The Palm Has Grown Bigger Than Me
Dorota Jarecka: On Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw, where the Jewish quarter used to be, where today there’s a church, a lawn, a taxi rank, the exit of the once-busy and now empty street called Próżna, you set up the Oxygenator, a pond. Water spray floats over it, the aerating machine hums silently. Is it a park feature? A monument? Is it connected with the history of the place?
Joanna Rajkowska: Plac Grzybowski is a dead zone. Winos come here to lie on the benches, people walk their dogs here, or wait for the bus, but it won’t occur to anyone to take a blanket and lie on the grass. I didn’t want to make a monument because any monument will kill this place. On this square, Marek Edelman supposes, the last battle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place. It’s a traumatised place but it isn’t the historical trauma that’s the problem but rather the fact that it’s never been worked through. I don’t have to know history to realise that something is wrong here, that it isn’t a normal part of town. Just look at how people move here. My mistrust of language is profound, but I trust the body. I watch places and what they do to our bodies. You don’t want to be here, you stiffen.
Plac Grzybowski is cut off from the city, the streets that start here are dead-end streets, like Próżna or Bagno. It’s no man’s land, nobody’s place.
The Oxygenator is to change this?
It did so even during the preparations. The square is on the intersection of many routes, but the people moving along them never meet.
Israeli tourist groups pass through the square, accompanied by armed bodyguards. The Israelis go down Próżna to the synagogue on Twarda, or in the opposite direction. There’s no way anyone can wander off from the group. It always struck me as odd that they smiled at my dog but even the dog wasn’t a reason good enough to start a conversation. In the spring, we had to carry out excavation works on the square, it was the conservation officer’s requirement. A hole one metre deep was dug up. That was already a pretext to come and talk. The bodily mechanics suddenly started changing, people started to lean, to hunker down. And that was my point, to cause them to stop repeating like a mantra that they’ve come here to see Auschwitz and ask instead, ‘Why are you digging this hole?’. I told them the simple story: there’d be a pond, flowers, ozone, spray. Polish Jews talked to an archaeologist who recounted the history of the place to them: that in late 18th century the town hall of the Grzybów jurisdiction stood here, then a market with wooden stalls, replaced, in the interwar period, by a beautiful green square, replaced, during the siege of Warsaw in September 1939, by a graveyard, later exhumed. You could see remnants of coffins in the ground. The elder residents knew the history of the All Saints Church which had a heroic record during the war – the parish priest, Father Godlewski, saved Jews, sent three thousand Jewish children to the Aryan side.
I had a clash with the former curate of that church, the one who allowed the Antyk bookstore, which sold anti-Semitic literature, to operate there. He made a terrible scene that I didn’t ask him for permission to build a pond in front of the church. That bookstore was one of the reasons for making the Oxygenator – the suffocating, hypocritical atmosphere, the toxin.
I realised that the local residents hated the Israeli groups. The coaches park in front of the church. The parking lot is a major nuisance because they never turn the engines off. The air is heavy with exhaust fumes. I went to them myself, asking them to turn the engines off lest we suffocate.
People came up to me to ask whether we were building a monument of the victims of the Volhynia massacres. When they learned we weren’t, they were happy.
The square is a potential meeting place for very different people – Catholics, Polish Jews, Israelis, the Vietnamese who live in large numbers in the nearby Za Żelazną Bramą estate. My idea was to create a place where they don’t have to seek consensus but can be as they are – with their different mindsets, different memories – and yet they can feel each other’s presence. I wanted the illusion of a heavenly place where you breathe fresh air.
Warsaw is full of traumatic places. Should we set up ponds in all of them?
