Alien elements

Ewa Jasiewicz discusses the work of Joanna Rajkowska, whose public art highlights tensions in the public consciousness

July 3, 2014 · 6 min read

Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue

Joanna Rajkowska, or ‘Rajka’ as she’s known in her native Poland, is an artist whose work has occupied and transformed public space from Brazil to Palestine, the US to Turkey. Her work attempts to influence people’s identities and relationships by altering their common reference points, including religious landmarks and historic sites of tragedy. Her first English-language book, Where the Beast is Buried (Zero Books, 2014), incorporates stories, images and interviews to chart over a decade of her work.

‘My entry to the public space was an entry into the post-communist realm, thoroughly politicised and deeply traumatised,’ Rajka explains in the introduction. ‘I didn’t address my projects to communities as they no longer existed, but to individuals. I was building unfamiliar, sometimes estranged points of reference, so that people could relate to each other, often non-verbally.’

Much of her art explores fear, shame, the unsaid and trauma, both her own and that which is logged within dominant cultures in a given place. ‘One thing was certain, I shared [my audiences’] fear of reality,’ she writes. Many of her planned projects have been blocked, her ideas clashing with city planners and community gatekeepers. Yet the struggle to enact them creates a public, political process in itself, as creative as if the piece has actually come to life.

Facilitating the foreign

Minaret (2008–2009) was an attempt to transform a disused factory chimney in Poznań, Poland, into a likeness of the minaret on the Izz ed-Din mosque in Jenin, Palestine. Rajka describes it as ‘one of many projects which rely on after-images and illusions which have the power to introduce an alien element into the logic of the familiar and to facilitate that which is foreign . . . We need these illusions because familiarity blunts our perceptions so that we don’t see things anymore.’

Because the chimney was in the line of sight of a former synagogue and existing cathedral, the city’s Competition Commission called it ‘culturally alien’ and a ‘religious provocation’. Public opinion was also hostile. Minaret was never realised, yet it raised the profile of the Muslim population in Poland and called attention to Poland’s role in historic and modern-day colonialism.

The same year, while Gaza was under attack, Rajka wrote to the most popular Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, titling her piece ‘Our Conflict’. Gaza ‘was, and is, and will always be our conflict’, she said. ‘I am a human being who feels partially responsible for what is happening, if only because our – Polish and European – contribution is the shape of the Israeli state, its practices, its apartheid, its war crimes and its relationship to Others.’ Such words, in a country that has been called ‘Israel’s best friend in Europe’, were like an earthquake.

Help in healing

Rajka’s work attempts to help in the healing of trauma. With Oxygenator it was post-Holocaust dispossession and manipulation, and silent, intergenerational grief, aired through an ozone-oozing lake built into a park where the Warsaw ghetto once was. This became a site of reflection and recreation, and literally a collective and individual breathing space.

The artist had a similar aim for The Peterborough Child, though it went unrealised due to vocal opposition from local residents. Peterborough’s heritage includes traces of human settlements reaching back to Neolithic times. Rajka’s idea was to create a fake archaeological dig that would become a kind of chakra, or strong energy point, generated by local people.

The dig would ‘discover’ a fake skeleton of a baby girl encased with glass, and Rajka would be present every day, inviting people to come and share experiences of loss and trauma connected to their children. The piece was inspired by Rajka’s own anguish over her infant daughter, Roza, born with retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that threatened her life. The central and north area of Peterborough was chosen for its large Asian and eastern European populations, associated tensions and high levels of deprivation. NHS services are lacking, and infant mortality rates are some of the highest in the country. The plan for Peterborough Child touched a raw nerve.

She explores illness and familial relationships further in Basia, a short film named for her mother, whom she was ‘afraid of [her] entire life’. Six years after a long battle with Alzheimer’s took Basia’s life, Rajka decided to ‘become’ her. She put on oversized hospital pyjamas and slippers, grabbed an empty handbag, and walked waist deep into the Vistula River at dawn. She wandered dripping through the town of Świecie and an empty bus station before being taken to hospital by a passer-by and collapsing in an emergency room.

Casting spells

Interviewing her in the book, the leading Polish artist Artur Żmijewski says, ‘What you do is a kind of social praxis that is presented to us in the guise of art. I think you’ve been wrongly classified as an artist – for the lack of name for what you do, and lack of any other pigeonhole.’ He goes on to ask, ‘What do you think an artist is?’ She replies: ‘An artist is a seismograph. And a shaman, if she can do it.’

Rajka casts spells. She has tried to: resurrect a dead language (Benjamin in Konya, where she translated Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator into extinct Ottoman Turkish); make Berlin a swamp (Sumpfstadt, about the original swampland that the city is built on, and a fantasy of unravelling history and returning it to wild nature); conjure up a volcano in sleepy Umeå, Sweden (Umeå Volcano, unrealised); make the first public receptacle for human ashes (The Bat, a three-metre, granite, bat-shaped capsule to be suspended beneath Kornhausbrücke bridge in Bern, Switzerland, unrealised); erect a monument to past grassroots, multicultural communism in Bialystok (Comstar, a giant red star sculpture, unrealised); and turn Regent’s Park, London, into a smoking field of incense (Forcing a Miracle).

Her most famous piece, Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, transplanted a ‘palm tree’ into a busy intersection in Warsaw. It was commemorating the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish community of Nowa Jerozolima from the area in the 18th century. It triggered questions about responsibility for exile, the reproduction of ethnic cleansing and the meaning of place. It also became a site of protest, donning a white nurse’s hat during a long health workers’ strike. It lost its leaves in protest over the Euro 2012 football tournament and ongoing poverty in Poland.

Where the Beast is Buried is an insight into a facilitator, a gentle but relentless inquisitor, and a revolutionary whose art cannot be and isn’t confined to the ‘art world’. Joanna Rajkowska’s work challenges and recreates the meaning of public and personal relationships. It re-navigates and translates senses, and begins to change what we experience as ‘belief’, ‘identity’, ‘politics’, and the intimate. She’s the most important artist you’ve never heard of but will keep returning to long after you read her book.

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