Looming Tower: Monika Sosnowska at Hauser & Wirth
Monika Sosnowska: Tower at Hauser & Wirth
September 5 through October 25, 2014
511 West 18th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 790 3900
Composed of industrial-grade, black-painted steel, Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s mammoth Tower (2014) sprawls across the gallery floor at Hauser & Wirth on 18th Street in New York like the shed skin of an enormous snake. The gallery itself is cavernous but even so, the 105-foot-long, horizontal span of the sculpture commands the space. Sosnowska is known for tremendous works that investigate the intersection between sculpture and architecture. She represented her native country at the 52nd Venice Biennale, where her work 1:1 (2007) was exhibited at the Polish Pavilion. That work took over the space where it was installed, but at Hauser & Wirth the viewer has room to walk freely around the entire structure, which makes for a different experience, and a different kind of sculpture.
Here, Sosnowska grapples with the International Style of architecture, first conceived of by Mies van der Rohe. Drawing inspiration from van der Rohe’s iconic Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings in Chicago, Sosnowska has replicated the façade of those two towers in steel, minus the glass windows. But the steel has been further manipulated. Twisted and crumpled, cracking apart at its seams, Tower stands not vertically, but stretches out horizontally across the gallery floor, a tremendous helix that nearly renders the International Style illegible.
Tower is the result of an artist’s labor-intensive process. Sosnowska first creates a maquette of her projected work and then, with the assistance of engineers and skilled technicians, the maquette is enlarged in 1:1 scale. (Unfortunately, the maquette for Tower is not on display at Hauser & Wirth. It would have been valuable to see it alongside the final version, in order to get a clearer sense of both Sosnowska’s working process, and the sheer magnitude of her undertaking.) After it was fabricated as a complete entity, Tower was subsequently broken into more than fifty parts in order to facilitate its transportation to New York. The deliberate breaking of the work contributes to the poignant quintessence Tower embodies.
There is a formal beauty to the mangled steel. A viewer standing at the wider, open mouth on one end, which peters out into a lip, is afforded a view of a winding, industrial road. From this vantage point, the smaller opening at the opposite end of the room is obscured by the sculpture’s own steel ribs. When engaging with architecture, one typically experiences the building as it was meant to stand — that is, vertically. The structure mimics an erect body. But Sosnowska has not situated Tower as one expects, and a full circumnavigation around the work affords the viewer a unique, corporeal experience. It’s possible to understand, in a more intimate way, the true massiveness of a building, and what it means when it is destroyed.
It is difficult to engage with Tower without also thinking about the towers that were razed in New York 13 years ago. Sosnowska makes no specific reference to the World Trade Center, but it seems prescient that the work had its debut in New York in the week leading up to the anniversary of that horrific day. The Trade Center towers were also of the late International Style (sometimes called International Style II), a somewhat watered-down version of Mies’s original vision, which was popular through much of the 20th Century, particularly for commercial architecture. Comparing an image of the Lakeshore Drive towers alongside one of the World Trade Center, one can easily see the influence of the former on the latter. Tower unsettles, for it looks eerily like images of the twisted steel skeletons the world saw replayed and reprinted on television, in newspapers, and online for weeks, months, and years after September 11, 2001. However, an image cannot compare to the experience of being in proximity to hunks of architectural wreckage. Standing alongside Tower at Hauser & Wirth, one has a bodily sense of how terribly awe-inspiring it was for those two structures to come crashing completely into ruin, in one fell swoop.
Sosnowska is a resident of Warsaw, a city whose own, long history of mass destruction far exceeds that of New York’s. The city is still suffused with effects of Hitler’s attempt at its total annihilation during World War II, as well as the grim Soviet rebuilding and expansion efforts that followed during the Cold War. The artist has noted that she often walks around her hometown, documenting demolished, abandoned, and otherwise overlooked sites which nonetheless contain essential, elemental truths of its embattled past. In a way, Tower serves as a connector between the two cities, one with a very old notion of violent destruction, and one much more recent. However, Tower also, curiously, awakens in its viewer a sense of uplift. Standing at the smaller opening, gazing up through the great steel ribs bathed in sunlight, the pathway through Tower is clear, and seems to offer hope.