A versatile artist who uses various mediums, she take photographs and makes sculptures, drawings, objects, and installations that focus on the interface of art and reality.
Joanna Rajkowska is an artist who is most involved in exploring the creative possibilities of the interface between art and reality, and projects in the public space. Rajkowska's versatility lies in her ability to adapt the language of her artistic statement to the requirements of the message addressed to the viewer. Her work is characterised by a generous dose of irony as well as a certain distance from the issues it tackles. As she says of her own work,
The city, the urban space, is an area that should belong to the people, in which everyone can say – this is my space, I can shape it as I wish, I can make it thrive. A free space for expression that spreads to a fluid narration of identity, the space of games – this is the vision of a city in which I would like to live. Corporations, outdoor firms in no way should commercialise the urban space because they take it away from people. Such a city becomes a dead being, a place for commerce and political recreation, formulated for the needs of media campaigns. We don’t even realise how great an influence this has on our behaviour, how it slowly shapes our own selves.
Between 1987–1992 Rajkowska studied art history at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. She then studied painting from 1988 to 1993 at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of professor Jerzy Nowosielski, where she graduated with distinction. In 1994, she went on to attend the year-long Studio Semester Program at the State University of New York.
A major element of Rajkowska's work is the idea of the human body and the mutual relationship between man's physicality and his psychology, his self-knowledge in the physical sphere and in the sensual one. To this end, the artist often uses images of her own body in her art, and in 1994 she put forward the theory of the "body as sculpture." Shortly thereafter she gained critical and public recognition for a collection of her sculptures - life-sized mannequins that were part fantasy and part realism. Aesthetically pleasing on the surface, covered in gleaming, polished epoxy-resin, they attracted the eye with their vivid colours; but what the figures represented were maimed, deformed or mutated bodies, androgynous hybrids, creatures of an undefined sexual identity. To create these pieces, Rajkowska used unconventional techniques. The figures had been made to order by mannequin manufacturers, some incorporating dead animals or insects while others were based on the artist's own body casts. The pieces contrasted material aesthetics with a physical degeneration symbolic of a disturbed psychological state caused, among other things, by sexual pathology (The Ear That Hears. The Ear That Doesn't Hear, 1996), sexual identity-related anxieties (White Spirits Sans Odour, 1995; The Love of a Man Called Dog, 1997/1998) or bodily functions under extreme conditions (Water Tower. Headache, 1996).
In 2000, Rajkowska created Satisfaction Guaranteed, a series of consumer products – soft drinks and cosmetics – based on her own bodily secretions.
The intellectual provocation of this radical project surpassed everything that Rajkowska had done before. At the time, it was one of the most eccentric and perverse artistic concepts ever to appear in Polish art. At first sight Satisfaction Guaranteed appeared to be more of a marketing campaign than art. Rajkowska manufactured her objects using industrial methods, producing hundreds, even thousands of copies. The "product range" included a series of canned soft drinks in six flavours, two types of soap, vaseline and perfume. They had all been made following the dictates of consumer marketing: they had their own brand ("Satisfaction Guaranteed"), a logo and carefully designed packaging. They were also functional: the drinks could be drunk, the soap used to wash, the perfume applied as a scent. But unlike mass production, which is usually impersonal and anonymous, Rajkowska's products conveyed an extremely personal message. The cans, the perfume, the vaseline and the soap together created a kind of intimate self-portrait – intimate to the extreme in the sense that the raw material used for making them was Rajkowska herself, or rather, her body. As well as containing water, carbon dioxide and preservatives, the drinks made use of ingredients like DNA, grey brain matter, mammary gland extract, vaginal mucus, cornea and endorphins, all collected from the artist's body. The same was true of the cosmetics; the vaseline was based on the artist's saliva, the perfume incorporated her pheromones and the soap was made of her body fat.
Rajkowska's products' "commercial" names and packaging design were equally personal in nature. The artist used photographs from her family albums, pictures of her family members and images of her own body parts, including those commonly regarded as intimate. Plus, it wasn't only the chemical composition of the Satisfaction Guaranteed series products that was unusual. Information about what each product was supposed to do was expressly stated on the packaging, and their advertised effects went far beyond what one would normally expect from a soft drink or a vaseline. The drinks refreshed, but they also enhanced erotic sensations and soothed pain. They could also have more serious effects, such as relieving a sense of loss or boredom, or even transforming the genotype. As for the cosmetics, they could produce even more bizarre results; the Family Life soap caused "fear of family life and watching TV together", with masturbation as a possible side effect. Users of the vaseline would experience "instant relief", but had to take into account possible "degeneration of the reproductive instinct" with the potential side effect being "aversion to animals" and a sense of "constant embarrassment." The perfume would "annul blood ties and produce a sense of absolute individuality", though it may lead to the urge to "suddenly board a bus to go somewhere and meet someone."
he whole project was designed according to the principles of artistic fiction, except that in this case the fiction was shockingly realistic. The articles physically exist, as does the idea of transforming a human being into consumer products and the technical possibility of turning the idea into reality. Rajkowska had gathered together everything that was most intimate and dear to her: her childhood, her loved ones, her daily life, her residential address, her anxieties and experiences, and finally, her body. She then processed all those things into commodities and fast-moving consumer goods.