If I was to build the Warsaw of my dreams, I’d cut through the blocks to make corridors and open the old routes, the kind of by-passes, which would make it possible to feel the organism of the city, because the city is a bloodstream. You can find its remnants in language. I love the sound of street names like Wilcza, Hoża, Aleje Jerozolimskie, Tłomackie, Szmulki, the way Varsovians pronounce them. There’s exoticism in them because they’re Polish, Jewish, Russian at the same time. My father’s family comes from Warsaw. After the Uprising they were put in a transition camp with other civilians, and then they escaped from a transport to Auschwitz. Before the war, my great-grandfather and grandfather were dentists, prosperous ones, lived on Marszałkowska, where there was the office and then, in the next room – it was an enfilade apartment – a gambling joint. It is probably from them that I’ve inherited the gene of zing, risk, and destruction. When I moved here from Cracow, I was firm I’d live in Aleje Jerozolimskie. I thought that if I had a number of street names to choose from, then let it be this one. That apartment was like the railway switch, I got divorced in it. In 2000, I moved to Praga, to a loft without heating and bathroom. I had a crisis there, nothing to write about.
Two years later, you placed the palm tree in Aleje Jerozolimskie. Are these events connected?
No, they aren’t. The palm was a consequence of my trip to Israel. I went there with Artur Żmijewski in March 2001. I was on holiday, he was pursuing his plan to visit kibbutzim and the local Holocaust memory rooms where you can see documentary films from the war and a piece of soap made from human fat.
We spent a couple of weeks in Jerusalem, in the hotel by the Damascene Gate, in the Arab part of town. It’s a famous place because that’s where Palestinian activists and Israeli dissidents meet – such as Mordechai Vanunu, for instance. The hotel is run by Hishan, an Arab, who this year got hit by a rubber bullet on some barricade and is paralysed. Only we didn’t know about all this at the time, for us it was just an ordinary sleazy hotel full of tourists. I looked at them, listened to their conversations, and felt sick. They were like an island, completely detached from the reality at hand. And yet when we were there, you could the cannonade over Bethlehem all the time. We’d buy a beer, go to the park. Every time we sat on the bench, there was an explosion. We used to joke there was a button in the bench that activated the explosion. We wanted to understand something. We talked to Jews, to Arabs. You can’t comprehend what’s going on there. Everyone has his story, and everyone is right. At the same time, we couldn’t leave the place, we got the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, something kept us there, we delayed the departure date several times.
After coming back we tried to write an essay about the political situation in Israel. We couldn’t finish it. I remember how we sat in Artur’s stuffy apartment, the sun was bursting through the windows, I was pacing the room, and suddenly I say, ‘Let’s write that the conclusion of our trip will be to plant a row of palm trees alongside Aleje Jerozolimskie!’. When I came home, I thought, hey, that’s a great idea.
Suddenly I realised where I was. What the name “Aleje Jerozolimskie’ meant. Something clicked. I went to the library on Koszykowa and started reading. It was like that: in 1772, the year of Poland’s greatest misfortune, August Sułkowski set up a settlement for Jews beyond the bounds of town. It was called Nowa Jerozolima and was located roughly where the street Towarowa runs today. It survived two years. The Jews did great and became a competition for the Warsaw merchants and artisans. The merchants sued Sułkowski for harming their interests by setting up the settlement. They won. The houses were destroyed, the Jews driven out, the property confiscated. But the name remained. First Droga Jerozolimska, then Aleja Jerozolimska, and finally Aleje Jerozolimskie.
You know, for me it’s always these flashes of intuition. I trust thinking freed from the rational mode. Only then do I start analysing what I came up with and start to calculate. The row of palm trees was unrealistic. I decided it had to be a single tree, placed at some distance from the passers-by so that you had to make an effort to reach it. Rondo de Gaulle’a was a perfect place. It was to be like a girl from a rural suburb, impudent and kitschy. We measured the proportions of the surrounding buildings with architect Michał Rudnicki to define the proper height. We wanted it to be lofty and strange, that’s why it’s so tall.
The palm, unveiled on December 12, 2002, proved highly controversial. Threatened by removal several times, attacked, defended. Did you expect it’d be perceived as a political provocation?
