The artificial palm tree hovering Aleje Jerozolimskie, fell deathly ill last year. Its seventeen-year old leaves turned ashen grey, dropped weakly against the towering trunk, and started to rot. Did certain municipal powers, gentrifiers, selective nostalgiacs come to choke the tree’s peculiar intervention in the Warsaw sky, its anti-monumental greeting perpetually in complex blossom?
Were its roots hacked up by a combustion of ethnonationalist legislations, PiS culture minions who hid year after year in surrounding sewers, apartments, office buildings, teenage minds, waiting to spark the exilic tree’s death phase at exactly the right moment of tumult?
Or perhaps the tree too long suffered from its own radical disorientation, and fermented into suffocation of its own difficult accord?
All along Warsaw’s ceaseless urban palimpsest of mass deaths and mass births, perhaps the palm tree finally communicated its thesis, having held subtle and insubordinate court over Varsavians’ everyday journeys; locating their demonstrations, inciting their speechless laughter, and infecting their memories.
And you people, moving around it, noticed.
Those on what we call social media blew up their platforms with documentation, speculation, bewilderment. Others passed by inventing necessary narratives, and still others wrapped in a new shawl of silence rushed off finally disturbed or enthralled.
The artificial palm over time had become many things for many people. Tour guides tell different stories as to why Aleje Jerozolimskie has spoken of itself with such biotic accuracy. Why has Jerusalem rectified itself here, after Jedwabne, after Kielce, only to die? Why must it taunt Warsaw; palm wilting in its open or fisted or phantom hand? For some, the palm had passed through its implicit, pulsing amplification of Warsaw’s (heterogeneous) Jewish void into a welcoming symbol, a demand even, a vision, for an intra-racial and -cultural Poland, for repair, refuge, tolerance, commonism in difference, humanness in dissensus, and global justice—made possible by the cessation it creates in urban life, “a few seconds of disbelief.”1
In the years since, as human populations confront the ever-accumulating reality of anthropogenic climate change, the palm tree, dislocated from the drier and hotter climate of North Africa, has become the call of crisis, the figuration of a future in which real palm trees grow in Poland.
Thus between all of these situations and viciously plausible potentialities, might we contend that the iconic palm’s real or cumulative murderer be the totalizing sum of the plutocratic, post-enlightenment assault on our conditional vulnerabilities, our nonhuman entanglements? Yes, in what should be a familiar nonhuman warning—buried somewhere in the masses, and soon perhaps to be forcibly rectified—of impending catastrophe, released in a crescendo of grating ethereal spasms, the palm tree died. Yes, for this last reason, the palm’s original installer, Joanna Rajkowska, staged its temporary death. Yet, I ask, if this is the palm’s death cry, what do we make of its stillness and what do we make of ours? Let us return to its roots, disheveled before us, and slowly climb.
In 2002, the young and then unknown Polish artist, Joanna Rajkowska, conceived and directed an initially underfunded and precarious installation of the artificial palm tree in the center of Warsaw, a work she named, Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, and formulated in the immediate aftermath of her visit to Israel/Palestine during the Second Intifada. The opening to her 2013 English-language book, Where the Beast is Buried, details this and future confrontations with the region of postwar European-Jewish refuge, settler-colonialism, and Palestinian expulsion and subjugation. A central thread in the book’s chronological array of public projects, Rajkowska encounters the region’s fractured culture of conflict and moral triangulation2 with Poland and the potentiality of seeing and intervening, from within her Polish vantage, its “unprocessed areas”3.
Subsequent public projects like Oxygenator (2007), Camping Jenin (2008), Minaret (2009-11), Bund! (2012), and the more recent Stones and Other Demons (2019), exert fragments or the whole of this triangle, taking the artist physically to sites between Jewish, Polish, and Palestinian forms, voids, and spaces to manifest a shifting crystallization of potentialities and repercussions within what I might call, in this case, their inter-isolations.
On the days between leaving Israel/Palestine and starting to conceive of Greetings, Rajkowska writes, “Though it was not my conflict and not my war, it was my misfortune, for reasons I could not understand.” She continues, recalling, “At the marketplace people often fell silent when they heard us speak Polish. I looked at the unfriendly, bitter faces. I thought, no wonder, if I were a Polish-Jewish woman, nothing could make me return to Poland. I liked their open hostility. It was an Eastern European hostility, something I knew — a tough, deserved reproach.”
Here, the artist expresses a deeply unusual and critical sense of cultural implication and global circuitry. As a Polish woman born postwar, she evokes a feeling of historical responsibility much more commonly expressed by the German state and its subjects, mediated as they are by certain legal and cultural hegemonic mechanisms. Many attending this exhibition must know all too well, it is a civil offense, now, in Poland to publicly express this very feeling.
