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A Tree Grows on Warsaw

An artificial palm has enlivened the bleak Polish skyline for a year. With the artwork's days numbered, its fans and detractors speak out.

November 17, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — The Warsaw winter lurks. The days have shrunk; the nights are endless and cold. It is a dour, surly time of drizzle, wool caps, galoshes and something rather extraordinary: a 40-foot-tall palm tree rising in whimsical defiance of the elements in the shadow of the old Communist Party headquarters.

It is not a real palm tree, yet from a distance, its fiberglass fronds scratching the Slavic air, it looks as if a sprig of Tahiti has sprung from the hard Polish earth.

Things, however, may not bode well for this palm. The yearlong agreement allowing the artwork to preside over the Charles de Gaulle traffic circle ends in December. The city, concerned in recent months that such exoticism might be too distracting for drivers, may then loosen its bolts, yank out its trunk and haul it away.

"We have to be concerned with traffic congestion," said Urszula Nelken, a spokeswoman for the city roads department. "We are now studying if the palm tree has caused more accidents. I, personally, have nothing against the palm. It makes me think of the Mediterranean and vacations. But why here in this roundabout?"

The nation's biggest newspaper is campaigning to save the palm, the $28,500 creation of artist Joanna Rajkowska. One intellectual argues that the epoxy-resin tree is redefining public art in "one of the ugliest cities in Europe." Cafes are filled with palm-inspired musings on aesthetics and soliloquies on postmodern sensibilities.

"It's ravishing in its absurdity and beauty," Krystyna Janda, one of Poland's leading actresses, opined in the celebrity pages.

For less lofty Poles, their faces pressed gloomily against the windows of buses and trolleys, the palm is a happy sentinel, conjuring daydreams and escapist fantasies at the bleak threshold of winter.

"It appeared one year ago," Katarzyna Blonska, an office worker bundled in a long blue coat, said as she hurried past the palm the other day. "I don't know what the artist had in mind. I think it's original. It gives you a nice feeling. It suits me."

As Blonska crossed the intersection, another sidewalk critic, Jaroslaw Pilawa, leaning on a wall and bracing against the cold, said: "You know, we need to get balloons shaped like bananas and coconuts so they can float up beside the palm. They could have a dialogue with the tree .... In the beginning, I was skeptical. But I like it now. It's provocative art."

Not everyone is so pleased. There is, for example, the matter of Christmas, no small holiday in a country that's 95% Roman Catholic and counts Pope John Paul II as a native son. The palm tree is occupying the spot where a Christmas tree usually stands. That was OK last year. A novelty, after all, is entitled to a bit of leeway.

But some Poles want the tannenbaum returned, noting that one can only hang so much tinsel on a palm. Not to mention gingerbread men and candy canes.

Then there are the taxi drivers.

The palm annoys them.

They mutter about the indignity of it all.

"It ridicules our city," scoffed one.

"I haven't met a taxi driver yet who likes it," said Jacek Kurczewski, a cultural anthropologist and former deputy speaker of the Polish Parliament. "Maybe they are very serious people.

"In Warsaw, we thought the beauty of postmodern architecture would come. It hasn't .... There's a fear of radical aesthetic elements. So we need to look at the ugliness and see places of fun. This makes the place more human. That's why I love this controversy over the palm. It makes you focus on what your town can look like."

The Warsaw skyline is an uneven canvas. Much of the city was destroyed in World War II. The tourist district of Old Town was rebuilt in classicist styles spanning the 15th and 18th centuries, but the rest is a graying stone and cubist hodgepodge of Communist social realism and the occasional glint of some shiny stab at the new millennium. Many statues are blocky, as if still entombed in rock and bronze; they peek through the dusk like lost giants.

The palm tree, like the willows adored by Polish composer Frederic Chopin, offers frivolity against this gritty landscape.

Inspiration for the palm came after Rajkowska returned from a trip to Israel in 2001.

An artist with a penchant for public statements and sweeping tableaux, Rajkowska's projects include Diary of Dreams, an exhibition held in a Warsaw gallery in which 250 people slept side by side on two large mattresses and recorded their experiences in notebooks.

How to portray Israel was far more vexing than communal snoozing, and Rajkowska, 35, contemplated a way to articulate the brutal religious divisions of the Middle East.

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