March 10, 2020
Destruction Becomes a Form of Creation in the Sculpture of Monika Sosnowska
At the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the Polish sculptor contorts a symbol of Russian Constructivism.
What does it take to get a 65-foot-tall tower into the lobby of an art museum?
For Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, whose metal installations bend the distinction between art and architecture, the answer is two cranes, an eight-ton back loader, five days, and a little ingenuity.
The latest work from the prolific sculptor, called Exercises in Construction, Bending, is now on view at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, through May 19. Like many of her sculptures, this one has its roots in architecture: The crumpled tower in the atrium of the Garage Museum is a replica of the top section of Vladimir Shukhov’s constructivist, hyperboloid tower that still stands in Moscow today.
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Shukhov, a civil and structural engineer, was one of the foremost designers of the Russian Revolutionary period. His most notable achievement was the design of steel diagrid towers, which use less material while also being stronger than traditional towers. His curved, hyperboloid structures, which eventually came to symbolize Russian engineering prowess and industrial achievement, became popular during the first World War and the Russian Civil War—an era when metal was in short supply. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, these once-common towers began to disappear from the landscape, even as the diagrid design’s influence percolated into global architecture (particularly in projects by Norman Foster, like New York’s Hearst Tower and London’s Gherkin).
It’s not hard to see Sosnowska’s piece as some kind of metaphor: The industrial might and utopian promises of the early Soviet Union reduced to a crumpled heap in the lobby of a contemporary art museum founded by billionaires. But Exercises in Construction, Bending engages with history on a deeper level.
Constructed in the early 1920s, the 525-foot Shukhov Tower functions as a radio tower, the future of which has been contested by those who would tear it down and a coalition of preservationists, who want to keep it standing.
During construction, materials were so scarce that neither scaffolding nor cranes were available to lift the pieces into place. Instead, Shukhov designed each section of the tower to fit into the one below it, like a collapsing telescope. The sections were then winched up from the inside and secured to the piece below them. At one point, one section collapsed, damaging the tower. The cause was discovered to be metal fatigue.
It’s a subject that Sosnowska is surely familiar with through all of her experiments in bending architectural forms into sculpture. From 1:1 at the 2007 Venice Biennale, in which she built and bent a metal structure that took up almost every inch of The Polish Pavilion, to smaller pieces like Stairway (2010), a metal staircase that had been squashed and twisted, like the aftermath of some horrific destruction.
With Exercises in Construction, Bending the artist has added an engineering challenge, first building a replica of something explicitly designed not to bend, and then contorting it. Even with two cranes and a bulldozer, it was not until her team heated the tower’s circular braces to induce metal fatigue that the tower warped to her will.
The resulting structure is something unexpected and impossible, an engineer’s nightmare of structure tortured far beyond the point of failure and into the realm of art. Before a visitor entering the gallery has time to take in the work’s historical baggage, they will be struck by the beauty of the sculpture’s lines: Both the elegant non-Euclidean geometry of Shukhov and the organic twists and disruptions that are Sosnowska’s making. History and context come after.
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