And in so doing, Rajkowska situates, in visceral terms, Polish and Eastern European ontology in Israel/Palestine while simultaneously sensing the structuring, historical force of anti-Semitic violence in contemporary Poland and Europe at large. These organic, reflective actions work out, needless to say, both in spite of and because of genocided absence, which the artist approaches personally, socially, and spatially. Moreover, in a third and yet more courageous and rarer gesture, as rare in Germany as anywhere, she claims some responsibility, on behalf of this Polish ontology, for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which she wrote, during and in defense of the Minaret project in Poznań, contributes “the shape of the Israeli state, its practices, its apartheid, its war crimes, and its relationship to its Others”4.
As an Ashkenazi-American, whose great-grandmother, Sara bat Moshe Rothenstein, was evicted from the Warsaw she loved, the languages she spoke, indeed the world that formed her and would implode under the racializing guillotine of European autodestruction, these pages of Where the Beast is Buried represent my first encounter with this kind of rationale and the Polish cultural history underlying it.
I had never heard of the Bund movement, the anti-Zionist and largest Jewish political movement of interwar Poland, or the figure of Marek Edelman, ghetto and resistance fighter, survivor, and lifetime Varsavian. Subsequently, I too would really feel in my body that the crisis of Palestinian erasure and the instrumentalizing of Jewish trauma by various regimes to immunize the roots of that violence are also, and structurally speaking primarily, a European crisis.
Here, I am not only communicating an intellectual idea. I am not only communicating the conditions of a material demand for a different future of being together or of being apart together, but more importantly the visceral territory I endured walking through cities like Warsaw in 2018, where Sara bat Moshe’s world embodied a third of the city’s entire beingness, while egregious massacres of desperate demonstrators unfolded far away in Gaza.
Likewise, emergent from yet another angle of the Polish-Jewish-Palestinian triangle, Rajkowska’s confrontation with the Second Intifada heaved up a renewed and compulsive recognition of Sara bat Moshe’s absent world everywhere in Warsaw, and so heaved up too the room in her for Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue to emerge.
In a hyperlocalized counter-memorial action, the installation of a towering artificial palm tree in the Charles de Gaulle roundabout on Jerusalem Avenue is now considered the most iconic project in Warsaw’s public space since 1989. Why a palm?
“I imagined a person finishing a long journey from Lviv at 6:50 am,” Rajkowska writes, “walking through the dirty underground passages of Central Station, and then along Aleje Jerozolimskie towards Nowy Świat. They rub their eyes. They see a palm tree.”
When I was there, a fourth-generation exile, really a wanderer before its immensity, its immense and assertive awkwardness, walking towards it, and walking away from it, I saw the figure of the tree, blanketed by urban noise, the shadow of buildings, absolutely assimilate and so, without question, question everything Warsaw had ever been and would ever become.
“The map we have in our heads, particularly the map of the city, is a collection of images,” Rajkowska continues. “Turning onto a well-known street, we expect to see one of them. If a new element appears to substantially redefine it, we immediately make the effort to assimilate the new image. It involves the work of memory, emotions becoming engaged. I was interested in those few seconds of disbelief.”5
Research in the Warsaw Public Library led Rajkowska to the history of the street name: the 1774 eradication of a Jewish settlement, Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem), which had been founded only two years before, to which the road’s predecessor, Droga Jerozolimska (Jerusalem Road), originally led from the Vistula river.
Therefore, the very name, “New Jerusalem” is deeply and violently ironic, which the figure of the palm and its artificiality, its impossibility, mobilizes. Greetings was the first in a series of contested counter-monuments and social sculptures Rajkowska constructed in Poland and elsewhere that would activate or accelerate community struggles over shared space and symbolic power.
Rajkowska insists that works like Greetings accumulate and communicate meaning in their establishment of situations, in what happens because of them after installation, including, notably, the politics of their very installation and lifespan. Unlike most of these other public projects, after long, controversial, threatening and openly anti-Semitic municipal battles and civic debates, including a period in which the palm stood illegally for a length of time, the work is as permanent in its place as perhaps is possible. We can thank the Palm Tree Defense Committee.
The scholars who have analyzed Greetings—Uilleam Blacker, Mirjam Rajner and Richard I. Cohen, and Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer—argue that Rajkowksa’s early public projects created space for a forgotten past (and thereby a plurality of “forgotten pasts”), and in Greetings specifically re-inscribe “vanished Jews back into the landscape of contemporary Poland.”6
While such commentary is important, in each instance I have come across, the crisis in Israel/Palestine and Palestinians altogether are excised nearly entirely, with a single abstract reference to the former. The excision of the Intifada and its repercussions for the project displays a deeper, structural neglect of the work’s process-based range of meaning-making, which, as I detailed above, emerges in a continuum out from the artist’s memory, geopolitical implications, material confrontation with dissensus and disorientation, and her literal vision for spatial intervention. All this bears out a transversal, morally difficult, and downright mystical abolition of the illusory division between everyday bodily experience, spatial memory, and the political.
Rajkowska draws her very specific visualization process from a seismographic “animal instinct” she developed as a child guiding her mother, who suffered from progressive psychosis, through public spaces.
She writes, “I learned to differentiate between places that constituted a threat and would certainly send her into a panic, and those that would allow her a momentary respite from her anxieties.”
