters long, completely white and divided by six pairs of white doors - a construction that created a Kafkaesque atmosphere in which architecture starts to control human emotions and becomes in itself a medium of oppression. It was purchased by Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Although Sosnowska's works are often referred to as architectural installations, she seems more of a space sculptor who perceives space as a consequence of form, depriving architectural elements of their tectonic and formal functions - of the causal relationship between function and form - before she uses them. Her architectural structures have no defined function, their impact being mostly metaphorical and affecting senses and emotions.
To design her spaces, Sosnowska follows the principles which resemble those observed when writing mathematical exercises or making up rebuses: she uses elements of architecture to produce desired combinations. Walls, doors, floors, stairs and door handles reappear in her works in a variety of ways which are often inspired by the esthetics of the venue in which they are shown. She takes a formal approach, but at the same time likes playing with contexts and meanings.
Modernism understood as a utopia of the rationally planned space is one of Sosnowska's fundamental points of reference, manifesting itself through a recognisable artistic code which is widely used in the international style in architecture. Sosnowska, however, reaches out for its home-spun version applied in the construction projects of Poland under communism and makes no secret of her references to the aesthetic standards of the times in which she grew up. Even if she builds her architectural installations from simple geometrical forms, it is easy to identify the familiar elements: the oil-painted corridors are reminiscent of waiting rooms and public office interiors and the claustrophobic rooms remind you of the cramped conditions of standard flats in prefab high-rises.
In 2004 Sosnowska's Irregular Room, a formally restrained and clearly structured construction, came into being as part of the Goetzen Ich und die Anderen Project in Frankfurt in the Oder and Słubice. Despite the reductionist method and the cold coming off Sosnowska's work, it leaves spectators impressed in a way which is hard to define - and nonetheless feeling uneasy. Standard doors open to a number of narrow and high niches in the wall and to irregular offsets of varied depths - these are grouped like a bunch of shallow, dead-end, squeezed corridors of unnatural dimensions. There is a willow-green oil paint on the walls and everything is lit with powerful lamps.
Sosnowska's works combine a multiplication of formal, mostly vertical and horizontal layouts with coherent composition and specific relationships between colourful planes and space. Her visual structures are therefore evocative of constructivist sculptures and some of her colour compositions remind you of parts of the paintings by the modernist painters from De Stijl group. Her large-scale spatial works, such as the ones built at De Apple in Amsterdam in 2004 and at London's Serpentine Gallery and Cologne's Capitain Gallery in 2005, are architectural sculptures which treat space in a way familiar in Cubist paintings. These indicate a change in the character of Sosnowska's works: a gradual move away from lucid geometry towards irregular, 'broken' structures. You could see such a work of hers in Poland at the Białystok Arsenał Gallery, where she had moved her modified three-dimensional structure from De Apple in 2005.
Sosnowska's sculpture-like three-dimensional studies utilise rigorously calculated and constructed forms that are based on geometrical models which blend with the architecture of the place for which they are intended. They are based on the models which Sosnowska makes using gallery plans. Thus defined, the space becomes abstract and vague, reveals its potentiality, introduces a sense of chaos and uncertainty. It does live in symbiosis with architecture, but radically rearranges the space, making the audience feel as if they were inside an enormous Cubist sculpture or Lyubov Popova's three-dimensional 'Architectonic Painting'.
Although Sosnowska's structures are colour-homogenous, colour does plays a major aesthetic role, creating - in combination with the light which seeps through gaps and 'cracks' in the walls - inner landscapes and producing chiaroscuro effects. The formal concept is coherent and uses massive planes which demarcate individual structural segments and traffic routes. However, it is the coherence of a maze: once you enter it, you lose your bearings and your insight into this inner system becomes fragmentary.
Sosnowska has also made some smaller scale works, one of them being her 2006 untitled project for Helsinki's Kiasma Museum, taking the form of a damp patch on a corridor ceiling and of a spot which the dripping water has made on the carpeting. The same year she completed A Dirty Fountain. Made for the Ideal City Exhibition in Zamość, it had dirty, black water spurting from a concrete, square container placed on a lopsided concrete foundation. The object was placed in the Water Market Square, far from the tourist routes, and resembled a floppily made 1970s decorative item which time has turned into a dilapidated eyesore.
Sosnowska followed up on the black water idea with her project for the AIVD (Dutch Secret Police) headquarters in Zoetermeer near the Hague, turning the yards surrounding the building which looks like a space base into pools with gurgling, black, boggy water. Architectural destruction was also a theme of the 2005 work made for the Villa Manin park in Passariano, Italy. Sosnowska's brand-new 'ruins' of the walls of communist Poland's high-rises form subtle, geometrical, sculpture-like elements on the grass. Said Sosnowska of the project:
I am fascinated by the process of aging of certain objects from that period, the moment in which, due to the context change, they transform into something totally different and separate from their original function. This observation has triggered some of my works, for example A Ruin, which is a sculpture of an ordinary oil-painted wall in a state of partial decay.
