Monika Sosnowska. Maquette for The Hole. 2006

Monika Sosnowska’s work consists mainly of installations that are conceived for a specific occasion, and that disappear when that occasion is over. Usually forming or filling a room, they could be mistaken for the work of an architect or a set designer. But unlike architecture, her spaces serve no function, and unlike set design, there is no scenario for which they set the stage. Instead, Sosnowska’s spaces furnish both a physical opportunity—and a metaphor for the play of the imagination. Her interventions may be quite complex or, as in the case of The Hole, strikingly quiet. Either way, Sosnowska manages to conjure, from space, a multi-dimensional image that will be completed only by a viewer’s experience of it.

Though Sosnowska trained primarily as a painter at the Art Academy in Poznan, she gradually moved away from that medium during post-graduate study at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1999–2000. At the Rijksakademie, she began to focus on arrangements of her paintings in spaces she would design for them. Finally she did away with the paintings and just kept the spaces. A fellow artist had provided a helpful prod: Why do you need a brush to paint? Indeed, the manner in which Sosnowska now works with planes and surfaces often generates the feeling that you have walked into, or been swallowed up by, an off-kilter Constructivist painting. Transporting a viewer into a new place is consistently important in her work. Now more metaphorical, this experience was made literal in her first show in Poland, at the Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw in 2001. Called Little Alice, the work conjured an imaginary occupant of the former castle now occupied by the art center. The installation consisted of a succession of four increasingly smaller rooms, the smallest of which could accommodate nobody larger than a hamster, evoking Alice’s plunge from the reality of this world into Wonderland.

Sosnowka’s decision to move to Warsaw after her studies in Amsterdam came about unexpectedly, during a trip to Mali with two fellow students from the Rijksakademie. As she put it, “I don’t know why, but in Africa I started to think about Poland.” She was supposed to do an exhibition in Bamako, and had brought work from Amsterdam. But when she arrived she realized, “I cannot do this work here. It’s a completely different reality, and it’s completely senseless…. I learned the lesson of relation to a place, the relativism that says ‘do not ever think it’s the same everywhere.’”

Today, Sosnowska is one of the leading artists in Warsaw. The artistic energy in the city is at an extraordinary level, and several of its artists in their twenties and thirties have attained international renown over the last few years (also including, for example, Pawel Althamer, Wilhelm Sasnal, and Paulina Olowska). While these artists’ works are not linked by any one approach or style, they tend to share an interest in the importance of history and place. This particular moment in Warsaw is one of difficult transition. Almost twenty years after the breakthrough of the Solidarity movement and the end of Communist rule in 1989, the country is still finding its political and economic footing, and all the social problems that accompany rapid change now trouble the city of Warsaw.

Nor do the tragedies of the past century seem far away. Sosnowska is currently building a living space and studio just outside the city center. Across the street is a Jewish cemetery that was wrecked by the Nazis; its hundreds of smashed and upended tombstones still lie untended in silent ruin. All of this is important background for Sosnowska’s outlook and process. However, historical ghosts and contemporary problems do not find a direct voice in her highly impersonal and reticent work. Sosnowska’s engagement with history is direct only in the sense of art history, and her appreciation for predecessors such as Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951) and Edward Krasinski (1925–2004). Actively seeking a way to carry the history of the avant-garde into the twenty-first century, she cannot aspire to a vision of utopia, but can at least instill a doubt in reality.

Ann Temkin, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture.

Additional support is provided by Jerry I. Speyer and Katherine G. Farley, Peter Norton and the Peter Norton Family Foundation, and the Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder Travel Fund for Central and Eastern Europe of The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.

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