Washington, DC

View of “Bettina Pousttchi: Double Monuments,” 2016. From left: Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin VII, 2010; Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin IX, 2013.

View of “Bettina Pousttchi: Double Monuments,” 2016. From left: Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin VII, 2010; Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin IX, 2013.

Bettina Pousttchi

The Phillips Collection

View of “Bettina Pousttchi: Double Monuments,” 2016. From left: Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin VII, 2010; Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin IX, 2013.

Since the 2009 inauguration of its project-based series “Intersections,” under the direction of curator Vesela Sretenović, the Phillips Collection has sought to establish a meaningful dialogue between its rich holdings of modern art and the dynamic landscape of contemporary cultural production. The series’ most recent iteration, “Double Monuments,” by the Berlin-based artist Bettina Pousttchi, was a powerful demonstration of the fecund possibilities for cross-historical dialogue between artist, site, and the avant-garde legacy. For those familiar with Pousttchi’s interventions into the architectural and institutional histories of the museums and exhibition spaces that host her, it is clear that the artist is eager to ignite conversations about the ways in which history and knowledge are passed down and memorialized. For this recent project, such dialogue was achieved through an installation of Pousttchi’s own work alongside a small selection of black-and-white photographs culled from the rich holdings of the museum’s permanent collection.

Each of the five teetering sculptures Pousttchi exhibited (made between 2010 and 2014) was titled Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin (followed by the roman numeral corresponding to the order in which they were constructed). Painted a blinding, powdery white, they refer to and extend a conversation started by Dan Flavin in his own series of sculptural homages to the unrealized monument of Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin. Flavin’s neon “monuments,” which reflect on the formal and conceptual legacies of Tatlin’s Model for a Monument to the Third International, 1920, employ modern industrial materials that additionally qualify and undermine the notion of efficacy of the monument itself. This is similarly achieved in Pousttchi’s sculptures through a reference to mundane but politically charged materials (specifically, crowd barriers). Ranging in height from five to twelve feet (their scale granting the towers an almost human presence), Pousttchi’s sculptures, which the artist fabricated and assembled with the assistance of a welder, gave the appearance of having been fused from the barriers used to manage and funnel pedestrian traffic in urban centers. These gates are familiar presences in the nation’s capital, where they serve to shepherd the movements of tourists circulating around Washington’s monuments to American political and ideological history, and of course are equally visible in political protests nationwide, where they are used to separate marchers from onlookers. Harnessing the formal and social resonances of the avant-garde, Pousttchi’s works seek to overcome the static nature of sculpture by activating the surrounding space to effect a dynamic play between interior and exterior (notice the ways in which the solid, helix-like exoskeletons render transparent the internal cavities of their structures) while participating in a broader dialogue about sculpture’s historical relationship to monumentality and its place within the social sphere. The incorporation of white neon tubes propped inside each structure nods to Flavin’s own recasting of the monument as something impermanent, replaceable, and inherently low-tech, and responds ambiguously to the question: Are these artifacts of a utopian project that has retreated into history, or do they harness a power that will be revealed in the future?

Pousttchi’s small selection of artworks from the Phillips’s permanent collection included a constellation of black-and-white photographs from the 1930s and ’40s by a diverse cohort of international avant-garde photographers such as Berenice Abbott and Alfred Eisenstaedt. But it was Pousttchi’s positioning of one of Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo’s delicate sculptures, Linear Structure in Space No. 1, 1943, that evidenced the productive exchanges that “Intersections” makes possible. Playing with the limits of transparency in three dimensions, both Gabo’s and Pousttchi’s sculptures reveal as they test the relationships between makers, material forces, and the times and spaces that works of art live in.

Jordan Amirkhani