Not at all! I was a virgin in terms of working in public space. I only knew that I had done it, that I had debts, that the leaves were too short, and that I had to dissociate myself from the whole thing not to go mad. The web forums were full of shit. When I saw a Christmas show on TV with the palm in the background, I called TVP to complain: how can they use my palm on Rondo de Gaulle’a as a Christmas decoration!
I didn’t realise that a work placed in public space, even if under the CCA’s patronage, functions in completely different way than an exhibition in Ujazdowski Castle. Until then, I had exhibited in galleries, and that’s a safe situation: there’s a curator, a press conference, you can explain everything. And the palm grew bigger than me.
When did you realise the project was living its own life?
When the situation got bad. I had a permit for one year. In 2003, we wrote a letter to mayor Kaczyński, desperately trying to hand the palm over to the city. We were broke, could afford to neither renovate the palm nor disassemble it. He didn’t reply. In 2004, we disassembled what had remained of the leaves after the autumn gales. The palm stood there illegally now. I asked friends for help, we placed a fence around it with a placard ‘The palm’s waiting for a contract’. The same night the road authority dismantled the fence, I was threatened I’d have to pay for the operation. The Palm Tree Defence Committee was set up, founded by Gazeta Wyborcza journalists Mariusz Szczygieł and Agnieszka Kowalska. And mayor Kaczyński said in interview for Przyjaciółka that a Christmas tree should stand there because it was our Christian tradition and we should cultivate it. I heard from the town councillors he hated the palm. And the conflict got political. I felt I had provoked a wave – I probably made the palm to provoke in the first place – but I didn’t know what kind of wave it’d be. My boyfriend’s mother heard on the tram, ‘The Jews have put it here, it’s their street’. And when I asked the handyman repairing the palm why he thought they didn’t like the palm, he said, ‘Because it’s different’. He didn’t have to know the story of Sułkowski.
The palm created me as an artist. I understood that the power of a public project stems from the fact that everyone can understand it their own way rather than being forced to accept the artist’s solely correct interpretation.
At first, I didn’t want to talk to the press. I told the journalists, ‘Read a little and call me back’. And I kept waiting for some profound text that would explain the palm’s significance as a work of art. After several years I realised it’s necessary to talk to everyone and not expect critical texts in the serious periodicals when you leave the field of art and enter socio-political space. Now I agree for the palm to be used as people want it, whatever the need is.
Recently it wore the nurse’s cap.
The nurses demonstrating in front of the prime minister’s chancellery came up with the idea. They told the feminist and philosopher Ewa Majewska who came to me. They wanted the palm to feature a symbol of Warsaw’s solidarity with their protest. They said, ‘It’s not a palm, it’s a nurse!’.
What makes projects such as a palm tree or a pond different from monuments?
When we were doing the excavations on Plac Grzybowski, I was approached by Maksymilian Biskupski, a sculptor. He has designed a monument he wants to place there – a menorah shaped like a tree whose trunk is formed with hands reaching upwards. He said, ‘It’s incredible you used water as the symbol of purification’. I’d never have thought of that! I don’t think in such terms. The traditional monument is a closed formula. Its meaning is pre-defined. It’s precisely the opposite with the palm. You pass trough Rondo de Gaulle’a, see the palm, and have no hint on how to understand it, no plaque, no inscription. You can’t guess what it’s about, you have to invent it yourself. It’s also innocent because of that, and everyone can ascribe whatever they want to it, treat it like a mirror of their own views. The palm became meaningful when it became controversial, when the war over it broke out. Traditional monuments are in past perfect, mine are in present tense.
Two years ago, I designed a volcano for the town of Umea in north Sweden. The project was shelved. The idea was to build an artificial mountain in the middle of the town where you’d enter to warm up by fire. The volcano would be activated, literally, when someone started a fire in the hearth. Without human participation, my projects are about nothing, don’t exist.
Why a volcano?