The following year Sosnowska was invited to take part in New York's Museum of Modern Art Projects series. New York's MoMA hosted Sosnowska's first solo show in the United States, one of the most prestigious contemporary art institutions, MoMa has been running the Projects since 1971 and the artists who have shown their work have included John Cage, Nam Jun Paik, Maurizio Catelan, Piotr Uklański and Olafur Eliasson, to name but a few. Her project, which was prepared especially for the show, made use of the existing space to create a three-dimensional sculpture of geometric forms. Sosnowska's Hole installation showing a small hole in the ceiling and a heap of rubble underneath it in an empty room. Close up the hole and the rubble proved to be a sculpture, painstakingly made from abstract, geometrical elements. 'My intention was to create an impression of something which is difficult to recognise from afar and which turns out to be something totally different close up', said Sosnowska in an interview.
At the 2006 exhibition At the Very Centre of Attention at the Zamek Ujazdowski Contemporary Art Centre Sosnowska presented her The Tired Room, the work which she had originally made for the Vienna's Freud Museum and which was later put on display at the Plac Konstytucji (Konstytucji Square). She showed a much deformed interior which could well be a projection of sick imagination or a dream phantom, producing a vision of a mental space expressing a rare emotional state. Preparing to make her work, she first built, and then crumpled, a paper model of the room, yet the final result does not look like a room squashed by a giant, for it has been carefully designed from geometrical forms. A person looking at Sosnowska's work from behind a glass pane, from the streets perspective, will, however, fall into the optical trap and will worry if there isn't something wrong with his perception. The Tired Room is evocative of the experiments with Cubist forms which were used in the 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, whose plot unfolds inside the brain of one mentally ill.
In 2007 Sosnowska represented Poland at the 52nd ViennaBiennale, where Sebastian Cichocki was the curator of her 1:1 project. Sosnowska's seemingly impractical two-storey structure does not fit within the pavilion and is 'crushed' by the ceiling, resulting in a clash of elegant architecture and an aggressively pushed in item. Forced between the ceiling and the floor, the structure is stripped of its concrete tissue and reduced to a prefabricated skeleton, a three-dimensional drawing. Sosnowska described her project as an attempt to 'create a surrealist, impossible situation'. This was made possible by her collaboration with engineers working for the Fabryka Domów (housing factory) in the 1970s. It was they who shared with her their construction sector expertise. In 2008 Sosnowska joined the selected group of artists who exhibit their work in Switzerland's Schaulager. At a joint exhibition with Andrea Zittel, she showed three objects, including the monumental 1:1 from Venice. Since February 2010, Sosnowska has been represented by the Hauser&Wirth Gallery in New York. The partnership brought on further opportunities for the artist, such as participation in the group exhibition The Promises of the Past, 1950–2010 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In May 2010 Artforum gave the following appraisal of Sosnowska's work, using this exhibition as a starting point for examining her artistic philosophy:
Being free to choose her inspirations and shape her initial concept, she focuses on issues that she deems 'irrational', analyzing problems to which most architects would probably pay no attention at all. And indeed, she often arrives at spatial propositions that, like Baroque architecture, go against the grain of rationality. Optical illusions, such as corridors that appear to be very long, but are in fact quite short, are a motif in her work, as are vertiginous shifts in scale.
In 2010, Sosnowska was the first artist invited by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf to fill the K21 courtyard with an semi-permanent exhibition (lasting two years). The Staircase / Die Treppe is inspired by the external staircases often attached to Socialist-style residential blocks in her native Poland which are built in the style of Socialist Neoclassicism. This staircase in black steel with a red handrail is both oversized, misshapen and leading nowhere in particular - has taken a practical architectural form and reduced it to sheer form.
In 2011 Sosnowska's works were presented as solo shows at the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum in Mexico and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2012 she created the outdoor installation Fir Tree for the Public Art Fund in New York. Drawing upon the same inspiration as many of her earlier works, the 40-foot tall sculpture nestled in the heart of Manhattan's Doris C. Freedoman's Plaza builds on the architectural scope and significance of modernist architectural elements. Much like her 2010 piece Staircase, conceived for the K21 in Düsseldorf, the functional object of the staircase is manipulated – pulled and bent – to achieve a new and abstract state. The current piece, Fir Tree, mimics the shape of an evergreen, the branches of stops bowing towards the ground as the trunk of the piece soars skyward. Situated at the intersection of one of the busiest and most developed areas of New York and the relatively wild expanse of Central Park, the piece highlights the juxtaposition and transition from cultivated landscape to urban space.
Nicholas Baume, director of the Public Art Fund, said that one of the most interesting aspects of Sosnowska's work is 'the kind of tension she creates' and how she takes a utilitarian object and translates 'what was once a utilitarian object into a new dynamic abstraction'. Brian Dillon wrote in the November issue of Parkett magazine that 'Sosnowska's Warsaw is at one and the same time this archipelago of non-places and the Communist-era city of tower blocks, now garishly clad in an act of historical forgetting'.