In a 2001 project called Dream Diary, Rajkowska once again tackled the issue of communication between the artist and the viewer. Over the course of six days, some 300 young people took turns sleeping in groups during the day at Galeria XXI, then wrote down their dreams. Dream Diary was both the artist's response to a growing sense of alienation, and an attempt to cope with it. The experience was transposed on a randomly selected group of strangers who decided to spend time together through an activity as intimate as sleep.
I wanted them to cut off the entire sphere of consciousness, so that contact would be based solely on the act of tolerating another body next to them.
In 2002, following two years of preparation, Rajkowska carried out an urban-space public project called Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue in the very heart of Warsaw, at Rondo Charles de Gaulle.
Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue
In the centre of the busy roundabout she placed an artificial 15-metre tall palm tree. Originally, the tree was slated to remain in place for only twelve months, but later the city hall agreed to postpone the deadline for its removal. Rajkowska got the idea to place an artificial palm tree in Warsaw following a trip to Israel, and she wanted to transfer what had been preserved in her memory to Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie – a street whose name refers both to Warsaw's Jewish community and to Israel itself. The idea's apparent absurdity corresponds on a conceptual level to the Polish idiom palma mu odbiła, meaning "he's gone nuts" or "he's got a screw loose." The project stirred up a lot of controversy even in its planning phase, but since its completion it has become one of Warsaw's showpieces, a symbol of the belief that the seemingly impossible can be made possible after all.
I dreamed up nothing. I don’t wish for anything at all. I don’t make anything up. I just perceive things: from outside. When the palm was created, it was created with the place – Jerusalem Avenue. Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue is an idea drawn from language, specifically an attempt to describe a trip to Israel. Several frames of memory overlapped. The view from the small hotel in Jerusalem, a postcard with the words ‘Greetings from Hebron’ written under a photograph of a rather bald hill with a rickety palm tree, and Jerusalem Avenue, which for me is the axis of Warsaw. There’s also a frame filled with helplessness, an incapability of understanding the situation in Israel with a single logic. In a quite literal way, it’s the transference of a view – which in Jerusalem is quite expected – to Warsaw, to a street whose name, in turn, brings us back to Israel.
In 2003 in Berlin, Rajkowska created an action called Artist For Rent, which explored more deeply the issue of interpersonal relationships and of relating to someone on strictly-defined terms. Over a period of twenty-five days, the artist performed simple tasks for people who responded to her ad: she mailed letters, renovated furniture, decorated a room for a dance party, helped cast off an evil "spell" from an apartment, etc.
Her next project was the Oxygenator – a series of installations in public places meant to provide fresh air and, most importantly, a place to lounge around, observing their surroundings and interacting with others. Rajkowska’s projects create a setting for people to come together and have a greater chance to get to know one another as fellow residents. One of these installations was set up in the area of the former Jewish district, providing a place for respite in an area with a very troubled historic legacy and inadequate urban planning. Today the area is being expanded and improved, with Rajkowska’s little square still a focal point for those who want to take a break while bustling around Warsaw.
In 2007 she was also awarded the prestigious Passport Award given by the Polityka weekly for "remarkable projects realised in the public space, for lending a hand to the human being wandering about the city". Rajkowska’s work stretches itself across the realms of nature, politics and life itself. She’s an artist working for the community, an artist who is not focused on herself, but rather on her audience, on the people who are the ultimate recipients of her works. Her goal is to create something that will provide joy, entertainment and food for thought for anyone who happens to stroll past one of her projects. Her goal is to give the city back to its residents, wrenching it away from corporations who want to twist and turn it in every way just to make a profit and giving it back to the people who make the city a living thing, a vibrant being pulsating with life and activity.
Born in Berlin
In 2010 Rajkowska joined five other artists from Europe in Konya, Turkey in a project meant to explore the complex relationship between tradition and modernity in the country today. Her project was founded on the academic theories of Walter Benjamin on translation and the linguistic legacy of Ottoman Turkish. In 2011 she took part in the Journey to the East project as part of the cultural programme of the Polish Presidency, participating in the creation of an installation that once again takes up the subject of cultural consciousness and social links. She is among the featured artists at the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, presenting her Born in Berlin - Letter to Rosa project, a video work dedicated to her newborn daughter.
