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The Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s Fir Tree (2012), a public sculpture temporarily set in a wintery cityscape where the southeastern corner of Central Park meets midtown Manhattan, is anything but what its title claims. Sure, with a little imagination the forty-foot-tall spiral staircase—its warped black steel steps and balusters pulled downward from a central pole by cranes and pulleys prior to its installation—holds a slight physical resemblance to a coniferous evergreen. The winding spindles, capped with a red rubber handrail, might be perceived as needlelike leaves, but similarities between the work and its referent end there. Though Sosnowska’s work is placed at a major entrance to the renowned park, surrounded by majestically barren trees, there isn’t a real fir tree in sight. What gives?
In many civic and residential buildings, staircases are functional but essentially dead spaces, while in others they serve as showcases of palatial grandness. In recent years Sosnowska has adopted this architectural feature for large-scale indoor sculpture: she crammed the five-and-a-half-meter-tall spiraling Stairway (2010) in the main hall of the Herzliya Museum in Israel and let The Staircase (2010) meander down the wall of a three-storied interior courtyard at K21 Ständehaus in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 2012 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago suspended The Fire Escape in its three-story atrium. Yet these impressive works grapple with the built environment, not the natural world. In interviews Sosnowska has discussed how contemporary developers in Warsaw have been razing blocks of midcentury Communist-era buildings, replacing a purportedly failed bureaucratic vision with their own ideas of urban space. Her staircases, she claims, acknowledge exterior appendages that were once attached to façades of Eastern Bloc housing. This perpetual transformation of the city, experienced through her sculpture, heightens the importance of historical memory and laments a regrettably typical tabula-rasa approach to urban planning—issues not unfamiliar to New Yorkers.
Sponsored by the Public Art Fund and curated by Andria Hickey, Fir Tree stoof near Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street—a bustling corner with ritzy hotels past and present as well as a skyscraper that previously served as headquarters for General Motors, was once owned by Donald Trump, and is now home to a flagship retail Apple store. Sosnowska’s work could then be an aesthetic response to a history of ostentatious American wealth, from the nineteenth-century robber barons, whose exploitation of natural and human resources many now find reprehensible, to today, when conspicuous consumption is ubiquitous in every economic class. Alternatively, perhaps Fir Tree has an environmental message, commenting on privately owned semipublic atriums scattered throughout business districts in Manhattan, such as the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center and Park Avenue Plaza on East Fifty-Second Street, places where the interior foliage can’t fool anyone into thinking they’re actual parks—just as no one could mistake Fir Tree for an actual tree. These inferences, though, are not quite evident in the sculpture itself, but maybe that’s the point. Sosnowska seems eager to push now-customary avant-garde challenges—the assisted readymade, the exhibition context, the transformative properties of language on form and materials, and symbolism and metaphor—into the public sphere, transplanting nature onto architecture, and vice versa, and seeing what happens. In doing so, she invites viewers to take a leap of faith to imagine new possibilities for the world.