Totally tree-mendous: Warsaw’s palm returns from the dead to become the talk of the town

Back from the dead. The palm’s brown and wilted leaves are a vibrant green once again.

As controversial as it is iconic, the palm tree standing at the centre of Warsaw’s Rondo de Gaulle’a has again returned to the news, this time after its sprouting thatch of lustrous leaves died overnight leaving the public both baffled and bemused in equal measure.

Occurring over the evening of May 31 and June 1, the palm seemingly wilted during the course of the night, its once gloriously green fronds replaced by dead, drooping leaves. Often dubbed the most famous tree in Poland, its sudden deterioration stunned locals with many expressing outrage that the city could allow such an emblematic work to die. Even more people, however, were left puzzled that an artificial tree could display the same signs of decay as a real one.

The palm’s creator, Joanna Rajkowska, said its “death” was to bring attention to pollution and climate change.Andrzej Rybczyński/PAP

Was this a freak reaction to the elements? A prank? Something sinister, or just another inexplicable Polish mystery?

With the Museum of Modern Art – the guardians of the palm – maintaining an enigmatic silence, and the story going viral on social platforms, the answer was revealed by the palm’s original creator, Joanna Rajkowska. Speaking to the media, the artist divulged that its transformation had been orchestrated in cahoots with an environmental group titled UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre to draw attention to problems relating to air pollution and climate change.

“I have this fear that people allow themselves such silly things (that threaten the environment) in the name of short-term political interests or economic expansion,” explained Rajkowska.Andrzej Rybczyński/PAP

“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 Rajkowska, “and the dead palm is a sign of this.”

Planned to coincide with World Environment Day on June 5, the action found itself widely praised with the story reported by heavyweight global news outlets such as ABC News and The New York Times.

Though the palm – as of this weekend – has been restored to its full verdant greenness, it’s widely accepted that it will hit headlines again in the future. First debuting in December, 2002, its erection scandalized a country that – at the time – was largely unfamiliar with public art.

The tree has sparked hostility from traditionalists who opposed its message of diversity and otherness.Bartłomiej Zborowski/PAP

“The beginning of her existence,” recalls Rajkowska, “was very difficult and dramatically divided people – I heard about one family in Kielce that didn’t eat their Christmas dinner because of an argument they had about the palm!”

Inspired by a trip to Israel, the palm – titled Greetings From Jerusalem – was created by the artist in order to fill the void left by the capital’s once sizeable Jewish population, with its location – on one of the key crossroads of Al. Jerezolimskie – further highlighting the significance and relevance of the street’s history and etymology to Warsaw’s complex soul.

Initially granted a one-year permit for her installation, the 15-metre work was seen as humorously absurd by many, but also sparked hostility from traditionalists who opposed its message of diversity and otherness. Over time, though, it grew to be appreciated for its alternative value, whilst in the process becoming a reflection of the city’s creative streak and a proud, imaginative sign of Warsaw’s modernity. After some soul-searching, its presence became permanent, a turn of events that the artist herself admits was a surprise.

Once a temporary exhibit the tree is now a permanent feature of the Warsaw skyline.Grzegorz Jakubowski/PAP

“I had a permit that allowed the project to stand on the roundabout for just a year,” she says, “so even in my wildest dreams I never expected her to survive longer than that – at the time, the art world was completely oblivious to it. It was a partisan project and Sebastian Cichocki, a curator from MSN, told me many years later that no-one was ready for a project that arrived with no theoretical package.”

Of Warsaw, the artist is frank in the inspiration the city lends her. “It always inspires me, but I have no idea how,” she says. “It’s like being in your own huge studio – I see it as a stage. Sometimes it needs a prop. The rest is just an energy that is here that creates a spectacle, 24-hours a day.” Whether intentionally or not, Rajkowska’s palm has become that prop the city needs, as well as an integral part of Warsaw’s modern dynamic.