A Tree Grows on Warsaw

Times Staff Writer

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.

"I wanted to say something about it," said Rajkowska, wearing a camouflage T-shirt and dreadlocks. "The word 'palm' in Polish means something foolish, incomprehensible. That's how I felt about Israel and what was happening there. This is the language I wanted to transfer into reality. The palm tree fit that meaning.... It was also a social experiment to see how people would react to something so alien to their culture."

A real palm wouldn't survive the dark Warsaw winter. A part-synthetic, part-natural creation was needed.

Forever Preserved of Escondido, which manufactures palms for hotels and shopping malls, constructed the 40-foot trunk out of palm bark grafted onto a PVC pipe and coated with a resin-like material.

The trunk was raised Dec. 13. Two other companies made the fronds, and, according to Rajkowska's technical collaborator, Michal Rudnicki, they were delivered late and lacked a certain humor.

"That's the bad part of the story," he said. "The fronds were stiff and badly made. In a windstorm they could have blown off and cut someone's head off.

"We had to replace them, but we were running out of money. That's when Joanna and some friends made them out of fiberglass and resin. The tree looks real. People climb on it. They urinate on it and pick pieces off as souvenirs."

Last month, the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza praised the palm for being "Total Honolulu. Surreal. Poetry. Polish Folly." But the newspaper also sketched a grim future:

"The days of the palm are numbered. The city authorities don't want the tree. We already know that the palm tree, one year after its birth ... with back rent unpaid will be pulled and taken to the garbage dump."

The question of back rent cannot be ignored. Technically, according to a Communist-era law, the palm can be considered a form of advertisement, such as a cigarette billboard, and be held liable for monthly fees calculated on a per-square-foot basis. It's confusing, but basically the palm owes the city 5,800 zlotys, or about $1,450. The tree's guardian -- the Institute for Art Promotion -- can't afford that sum and argues that the palm should be deemed tax-exempt art.

The city has so far waived the fee, but the lease to occupy the traffic circle expires Dec. 13, and a vote on the issue could come anytime.

"We didn't want to be seen as this narrow-minded government agency," said Nelken, the road department spokeswoman, who would rather contemplate potholes than abstract questions about palm trees as art. "We have to follow the law, and a work of art is not mentioned in the law.

"For me, it's just a plastic tree, but I'm no expert.... All I know is nothing should distract a driver in a roundabout."

Sitting in cafe candlelight, rain rattling the windows, Rajkowska senses other forces against the palm. "The current politicians are afraid of this," she said. "They are rightists and conservatives. They'd rather see a cross or a Christmas tree in that place.... I was pretty much alone with this project. Its language is outside [Warsaw's] art community."

Down the street, his long yellow hat resembling an elf's cap with a ball dangling at the end, Jacek Majchrowski gazed past the old Communist Party headquarters toward the traffic circle and the palm, its fronds lifting in a raw breeze.

"The palm is satire," he said, as he sold newspapers on the sidewalk.

"If you feel down and you're having a rotten day and you see this palm, you get a smile on your face. I don't think it's a work of art. It's plastic. It's artificial, a copy of reality. But it's satire, and we need satire to live."

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