Place full of traces
2023, Karolina Dzięciołowska

Judisk Krönika

I work in Eastern Europe, in Poland. This place is full of traces waiting for someone to engage with them. They call out, and I surrender to it,” says Joanna Rajkowska, a Polish artist born 1968 based in Warszawa. The conversation was conducted by Karolina Dzięciołowska.

We arrange to meet via email. In the message, from the spot designated for the photo, a pupil against the gray-blue iris background absorbs me. My thoughts return to another eye, the one that provoked my contact with the artist. Her work “We Live the Day, the Hour, the Minute,” which accompanies the exhibition at the Polin Museum dedicated to the fate of civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, exposes the eye of the survivor Krystyna Budnicka/Hena Kuczer.

Karolina: “What is in that eye?” I start when we connect online. I try to believe that we maintain eye contact during the conversation.

JR: There is nothing in that eye except for what Krystyna’s body absorbed, registered, what she and her life is. My role was not to gain knowledge by trying to get close to her. I did not talk to her about her experiences. We remained in a friendly but impenetrable relationship. I was a transmitter of what is incomprehensible to me and will never be. I would have to go through the whole path with her or a parallel path to gain the empathy that is a shared participation in the same fate. I remained at the threshold. I am external; I am not the author of this work. I have a treasure in my hand, but I don’t open it; I only pass it on.

KD: For me, this eye, this image, is like a black hole and an event horizon. You can’t look there. Whether you are in the black hole or outside of it. It is inaccessible. But it is also the organ, the eye, that serves to explore the world.

JR: I agree. The definition of an event horizon is close to the experience of the Holocaust. We cannot enter there. And I don’t feel entitled. I am not Jewish; I am a mongrel with mixed blood – like many of us in Poland.

I try not to know and not to understand until I have an image that leads me. Until my body knows how to do something. Art is not visualization; it should lead to a solution that allows us to understand something. Oh, a bird just flew in!

KD: Where are you?

JR: In the center of Warszawa, in the studio on Szpitalna Street. A thrush! Or maybe a tit…? We have a lot of trees in Warszawa now. So, there are many more birds.

The studio windows overlook the Five Corners Square. One of artist’s installations is located there—a giant thrush egg. When you put your ear to it, you can feel vibrations, hear a heartbeat, maybe attempts to break through. However, Joanna’s most recognizable project in the cityscape is “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue”, an artificial palm tree at Charles de Gaulle Roundabout. The idea was born in Israel during the outbreak of the second Intifada. Rajkowska then became aware of the void left by the absence of the Jewish community and the significance of the history and etymology of Jerusalem Avenue for Warsaw’s identity. Installed along one of the city’s main routes, the tree has become a witness to protests and a symbol of the fight against right-wing, nationalist, anti-democratic, anti-gender, homophobic, racist, and misogynistic initiatives, as well as climate crisis. In 2020, during the celebration of its eighteenth birthday, the palm sent a love letter to the people: I would like to thank you for all the years we have spent together. For all the things you have done on the roundabout, for hugging me, decorating me with banners and bananas, for lighting bonfires, lying on the beach, singing and dancing. What energy! It’s been a good time. Though sometimes a thick gloom has fallen over the city, I still might think that by some miracle I landed in the very center of the universe.

JR: I mostly work with places. It can be a place in the body, in time, in biography. It often relates to something fragile, like illness or trauma. I direct the project to an abstract person who establishes a relationship with that place, as with people looking at the palm. This creates a community of experience. It’s fleeting but strong enough to tune sensitivity, shape a community of empathy.

Projects in the public sphere work slowly. They rely on unconscious proximity, on recognizing the landscape in which one exists. They don’t need 100% focus; they don’t require analysis or knowledge. They require consent to being part of the ecosystem, landscape, city, place.

When creating, I don’t think about the consequences. I trust that the procedures I initiate will not turn against other beings. “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue” thwarted destructive initiatives. It turned out that no matter how divided Polish society was, and the last eight years were a horror, the palm tree did not face attempts of arson [as in the case of “The Rainbow”, an installation by artist Julita Wójcik, which was set on fire seven times – KD]. Even during fascist marches. Once, a man stood under the palm with a fishing rod and a printed Christ the King of Poland at its end. I took pictures of him and thought about how strange the fate of this tree is. And that this is the paroxysm that must visualize, happen. There was also a guy on a horse, Poland’s chief anti-Semite. And that was probably the wall to which everything had to come to be able to rebound. And the rebound happened, I mean the result of the last elections.

KD: In one of the interviews, you compared yourself to air that fills the void. You enter into space, try to read its energy, translate it, and share it with the public. Sometimes, you ‘read’ using Kabbalah or Spinoza’s philosophy. Do these ‘methods’ make it easier to read the void?