I went there on a grant from the Swedish foundation IASPIS. Umea is a university town, with two pubs, people sitting at home in the evening, the sun hanging low, absolute silence. I lived in the university hotel, but in the basement, because I came with a dog and the law protects those suffering from allergy. If someone fell ill, it’d be my fault, so I wasn’t allowed to have neighbours. I had some windows under the ceiling. To see anything, I had to stand on a chair. I felt crystalline loneliness. In Umea, there are no meetings without a purpose. I had a lecture about my projects, a meeting at the town council, I organised a screening of films about social rebellions. No one ever suggested going anywhere afterwards, to have a drink or whatever. I took part in a march against violence. It was the most absurd march in my life. Ten people with lanterns walked through the desolate town. I learned the peaceful town was famous for rapists. A year earlier they caught a rapist who had operated for five years. When I came, there was another accident – eight guys almost raped a girl. I started to think about what to do for something to change among these people.
I came up with the idea of a geyser. I warm, spherical, concrete hole in the ground with sitting niches in the walls. I went to the town hall. They turned it down. They made me realise the geyser would remain frozen for half a year. Then I went to Poland because my mother died. By the time I came back, the geyser had turned into a volcano. I put a notice in the local newspaper about a meeting in the public library to discuss the idea of building a volcano in the town. Five people came. I’ve never seen a discussion so orderly. People asked about the technical details, no one interrupted anyone. I was amazed they didn’t ask why I wanted to build a volcano in their town. After the meeting I invited them all home for dinner. I made a cake, Amir, an engineer from Iran, made a soup. Earlier, I sent them a text that was to be an introduction to the film about building the volcano, and then conflict began.
In the text, I likened the people of Umea to volcanoes. I wrote, ‘Your tension is the result of years of isolation’. When we opened the wine, they said, ‘It’s not true, how can you say something like that, it’s you who is the volcano. It’s you who can’t make contact with us’. Then Amir stood up and told them, ‘It’s your fault. Damn Sweden, I’ve been living here for twenty two years and no one’s ever invited me anywhere, I hate this country’. I was happy, I thought I finally could be with these people once they got angry at me.
The volcano was to be a therapy for yourself or for the community?
What I feel doesn’t matter but I believe than if I experience certain things, the group will too. I treat myself as an instrument. I believe that if we can stand next to each other helpless, if we try to find words to express conflict, we’ll feel well with the other person. The point is not to change people but to accept that they’re different. Without a moment of conflict, it’s usually impossible.
I don’t delude myself that I’m conducting a therapeutic process that’ll have lasting effect. Still, I think my role’s to introduce distortions, however momentary, that can eventually lead to real change.
Why is it you who should be improving social relations in Sweden? Perhaps on Plac Grzybowski no one wants to be oxygenated against their will either?
During my stay in Jerusalem, I made a performance in the ultra-orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim. I was dressed in a long dress with sleeves, because you can’t even show an ankle there. I saw two men walking towards me from the opposite direction. I run up a few steps and lay myself on the ground. One of the men raised his cane at me. Artur Żmijewski managed to take a picture.
I had a lecture at Goldsmith College in New York where I told the story. The students attacked me, said it was a violation of the local customs, a symbolic act of violence. Sure, it was violence, but it was violence a rebours because I lay myself on the ground, assuming a defenceless position. So it was violence in reverse. I felt horribly in Mea Shearim. It didn’t matter to me that the place looks like a pre-war Polish shtetl. What interested me are the women pale like vampires, with hordes of children. When a woman walks down the street there, the man either covers his face with his hat or looks away. The guy who raised his cane at me probably thought it was some political provocation. The ultra-orthodox Jews don’t recognise the state of Israel. In a normal country, if you lie on the ground, people are puzzled or want to help you. That guy raised his stick at me.
I knew I was violating his space, his rights, but do you know how great I felt when I got up and he looked at me and started yelling?
Why do you need human contact so much you want to force people to make contact with you?