Born in Berlin (2012) is Joanna Rajkowska's biographical project. It focuses on the process of ‘planting’ her daughter Róża (Rose) into Germany's cultural and historical soil. The project was a documentaryfilm, which captured every stage of Rajkowska's pregnancy and a short period right after Róża's birth: from the confrontation of the artist's pregnant body with Nazi-era architecture, through the birth at the Charité hospital, to the burial of the placenta in front of the Reichstag. Rajkowska remained in the city for the first year of her daughter's life. Berlin was Róża's first confrontation with the outside world. The artist described the project with the following words:
Although she probably won't remember it, for Róża, Berlin will always be associated with a life-giving beginning. The first breath of air, her first sounds, a first fight with infection, all this will be connected to this city and nothing will change that. Róża was my answer to Berlin.
The screening took place during the 7th edition of Art Biennale in Berlin.
The ideas for Sumpfstadt / Swamptown and The Peterborough Child Project were both created the same year as Born in Berlin. They were both meant to be public projects realised abroad; however, they never came to fruition. A year later, Rajkowska prepared All-Seeing Eye (2013) for the National Museum in Brasilia – a projection displayed on the museum's hemispherical wall. The building is protected by UNESCO.
In 2014, Joanna Rajkowska – together with city residents and students of the local Academy of Fine Arts – covered the building in the Piotrkowska 3 courtyard in Łódź with a mosaic composed of miniature mirrors. Pasaż Róży (Rosa's Passage) is one of the most spectacular public projects in Łódź. It was named after the artist's daughter, who, soon after being born, was diagnosed with eye cancer. Thanks to the artistic community’s immediate reaction, it was possible to raise enough money for the girl's tests, consultations and eventually a surgery, which brought back her sight.
Rosa's Passage encompasses Hotel Polski – the oldest building in Łódź, erected in the mid-19th century and abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century. After World War II it became a municipal tenement building and began to gradually fall into ruin until it entered the Mia100kamienic program – an initiative that aims to restore old tenement houses in Łódź to their former glory. The walls of the buildings in the courtyard of Piotrkowska 3 are enveloped with pieces of small, irregularly cut or broken mirrors. Shiny squares, rectangles, diamonds, triangles and all manner of shapes of mirrors cover every detail of the building, so that it's not just a flat decoration applied on the wall, but an ‘ingrown’ architectural skin. Work on the passage began in 2013;the project was organised as part of the Łódź Four Cultures Festival.
In public spaces, Rajkowska puts emphasis on collective experience: she works through shared traumas, sifts through collective memories and brings back repressed narratives that come from the spaces’ pasts and form the present. However, in the space of a gallery the artist seems to struggle with her own history. Works that have originated in and are meant for private spaces are notas available to the public as Rajkowska's urban projects. The viewer is deprived of the possibility to participate, as was the case of a Berlin exhibition entitled Złoto, Srebro, Mosiądz (Gold, Silver, Brass, 2014), which featured works created by the artist throughout the past six years.
The axis of the exhibition was formed around Rajkowska’s bond with her father. Her previous projects, such as Rose's Passage, in a sense forced a specific reaction; the exposition at Żak Branicka gallery offered the viewer's a glimpse into the intimate history of Joanna Rajkowska's family, and although the shadow of the Holocaust was clearly felt here, it took a backseat.
Gold, Silver, Brass is not only a story about the loss of property, but also the loss of place. Born in Bydgoszcz, Joanna considers herself a native resident of Warsaw – her family's history has been connected to this city for seven generations. Some of the works presented at the exhibition were collages created out of photographs of her grandfather and great-grandfather or scraps of old maps of Warsaw. The narrative of the exhibition is the story of the artist's identity. In the exhibition's narrative, the eponymous silver, gold and brass possessed a metaphorical function – sometimes they combined fiction with reality, other times they took the form of family mementos.
Painkillers is a common name for weapons used in warfare – it also happens to be the name of Joanna Rajkowska's project from 2014. The artist cast forms of rifles, grenades, cartridges and pistols from a mixture of powdered medicines and polyurethane resin. In her work, she discusses the involvement of pharmaceutical concerns in the production of chemical weapons, while patenting new drugs and investing in clinical research. Both business areas use similar technology and the same field specialists. Founded in 1863, Bayer AG became known worldwide for its aspirin. However, during WWI, Bayer was involved in the development and manufacture of chlorine and mustard gases.
