The Art of Breathing, Piotr Sarzyński, Polityka weekly

Five years ago, she placed a palm tree in the very centre of Warsaw that initially provoked controversy but soon became one of the city's landmarks. Now she has built the Oxygenator, immediately hailed as another of Warsaw's icons. Who is Joanna Rajkowska and what is behind her unusual projects? Though art critics agree she is one of the leading Polish contemporary artists, no single album, no monograph has so far been published on Rajkowska's art. More than that, no gallery in the country has offered to represent her. That is why, even though she is an extraordinary artist, Rajkowska does not live off her art; to earn her living, she works full time at an IT company. 'I'm outside the market, outside the circulation, outside the official art institutions. Separate and "undigested" by the art world. But I feel an urge to be active in the public sphere and I do what makes me happy', Joanna Rajkowska says with a mixture of resignation and satisfaction. Wojciech Krukowski, director of Warsaw's Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, the institution under whose aegis both the palm tree and the Oxygenator were developed, is full of praise for Rajkowska: 'She's a very cheerful person, and a very determined one at the same time. She won't be deterred by bureaucratic hurdles or organisational problems. As a result, she has been able to carry out projects that other artists would have long given up on'. 'She's a very hard-working person', says Magda Pustoła, curator of several of Rajkowska's projects. 'She will listen to you, and she'll change her mind if she decides that what you say makes sense - and that's a rare thing for an artist'. Double MA Rajkowska was born and grew up in Bydgoszcz. She studied in Cracow and holds two degrees. She started with art history, but she admits theory proved less interesting than she had thought. Almost simultaneously, she studied painting in Jerzy Nowosielski's famous studio, where she obtained a degree in 19993. 'Unfortunately, I've never learned to paint well', she says. Today, she reaches for the brush and dyes only in moments of stress, making very small, very personal pictures which she then hides deep in the drawer. (She showed me a couple and I have to say her self-criticism is not unjustified). After completing her studies, she became involved in sculpture. At the time, as art historian Ewa Gorządek writes, she made 'human-size mannequins, semi-fantastic, semi-realistic. Nicely made, they glittered with the polished surface of epoxide resin, catching the eye with pure colour, but what they represented were mutilated, deformed, or mutated bodies'. Those were often casts of the artist's own body, made to order, laboriously and meticulously, at a shop mannequin manufactory. They caught the professionals' attention, and by the late 1990s, Rajkowska had already had a number of solo exhibitions at leading Polish galleries. But that wasn't enough for her. In 2000, she makes Satisfaction Guaranteed, a work that goes one step further in the reflection on one's own body. The large-scale and highly eccentric project consisted in making, using industrial methods, a line of canned soft drinks and cosmetics containing the artist's own bodily secretions. The artist's intimate life was turned into a commodity and - in keeping with good marketing practice - put up for sale. The work marked the high point of the artist's grappling with her own corporeality. 'Satisfaction was a turning point', she remembers. 'It was a great relief to see others use me - drink me, wash themselves with me, massage me into their skin. That contact with people, even if it was a kind of cynical exploitation, and in the symbolic dimension, was profoundly liberating for me'. It was at the time that the artist moved to Warsaw. 'Cracow didn't need me because Cracow doesn't need anyone. Warsaw, in turn, needs you a lot because it is handicapped, chaotic, run-down, simply ugly', she said in interview. And it is probably out of that feeling of compassion for an imperfect city that the project known officially as Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue, and commonly as the 'palm tree', was born. A Piece of Jerusalem The idea emerged almost accidentally following the artist's trip to Israel. At first, it was pure fantasy, a joke or a prank: and if we translocated a fragment of Jerusalem to Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie by lining the avenue with palm trees? It came down to just a single tree, and an artificial one at that, because a living one would not have survived Poland's freezing winters. The tree was manufactured by a company located on the US-Mexican border, and the project was produced by Warsaw's Centre for Contemporary Art. The palm tree was erected in December 2002 as a symbol of tolerance for others, a jocular reference to the Polish idiom 'palma mu odbiła' ('he's got a screw loose'), a fantastic element introducing some colour into the drab Warsaw reality. At first, it stirred up strong emotions. From indignation (the Jews raised it because it's their street), through aversion, to enthusiasm. Gradually, however, Varsovians became familiar with the palm and came to like it. A poll carried out in October 2003 by the SMG/KRC polling institute showed 75 percent of respondents in favour of the palm remaining in place. A Palm Defence Committee (KOP) was spontaneously set up. And the palm stayed. But trouble began. In late 2004, the tree started losing its leaves. Rajkowska offered to donate the tree to the city in return for the city financing its renovation and upkeep. The reply from the city hall never came. The city did not want the gift, and it also refused to subsidise the leaf repairs. For six long months, a naked stub stood in the middle of Rondo de Gaulle'a. Eventually, in mid-2005, the palm regained its original form thanks to Rajkowska and a group of supporters. For six weeks, they assembled new leaves with China-made prefabricates. But the cheapo elements proved too delicate for Warsaw's weather conditions. Eventually, this