I recently attended Slavoj Zizek’s lecture. He said psychoanalysis didn’t work today because if a patient lies on the couch and the psychoanalyst asks him, ‘Do you what this woman in your dream means?’, the patient replies, ‘I don’t know but it sure has something to do with my mother’. Well, my mother suffered from Alzheimer in her late years. The origin for that was depression accompanied by psychoses. I was born in Bydgoszcz. My parents divorced early. Until I left to study in Cracow, we lived alone with my mother and sister. All my teen years I sat at home, meeting no one. My mother had a problem with moving outdoors. When we went for a walk, every place was bad to sit and rest. A grove, a bunch of trees, a cluster of buildings – they were all an insurmountable barrier. She was afraid of boundaries, areas where something can lurk and threaten us. I accompanied her in that manic searching for a place. Perhaps that’s why I’m so sensitive about choosing the locations for my projects. It may be an oversimplification, but the key to everything is my relationship with my mother and her detachment from the world.
Your 2004 action in Paris, called Hello, was devoted to your mother.
It’s a work about broken contact. I was invited to Paris to take part in an exhibition of Polish artists at gallery Passage de Retz. I went there a couple of months earlier to prepare for the project. The day I was leaving for Paris, my mother was taken to hospital. I knew I’d never talk to her again, that verbal communication had been broken. And I was right. She lost the ability to build meaningful statements. I sat in a hotel in Paris, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t go out. What for? Where? I hate Paris. It’s a city of a supercilious, ossified convention that I can’t bear. I instinctively looked for tall buildings. I went to La Défence. Rode up the Grande Arche to the observation deck where people stand with binoculars and look around. I felt relieved when I saw they didn’t really know how to behave, and I started looking around too. Such moments of helplessness, when people vacillate, unable to find a form to express what is happening to them, interest me the most. I don’t want to help them overcome helplessness, I want to show it. My action was that I stood on the roof of a nearby high-rise building, intently waving a white handkerchief. Waving and waving. Of course, no one noticed me. It was about powerlessness. Ms Frydman, the gallery owner, was disappointed that it was so small and poor, and in La Défence to boot. She thought I was preparing something like the palm. But, unfortunately, that was all I was able to come up with. I love failures of all kind. It was a spectacular failure.
You said the body was more important to you than language. Why do you think so?
I studied painting at the Cracow ASP with Jerzy Nowosielski, a mystic, someone who didn’t teach me how to paint, but rather formed my attitude towards the world. The consciousness of what happened in me under his influence came much later, and I’m not sure whether it wasn’t during the actions in Warsaw. Nowosielski came to the studio at eight a.m. He was an alcoholic, at nine he went to the nearby watering hole, the Domino, and at three he went to sleep. I was simultaneously studying art history at the Jagiellonian University, so I came to the studio early. If you came there at twelve noon, you no longer had the chance to talk to him. In fact, it was hardly a dialogue. I’m not deluding myself he heard my questions. He said something that got engraved in my memory forever: ‘Can you be this vase, this drapery, this apple?’.
What was it supposed to mean?
I understood it later, when I read interviews with him. To us, raised in Western culture, these are inaccessible territories. To us, to ‘be an apple’ means to touch it, to eat it, but we’ll never eliminate the distance between us and the object. He talked about ‘embodying the apple on canvas’. What he meant was direct communion, like in icon painting – we’re communing with God rather than creating His representation on canvas.
I tried to understand it literally. To be able to paint something, I have to be one with the object. I have to look at it so intently as to become part of the still life. I was a very poor painter. I thought I’d try with objects. I placed a chair by the window, sat on it. Then I formed on it a mound of iron oxide red, because it’s closest to haemoglobin. Zero. Nothing happened. A wrong track. Then I went to New York, and it’s there the breakthrough came. I fell ill, went to the doctor, where they kept applying iodine to my skin. I liked that. I bought gallons of it. I was invited to take part in a large group exhibition in Williamsburg. I made a tray on four legs and filled it with iodine. I offered to wash everybody’s hands. I meant sterilisation at first, but it turned out differently. In the US, iodine is thicker than here, a heavy, velvety slime. When you smear someone with it, you glide across the surface of their skin. It was an absolutely sexual contact with another person.
You achieved the state Nowosielski talked about?