In the autumn of 2011, she planted a Fir Tree in New York's Central Park – 40-foot-tall sculpture similar in structure to her earlier Staircase works. Situated at the intersection of one of the busiest, most developed areas of New York and the relatively wild expanse of Central Park, the piece highlights the juxtaposition and transition from cultivated landscape to urban space.
In 2014, the artist went on a three-month art residency program to Atelier Calder in Sache, located on the Loire. During her stay in France, Sosnowska returned to a previously used maquette theme – she started by creating models of her own works from 2005, and then gradually moved on to new projects. These, in turn, were to be transformed into full-size sculptures. Sosnowska, wanting to scale up her work, used a similar method to that of Alexander Calder’s process of creating sculptures, and then compared the models to their full-size counterparts.
The residency ended with an exhibition in the Paris Cahiers d'Art space and a publication devoted to both Sosnowska's sculpture models and Calder's works. During the exhibition, the sculptress contrasted small models with monumental sculptures, forcing viewers to reassess their sense of space and environment. The exhibition was intended to disorient the viewer, because objects that usually do not exist in the same space were presented side by side.
That same year, the sculptress opened her individual exhibition entitled Martwa Natura (Still Life) at the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warsaw. Sosnowska, known for her huge skeletal architectural forms, takes an engineering-based approach to individual elements and shows their underappreciated charm. Her sculptures, created from mutilated building parts, are not a creative approximation of architecture; they're rather fabricated parts of the building, distorted and reassembled. The works spoke not only about the modernisation of Foksal Gallery itself, but also referred to the overall legacy of Warsaw's modernism. The sculptures presented at the exhibition include metal structures, handrails, stairs, beams and angles that have been deformed and deprived of their original function. Curved into expressive shapes, they resemble the remains of demolished buildings and leftover debris; they fall apart like paper, bending and twisting. Sosnowska is able to refine their wreckage; she behaves like an urban archaeologist studying different elements of the past.
The Architectonisation exhibition from 2015 was a cross-section of Sosnowska's work since 2003. The site-specific exposition created for the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto was spread over seven large galleries, a museum atrium and an outside patio, thus becoming a part of the unique context of this institution. The building was designed by Álvaro Siza.
At the turn of 2016 and 2017 one could visit Sosnowska's individual exhibition entitled Habitat at The Contemporary Austin in Texas. The artist's largest monographic exhibition in the United States once again demonstrated that the urban jungle from the era of Polish socialism, and in particular Warsaw, remains a direct source of Sosnowska's inspiration. Brutal buildings characterised by a strict economy of material, form and production; modernist facades, handrails, staircases, fire escapes, fences, walls, ceilings, corridors and playground constructions from the 1960s and 1970s – all this inspires the artist's dynamic sculptures and installations. Thanks to her separate interpretation of sculpture, context, architecture and geography, the artist creates peculiar spatial installations that seduce and attract, as well as confuse or distort the environment. Sosnowska's sculptures challenge existing ideas about the environment and how to define space.
How would one present over 80 enormous works scattered around the world at one exhibition? Monika Sosnowska, in cooperation with the Warsaw Foksal Gallery Foundation, decided to do it on a scale, which is why in 2017 she opened the exhibition Modele 2007 – 2017 (Models 2007 – 2017). It allowed viewers to become acquainted with the artist's creative process. She presented dozens of architectural models of sculptures, reminiscent of a three-dimensional sketch for the construction of sculptures, which are actually made of steel and concrete. An app designed especially for this exhibition gave visitors an insight into the original designs and the documentation of the created works to better assess the successful translation of sculpture to model.
Monika Sosnowska showed seven of her latest works at the Structural Exercises exhibition (2018) at Hauser & Wirth gallery in London. In all of her earlier projects, the sculptress used easy-to-recognise modernist architectural details. Whereas at the exhibition in London – her first large undertaking in this city in over 13 years – Sosnowska focused on the artistic transformation of the materials she used. Her new work directed the recipient's attention towards the alchemical processes of transformation of prefabricated segments. The artist describes her sculptures as follows:
Architecture serves to organise and give order. Socio-political systems are reflected in it. My work is about introducing chaos and uncertainty. They make reality cease to be obvious.
Sosnowska took into account the presence and movement of the recipient in the gallery space. In the work Rebar 16 steel reinforcing bars grow out of the wall, as if they were in a ponytail, falling down due to the force of attraction. A similar sort of lightness and fluidity, unusual for this material, can also be seen in Rebar 20 – a rod that emerges from the ceiling as if it was scribbled by a pen only to disappear back into the ceiling. These are only a few of Sosnowska's new works. The artist successfully undermines the integral properties of the materials she uses, changing their weight and strength into lightness and flexibility.