JR: I work in Eastern Europe, in Poland. This place is full of traces waiting for someone to engage with them. They call out, and I surrender to it. When I lived in London, initially I was charged with this. Over time, I felt like I was drying up. That I started losing that strange, organic connection to the earth, which gave birth to so many beautiful concepts of reality, such as the Chasidic movement. I felt that the source, that water, was getting lower. I had to come back to connect. I grasp these things with the tips of neurons and make them present in what I do.

I am currently working on a film for the collective exhibition ‘Self-Portraits’ at the National Museum. The starting point is the fact that I was born in 1968, a time when something began to crack in the stability of modernism. As a species, we realized that something was very wrong. Subsequent climate conferences made us aware of what was happening. The process of not acknowledging, manipulating information, that is a painful body. At the same time, it is related to the events of March 1968, that rupture that left Poland culturally barren, completely castrated.

Growing up, I felt that Polish culture was alien to me. I didn’t identify with the martyrdom that Poland lived before 1989. The Solidarity movement, which created a new language for describing reality, was also alien to me. I realize that this is hurtful to the politically engaged generation that built the foundation for civil society, of which, especially after the last elections, we are proud. But this is not the Poland I am most attached to. I like to travel by train and observe people’s relationships, a kind of closeness; I am part of it. However, it’s not what keeps me here; it’s not what nourishes me. Here, on the edge of Europe, there are forces, a wonderful dormant beast, completely – unfortunately – untapped.

KD: Over one of the main streets in Stockholm hangs a natural oak. The work ‘Die for You, Root,’ by Charlotte Gyllenhammar, is anchored with roots up and crown down. According to the artist, it directs us to reflect on place, time, and memory. This installation terrifies me; I see a tortured person. Involuntarily, I compare this work with the “Rhyzopolis” project from 2021. You describe it as: “[…] a futuristic set design for a nonexistent science fiction film about the future of our planet. It is conceived as an underground shelter for a handful of people who survived a series of catastrophes. […] The dystopian film scenario assumes that trees are the refuge for the human species, whose extensive root system allowed the creation of caves where the survivors could breathe and nourish themselves in an underground biotope created for them by the trees.” I wonder why “Rhyzopolis” did not evoke such extreme feelings in me. Why do I – coming from a space of alternating uprooting, rooting, marching, border changes – looking at this hanging oak, see a corpse?

JR: You can inhabit corpses, and you can expose them to the public view. Western Europe always wanted to have control over the image. Without control, the ground slips from under your feet, tools fall out of your hands, people are scared. In this part of Europe, however, the image has control over us. By showing a tree, being dismantled, cut up, you can analyze the situation without simultaneously being part of it. In the case of “Rhyzopolis”, you cannot separate yourself from the installation. This is a fundamental difference in understanding the image. Poland lies on the border of the definition of the image as an icon, that is, being a part of and being under the influence. Our behavior, our emotions, we are controlled by the image. We must and can submit to it. Moreover, we create images that have control over us. It is a belief in their power.

KD: So I’ll ask the palm. What would the tree write to us today, in October 2023?

JR: The palm is bleeding, bleeding terribly for each victim, without dividing into victims and perpetrators. And it’s drying up. These are not reversible processes. Just a year ago, we were in a different spacetime. There weren’t so many fires, it wasn’t so hot, there weren’t such droughts, floods. This year everything gained tremendous momentum. We, as Earth, are in a very weak spot. The palm grew out of the second Intifada, out of fear and emptiness simultaneously. Coming from Israel, I simultaneously go back in time and reach for the reasons for creating this state. They are no less monstrous than everything happening there. I think about specific human tragedies. We go back to the beginning of our conversation, to the event horizon. I felt that it was an expression of terrible energy. This narrative continues and develops; karma endures. It is all based on the original crime. If we don’t cross the event horizon to the other side, if we don’t find that secret password, it may push us into a terrible realm. Because there, in the Middle East territories, is the center of the world. There, somewhere above the Dead Sea, God’s finger points.

The description of the circumstances surrounding the creation of “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue” comes back to me: “Though it was not my conflict and not my war, it was my misfortune, for reasons I could not understand”, wrote Joanna years ago.

JR: Regardless of who owns this place in terms of nationality, it belongs to all of us because we all reside there. There is no such second place. The fact that people there commit cruelties can push all of us into a terrible realm. I am very afraid of that.

KD: I would like to end the conversation on a positive note. But I think it’s important to stay with what the palm says.

JR: Yes, we need to trust it. Because it’s a tree.JudiskKronika_3_2023_part