I’ll never identify with anything or anyone but I can be as close to another person as possible physically. I like closeness, while, at the same time, being terribly afraid of it. I can bear with it when it’s under control. Art enables me to create such situations.
At your exhibition Satisfaction Guaranteed at the CCA in 2000 you showed cans with labels saying that they contain your bodily liquids. There was also vaseline supposedly made with your saliva, and soap made of your fat. Then you made the project Woman in Pellets. A fridge with plastic bags filled with pellets and an information they’ve been made of Joanna Rajkowska’s neurone pulp. Next to it, a video showing a family devouring a dinner made on the basis of those pellets. Was it a criticism of the consumption-oriented society or an ironic commentary on the fact that it’s really impossible to identify with another person?
That project too stemmed from my intense desire to make contact with another person. When someone drinks me, or washes himself with me, that contact is fulfilled. Only the really full contact – a utopia – can never be achieved, only strived at.
It wasn’t a criticism of consumption. It was an ironic commentary on my situation as an artist in society. Because I didn’t exist on the art market, something that hasn’t changed to this day, I decided to sell myself as a commodity product – a canned drink, a cosmetic, a frozen dish. And, out of sheer contrariness, to sell my traumas, problems, disappointments, and fragments of my biography as well.
It was also a result of my having grown tired with the art I had been doing until then. My figural sculptures were an attempt to describe myself, my problems with sexuality, with my body. But I felt it wasn’t my language. I didn’t want to make objects that were dead but such that people can manipulate, use as tools.
In 2003, at Mullerdechiara Gallery in Berlin, and in 2004 at the Art Biennale in Łódź, you carried out the action Artist for Hire. You placed an ad in the newspaper that you could be hired, sex and violence out of the question. What did you want to achieve?
I wanted to see what roles people ascribe to the artist today. I thought I’d be passive and see what is their notion of what they need me for. They came up with all kinds of ideas. I helped a lighting engineer on stage, worked as bartender, helped a guy rearrange the furniture in his apartment after his girlfriend left him. Łódź was different than Berlin. People didn’t expect me to perform any concrete work for them. Someone suggested going for a walk together, someone else invited me for a school dance. I even helped drive out demons. The most unusual case was a lady who asked me to help clean her house after her second husband died. She wanted to marry for the third time. Holding the objects that were to be left or thrown away, I held the most private parts of her life. I was close to her, and, at the same time, there was a glass wall between us. We both knew it was a game. It was a wonderful experience. The woman treated me like someone able to help her in her decisions, guide her life, someone equipped with supernatural powers. In Poland, the artist is someone whose role is perceived like that of the shaman, part religious, part romantic.
The public projects – how do they relate to the issues of the body and of communication?
I’ve always been interested in how people interact with each other on the street, how they crowd in a queue. Whether they stand a good metre apart, like in the West, or half a metre, like in Poland, or like in Jerusalem, where, during some Arab religious feast, I thought my ribs would crush my lungs and I wouldn’t be able to take another breath. I know that the people who happen upon each other by the Oxygenator behave differently. They don’t talk, they sit close to each other and look at the water. I watch people on the bus, the palm changes their behaviour. Something happens in them, the chemistry changes. These are almost imperceptible moments when people turn towards each other. Besides, the palm is my self-portrait.
In what way?
It’s a cheeky girl from nowhere who wants to be liked and seeks approval but can’t find it. I’ll never be part of the elite either, I can’t even do my hair properly. I’m aware of my own failures. I’m absent from the leading galleries. No one big is backing me. That’s why the Umea volcano project had to fail. Everyone eventually came to like the idea of building a volcano on the hill in the middle of the city. But the hill turned out to be private property. I met the owner. He held out his hand in a rigid gesture, there was panic in his eyes. ‘Have a good time in Sweden’, he stammered out and ran away. He was horrified someone without a significant exhibition in her CV, someone who had never participated in an important biennial, would erect a weird construction on his land. The very same man sponsored Louise Bourgeois’s sculptures in the town’s sculpture park.