Asked what public art should ‘achieve’, Joanna Rajkowska is surprisingly dismissive. “Nothing, really,” she replies, “it should just be a part of our everyday lives” It’s perhaps a startling admission given that Rajkowska, it could be argued, started Warsaw’s mania for this form of art.
First appearing in the middle of December, 2002, her artificial palm tree in the center of Rondo de Gaulle’a lit the touchpaper for a horde of artists to follow in her wake and experiment in public, whilst simultaneously handing the city a work that would become every bit as iconic of the post-communist capital as the skyscrapers blooming upwards. Yet astonishing as it seems now, both these points were unintended side-effects that took years to manifest.
Erected as a strictly temporary project, the idea for the Palm – or ‘Greetings From Jerusalem’ to award it its formal title – was coined during a trip that the artist undertook to Israel. “The palm is the ending to a text that has never been published,” says Rajkowska.
“Artur Żmijewski and I went to Israel in 2001. When we returned to Warsaw, we wanted to write about the second Intifada and the fierce conflict that we had witnessed. At the same time, it seemed that Warsaw, with no proper Jewish community, was painfully empty – as if one chamber of its heart was missing.”
Instead of, she continues, making hollowing statements, Rajkowska sought to do something – something performative. While the initial plan of setting a row of palm trees along Al. Jerozolomskie never materialized, a compromise was reached with the city – the placement of a 15-meter tall palm made from steel and clad in natural bark and topped with polyethylene fronds.
When it was first revealed, the general reaction ranged from good-humored smiles to outright resistance. Some were scandalized.
“The beginning of her existence (it’s a she in Polish!),” remembers Rajkowska, “was very difficult. It divided people dramatically, to the extent that I heard about one family in Kielce that couldn’t finish their Christmas dinner because of an argument about it.”
Granted a one-year permit for the project to stand, that it remains to this day has exceeded the artist’s expectations. “Even in my wildest dreams,” she says, “I didn’t expect it would survive longer than a year.” Not only did it, it became a landmark. Gradually, the public warmed to it, and Poland’s most famous tree became embedded in the urban fabric of the modern day city.
And whilst she now approaches her 17th year of life, the palm’s old age has not made her any less controversial. As recently as June, she caused more headlines after her leaves withered overnight. For days, the press and the public were baffled as to the cause of this, only for the reason to be revealed later by the artist. Working in tandem with an environmental group, the leaves had been swapped out overnight to draw attention to climate change.
“I have this fear, but also a sense of disillusionment, that people allow themselves such silly things (that threaten the environment) in the name of short-term political interests or economic expansion,” explained Rajkowksa in a statement to the press, “the dead palm is a sign of this.”
Now returned to its lustrous best, and under the guardianship of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw since 2014, its star power has not waned one bit.
For more on the artist, see: rajkowska.com