summer, thanks to a subsidy from the new Warsaw mayor, the palm underwent comprehensive refurbishment. It looks like this time it will last longer. The palm quickly became one of Warsaw's icons. Newlyweds and tourists take pictures of themselves in front of it, it is mentioned by virtually all websites devoted to Warsaw and tourism. More than that, a major website was even launched devoted to the palm itself. During the last general elections, the Green party made the palm the centrepiece of its TV spots, and the city hall decided to make it one of the main features of its city promotion campaign. Palm Leaning Left The previous mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński, obviously did not like the palm. Not surprisingly, therefore, a bit out of sheer contrariness, it was quickly adopted as their symbol by the new left, the alterglobalists, the Greens, and generally by all those who thought differently than Mr Kaczyński and his conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. The nurses, as they passed here in their protest march earlier this year, hung their bonnets on the palm tree. Rajkowska herself views these new circumstances calmly: 'At the moment I placed the palm in public space, I agreed for the public to use it. It is others that create its history, add new contexts, use it creatively. This means the project is alive, stirs up emotions, that someone finds it important. And I have no right to interfere with that'. What is the palm's future? Formally, it is property of the artist who, at any time, can load it on a truck and take it away. If, for instance, a generous sponsor turned up and decided to place the palm in front of an apartment or office building. After so many years, the city authorities have still not bought the tree from Rajkowska. To the contrary, it is the artist who has to be paying the city for the palm to stand where it is. But something seems to be changing. Asked about Rajkowska's works, Marek Kraszewski, director at the City Hall's department of culture, spoke enthusiastically about such projects, citing Paris as an example. He also declared he would do all he could for contemporary art to be present more and more in Warsaw's public space. Water Lilies and Air Bubbles Meanwhile, a new work by Rajkowska appeared on Plac Grzybowski in the centre of Warsaw: The Oxygenator. It is a small pond, as if taken straight out of a botanic garden. Water lilies float on the surface, and a special system produces air bubbles that please the eye and the ear, as well as water spray that has a soothing effect on the body (especially on the hot summer days). A small embankment has been formed around the pond, with flowers, shrubs, and nice benches. A genuine mini-oasis in the centre of a bustling city. The project seems far more neutral emotionally than the, culturally alien, palm tree. But that is only the appearance. Plac Grzybowski is a special place. At one end, a Catholic church infamous for a bookstore selling anti-Semitic literature, at the other, the Jewish Theatre building and a synagogue. A space inhabited by seniors walking their dogs, hurrying executives from the nearby office buildings, winos, and petty shopkeepers. And in the centre of it a small pond that is supposed to connect all these - so incompatible - worlds, oxygenate them, integrate them in a short moment of rest by the surface of water. At the same time, Rajkowska's installation is an alternative proposition to two martyrological monuments planned in the area. Like the palm tree, so the Oxygenator immediately started living its own life; on the very next day after its launch, two local committees were set up to persuade the city authorities to keep the pond in place (the official wind-up date is end-September). And after a couple of days the Oxygenator actually needed repairs because no one expected the crowds that virtually trampled the pond's delicate shore. The palm tree and the Oxygenator have several things in common. They construct an open narrative, which means that the work's meaning is not constituted at the moment it is completed, or launched, but only in the course of its further existence and interaction with the surrounding world. Both works facilitate positive, spontaneous human relationships. Normally, the artist believes, people hide in capsules, separate themselves from others, are afraid of interacting with strangers. Her projects aim at opening those capsules. That was also the purpose of Rajkowska's other, less well known projects carried out in the recent years. In 22 Commissions (2002-2005), she placed an ad in the press saying she would accept any given commission for free. In Berlin, for instance, she helped a lady clean her apartment of keepsakes after her two former husbands to make room for a third one, sold sausages at a picnic, served as guide for a disoriented tourist from Britain. She cast out ghosts in Łódź and mediated in a family conflict in England. In Only Love (2004), she served guests at her favourite snack bar, and in The Boat Ride Around the Island of War (Belgrade, 2004), she tried to soothe the locals' post-war trauma, if only for a moment, with a pleasant boat trip. Wojciech Krukowski believes Rajkowska's works have a favourable influence not only on those who come into contact with them but on Polish contemporary art as a whole: 'Polish artists have no penchant for spectacular projects, for ambitious and time-consuming enterprises. They seem to be self-restraining themselves. Yet artists such as Althamer, Kozakiewicz, Uklański, or, precisely, Rajkowska, act with panache, ignoring the obstacles. And it would be good if they inspired others that way to act more boldly and creatively in the public space'. Joanna Rajkowska's works introduce some absurd humour, warmth, and sense of distance into the world around us. But is this art? The artist herself does not care. 'It's their business how people call it', she says. But if we assume that art is something that is supposed to make us better and to give us pleasure, then Rajkowska is certainly an artist of considerable stature. Piotr Sarzyński