Rajkowska’s public practice over the last nearly twenty years, which she accounts begins with Greetings, mobilizes an admittedly primal and aurally compromised attention-to, sensing-with, making-with, and living-with the monstrous world.
On those masses of individuals implicated by her projects, whom the latter were built to serve, she writes succinctly, sketching out the nexus they together congregate, “I share[d] their fear of reality.” Rajkowska’s is a poetics of struggling accumulation, a limping acceleration, rooted in, among other material relationships, that tenuous, generative, naïve, and absolutely contingent guiding labor she performed for her mother in the communist streets of Bydgoszcz:
“Today I choose places that are missing something — my instinct takes me to them. Places with absent memory, with no sense of belonging. Places weighted by isolation, or the trauma of resettlement. If it is at all possible, if people feel tied to these places, I try to transform the locale with them. I have nothing against modifying my projects, because they are no more than a pretext for building a new and different relationship between people and those places. And they often know better than I what should be done. If the edge of the forest is demonic, you have to create an image or a situation to lift the curse once and for all. Or to make the demon show himself and speak.”7
Justyna Wierzchowska’s extraordinary analysis that the artist’s 2011-13 works, surrounding the birth and subsequent illness of her daughter Rosa, publicize “vulnerability” applies, in a more concealed sense, to Greetings8. Rajkowska declares herself, in a 2007 interview, “the palm is my self-portrait.”9
It is in this concealment, as an architectural monster Greetings speaks with its populace below, circumscribed by the necropolitical situation of its reference, which moves doubly into a hyperlocalized past and the global present.
Greetings here speaks with the people below in hushed conversations about the future, about mutation, about memory, and about liberation. Because, in an implicit sense, this speech occurs through Rajkowska’s body as a young visitor in Israel/Palestine, and as an even younger child guiding her mother, Basia, through Bydgoszcz, and wandering alive, confounded, returned to the voids of Warsaw in the form of an inert structure, a hallucination, an emergence, inside a circular road.
Greetings passes from social distress through nonhuman encounter, if mimetic, if artificial, into some common future. Greetings at its core exerts a disruptive desire to be traumatically there where it stands. Thus, we should take its temporary death at face value.
We should ask what would its permanent death, the death Warsaw was spared, after all of this, mean? And we should know it can happen, that this potentiality is part of the very array of futures it presences.
Rajkowska’s Death of the Palm is both a polysemic and precise call to action, because the palm alone, before dying, was both a polysemic and precise referent. For the palm, since its installation, we are often reminded, has necessarily “outgrown” Rajkowska within its public “cosmos”10. Yet, still Greetings remains definite in its citation of Jerusalem, which necessarily, without consent, carries with it in Warsaw the ethnic cleansing of European Jews and the apartheid conditions of contemporary Jerusalem, where the very complex mythification of entire peoples here and there collapses upon engineered violence, such perverse dispossessions, such perverse inequality, here and there, here and there, here and there.
To kill the palm, to infer its dying, is to transmit this definite citation into the equally definite territory of biological life, of nonhuman life, of earthly life. We can see, now, that Death of the Palm carries Greetings into the planetary conditions we currently face. If we masses fail to abolish and repair modernity’s centuries of extractions, expulsions, destructions, incarcerations, enslavements, separations, and immobilizations, we face what United Nations scientists promise will be the ever-more likely future of climate apartheid and climate genocide. Death of the Palm reminds us that these violences eradicate and fragment, without distinction, human and nonhuman worlds. From inside the dead palm’s radical episteme, we must feel ourselves here, in this one decade, where we might radically reorganize or ever relinquish all children to this force of history.
1Rajkowska, Joanna. Where the Beast is Buried. London: Zero Books, 2013.
2This concept is influenced by Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor’s recent and unprecedented anthropological study, The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians (Duke University Press 2020)
3Wierzchowska, Justyna. “Publicizing Vulnerability: Motherhood and Affect in Rajkowska’s Post-2011 Art.” Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe. Eds. Victoria Browne, Adalgisa Giorgio, Emily Jeremiah, Gill Rye and Abigail Lee Six. New York: Routledge, 2017
4Where the Beast is Buried.
4Where the Beast is Buried.
6Chmielewska-Szlajfer, Helena. “The Plastic Palm and Memories in the Making: Conceptual Art Work on Warsaw’s Jerusalem Avenue.” International Journal of Politics Culture and Society. 23(4):201-211.
7Where the Beast is Buried.
9Jareckiej, Rozmowa Doroty and Joanna Rajkowksa. “The Palm Has Outgrown Me.” Dotleniacz Oxygenator. Warsaw: Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, 2010.
Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman (b. 1986 Philadelphia, USA) is a poet, artist, and dramatist whose recent works include the durational site contemplation Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee (2018) and its resultant intervention series Counter-Ruin (2018), the marionette film Night Herons (2020) co-authored with Polish artist Joanna Rajkowska, and a listening procession Flight (in-progress), with Palestinian sound artist Dirar Kalash and the Great Black Music collective, AACM. He is an editor at the Jewish arts and politics journal Protocols and a PhD student at the School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver, Canada.