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Issue 234

Irina Lotarevich Tips the Scale

At Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna, the artist’s sleek metal sculptures are injected with a humanizing dose of biography

BY Kathrin Heinrich in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 23 FEB 23

Oh, to be a bird! The eternal human desire to glide above the city, to gain a whole new perspective from up high, was on my mind while visiting Irina Lotarevich’s ‘Modular Woman’. For her second exhibition at Sophie Tappeiner in Vienna, Lotarevich zooms in on the relations between bodies – human as well as animal – and their urban shelters. ‘Zooming’ is the operative word here: like a camera, the artist homes in then back out again. Subtly engaging, Lotarevich’s works play cleverly with scale to render her sleek metal sculptures wittier than their minimal aesthetics might initially suggest.

Irina Lotarevich, ‘Modular Woman’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; photograph: Kunst-Dokumentation.com

Take Modular Body (container ship cross-section) (all works 2023): in the centre of the space, small aluminium containers stack on top of each other within a black steel frame. The view from above suggests a modernist housing unit, while from the side the frame traces the hull of a ship. Hand folded with origami-like precision, these containers are the show’s central motif, referencing both their supersized counterparts used on international trading routes and organizational systems in metal workshops. Placed on deck, a tiny bucket warps our perception of the artwork’s proportions; filled with metal shavings like precious fairy dust, the minuscule object renders the ship huge and the viewer giant.

Irina Lotarevich, Modular Body (container ship cross-section) (detail), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; photograph: Kunst-Dokumentation.com

Set on opposite walls, two variations of the same sculpture feel like reflections in a funhouse mirror. While the smaller piece, Unit, has me stooping to inspect the miniature silver pigeons perched on top, its counterpart, Housing Anxiety 7, puts me on tiptoes, barely able to see the larger birds on that roof. In both, the metal boxes decidedly mimic living spaces with added ‘animal observers’, as Lotarevich referred to them during an exhibition tour, in a nod to New York’s second population, ubiquitous during her childhood in the city.

Irina Lotarevich, Unit, 2023, cast silver, stainless steel, 11 × 300 × 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; photograph: Kunst-Dokumentation.com

‘Part of what high-rise buildings are designed to do is change the way we see,’ writes author Helen MacDonald in Vesper Flights (2020), as she watches migrating birds from the top of New York’s Empire State Building. ‘To bring us different views of the world, views intimately linked with prospect and power – to make the invisible visible.’ Yet, architecture also exerts its own, often obscured, power through design. As well as being harmful to birds, who crash into high-rise buildings at an alarming rate, many such structures have been designed according to ‘standard measurements’ which, based on the male body, effectively exclude female, gender-non-conforming and differently abled bodies.

Irina Lotarevich, Housing Anxiety 7, 2023, steel, aluminium, cast aluminium, cast tin, chains, 165 × 129 × 21 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; photograph: Kunst-Dokumentation.com

One of the most famous examples, Le Corbusier’s anthropomorphic scale system Modulor, used for his Unité d’Habitation (Housing Unit), was based on the ‘standard’ human height of 175 cm (later 183 cm) or, as the exhibition text informs us, the six-foot stature of British detectives in novels. In ‘Modular Woman’, Lotarevich confronts this measuring unit: Steel Price Index, a wall-mounted ruler, measures exactly 176 cm – the artist’s own height – setting her own standard.

Irina Lotarevich, Overtime and Pedagogy, 2023​​​​​​, steel, metal residue from bandsaw, plexiglass, rust, 24 × 78 × 23 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; photograph: Kunst-Dokumentation.com​​​​​

During the exhibition tour, Lotarevich emphasized how she produced everything herself – from welding and working in steel to casting tiny container charms in silver. In ‘Modular Woman’, she reflects not just on her own artistic practice but also on her employment in the metal workshop of the University of Applied Arts Vienna. In the basement, Overtime and Pedagogy is a personal archive of sorts: glass picture frames stacked into a spine-like curved rack and filled with metal shavings from the workshop, each symbolizing a week of teaching. It is such autobiographical and narrative moments that make Lotarevich’s work so compelling. They rupture the slick, shiny façade of her sculptures, overturning any associations with minimalism’s sobriety. On the contrary, Lotarevich manages to address weighty themes with the lightest touch.

Irina Lotarevich’s ‘Modular Woman’ is on view at Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna, until 11 March

Main image: Irina Lotarevich, The social box, complex, constructed, hardware and software, often closed, sometimes open, constant and variable (detail), 2023, installation view

Kathrin Heinrich is an art historian and critic. She lives in Vienna.