This Saturday I braved the rain and blistering 50°F winds to go see some art. By recommendation of a friend I went to the Contemporary Austin (a venue thoughtful enough to have a bucket and bags to house your wet umbrellas) to see the sculpture and installation work in Monika Sosnowska’s Habitat.
Once you walk through the white tofu cube of a lobby and into the exhibition space on the first floor, you enter a labyrinth of 18th century style wallpaper. Each wall is set at an angle just awkward enough to confuse, distort, and make you glad that no one else decided to come on such a rainy day. Antechamber reshapes the entire gallery space into four small sub-units, or rooms that house one sculpture each.
Entering each new habitat reveals the heavy framework on the other side of delicately patterned walls- at once an inside look at the faux walls that make up the very experience you are experiencing- and a challenge to our perceptions of what makes an environment, a lived in space, and construction.
The materiality of each work is simple: concrete, steel, paint, wallpaper. There are no questions asked once you see them, we come into contact with them everyday. Labels for each work are available if you really want to know, but the titles of each work are just as simple as the materials used to create them. Walking ten to twenty feet away from a sculpture to read a label that is Untitled or Pipe is a question of personal necessity. Don’t feel bad for reading or relying on them, I had to read all of them for this review, and they are included for a reason. The decision to include wall labels in Habitat, however sparsely placed, is an emphasis on their necessity within contemporary art; how badly do we really need to know. Can we embrace unknowingness, feeling, or seeing alone?
Moving from the first floor to the second feels not only like a shift in physical height, but of space, domesticity, and content entirely. It feels like becoming eight years old again and going to a playground after being home or at your grandma’s all day. There seems to be a clear intention to separate and create different feeling in the two galleries. From domestic labyrinthine to open playground. There is no overlap from one to the other. Which is good, and how I usually want to feel when moving across separate gallery spaces. I also noticed, for the first time, another sculpture that was placed in the lobby, a plant-like structure erupting from a small bulb on the ground that pushes up at the ceiling and glass walls that contain it. In other words, a really cool sculpture that I hope was part of the commission from Sosnowska. It looks like it needs to be in that lobby forever, perfectly carving the space, trying to outgrow.
Despite my feelings of separation between the galleries, the union of the two works perfectly to overwhelm or confuse you. It’s like this: you walk upstairs and instead of seeing sculpture that is as big or slightly bigger than yourself, you are faced with sculpture that could eat you alive. But you won’t be eaten, because you aren’t allowed to touch anything within this exhibition, a small disappointment I will touch upon later.
The sculptures on the second floor gallery are actually commissions for the Contemporary, which is why they paint the space upstairs perfectly: they were made for it. Sosnowska treats the space like a medium, reimagining modernist architecture into crumpled, fantastic versions of themselves. She toys with viewer expectations even more by using to-scale replicas of architecture before deconstructing and reconstructing them into her own forms. Handrail is the first sculpture I came into contact with, and by that I mean the first that I saw because you aren’t allowed to touch. It’s a red steel banister that begins right after the actual handrail you used to enter the room, and then curves wildly along the wall to the left of the room and ends upside down. It becomes more wall painting than sculpture, but still looms right at hand level, making me question whether it was an artistic or curatorial decision to make the works untouchable. They are commissions by the Contemporary after all.
Also in the space is a monolithic snarl of painted steel called Façade that is reminiscent of a jungle gym or a gigantic spider web, take your pick, with what looks like a small entrance in the front of it, but again you cannot touch or go inside of it (someone tried and got scolded, no, it was not me). And Stairs, exactly what it sounds like, but on its side, and bendier. This was not a sculpture I was sad about not being able to touch, it was playful and dangerous, enough to just see.
You need to enter Habitat in person. The works in relation to the body create an experience that is contradictory, the materials used and the objecthood of each sculpture are frustrating in that you cannot touch them, even though you touch them everyday. At once I can acknowledge my own frustrations with what felt like a missed opportunity for interactivity within the exhibition, and the idea that this frustration was planned- in using everyday materials and twisted representations of architecture that we encounter everyday, Sosnowska displaces us right along with her work. Through this displacement, we get a glimpse of our own lives, crumpled up, inside out. Right now in America, we should be able to face that possibility, and realize that it is already a reality for some. Sosnowska’s 3D Dystopic commentaries on a past that ripples into the future are now as important as ever. (976)