The project – together with a film titled Progress – premiered at Zachęta as part of the Postęp I Higiena(Progress and Hygiene) exhibition, which was curated by Anda Rottenberg. The video presents a girl who repeats names of various weapons after a person that's behind the camera; it amounts to an intense clash of child innocence with the horrors of war.
A year later, Rajkowska created Painkillers II (2015) – a continuation of the project, which was born out her interest in the paradox of the capitalist world we live in. Painkillers function as something transparent in our daily lives. Hardly any of us realise that the same corporations that produce our tablets are involved in the development of war and various armed conflicts. In addition to various types of weapons, Rajkowska also created casts of objects, which served as weapons. It included, among others, a suggestive pair of latex gloves and a nuclear bomb core resembling a cloth sheet. The combination of objects used for killing and medicine – the eponymous painkillers – was the binding element for all these items.
Ecologically aware projects
Morze Cechsztyńskie (Zechstein Sea, 2015) is another one of Joanna Rajkowska's public projects. A column of salt was excavated from the Kłodawa Salt Mine and placed near the 13th-centurySt. John’s Church in Gdańsk. The sculpture is an attempt to draw attention to prehistoric times – the Zechstein Sea is a sort of ‘great-grandfather’ to the Baltic Sea from 200 million years ago. The artist seems to give a warning about the fragility of our surroundings: things could radically change and end up in human extinction, which is why we should be more ecologically aware.
Trafostacja (Trafostation, 2016) was a part of the Wrocław – Wejście od Podwórza (Wrocław– Entry From the Courtyard) initiative, which is included in the visual arts programme of the Wrocław European Capital of Culture. It'san attempt to re-naturalise the ecosystem at NiskieŁąki in Wrocław. An out-of-order transformer station from 1930 served as a skeleton forRajkowska's living sculpture. The artist – with professional support – planted ferns, ivy, moss and spindles, and placed seeds and seedlings of ruderal plants in pots and in the walls of the building.
Joanna Rajkowska explains:
‘Trafostacja’ was created for a future when non-human organisms take the building into their full possession and turn it into a functioning habitat. One of the reference points is historical, namely our collective fear of water, and more broadly, of the elements. Water and plants are regarded as a driving force – they shape the project and decide on its fate. The vegetative cycle is a spectacle of non-human forces, taking place on a stage created by architecture. And although this spectacle is intended for people, the main actors and inhabitants of the building are the organisms that make up the ecosystem. ‘Trafostacja’ is, therefore, a gesture of dedicating a human creation – like a building – to non-human species.
In 2017, millions of trees were cut down in Poland. Some of them were logged from the oldest European primaeval forest – the Białowieża Forest. Ja Do Waszego Nieba Nie Wejdę (I Shall Not Enter Into Your Heaven) is Joanna Rajkowska's response to extensive forest logging. The installation was created for the 9th Open City Festival of Art in Public Space in Lublin. The artist built a living wall out of a cluster of piled up roots and dead parts of plants, literally torn from the ground they should remain in – invisible, but life giving. The project is an artistic commentary on ecological defeat and powerlessness in the face of what is happening to our planet and the climate. Roots used in the sculpture will no longer bring life, but some birds, worms and other new organisms might bring life to them.
Joanna Rajkowska's next ecologically engaged project is Śmierć Palmy (The Death of the Palm Tree,2019). When in 2002 Joanna Rajkowska erected an artificial palm tree as part of the Greetings From Aleje Jerozolimskie initiative, had no way of knowing that after 17 years there'll be a second part. However, on 1 June 2019, the iconic tree withered away. Death of the Palm Tree was commissioned by UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre and run by the artist Joanna Rajkowska in collaboration with Syrena Communications, supported by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The withered palm tree was supposed to draw our attention towards the problem of air pollution and climate change. After three weeks, the tree regained its original appearance.
Samobójczynie (The Suiciders, 2018) is Rajkowska's individual exhibition, which showed the artist's mindset towards women who have committed suicide or sent other women on suicide missions. Thepictures featured in the project depict suicide cases from around the world – Russia, Indonesia, Israel or Pakistan – which were committed over the last decades. Rajkowska juxtaposed photographs of her own body, which she modelled to mimic the suicide debris. The artist describes this project in the following way:
When I ‘lend’ my body to the woman whose body was torn by an explosion, I do not do it for real. Photoshop allows the illusion of presence at the site of the suicide attack; the lighting is set up for the photo shoot, but in reality I am not – and will not be – there. While working on the photo, particularly during the photo session, I realise the difference, the distance and the inability to participate in the act. Art neither brings anything closer nor does it help in anything or ‘lend’ the body. The only thing that really happens is an act of a profound difference.