Controversial Rainbow Sculpture in Warsaw

  • March 23, 2013 - 5:47 pm
  • New monument, Poland
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The New York Times reports on the controversy over a rainbow sculpture in central Warsaw seen as symbolic of gay and lesbian rights. See the link here for the full story and a top-notch photo of the half-burned sculpture.


March 21, 2013

Rainbow Becomes a Prism to View Gay Rights


WARSAW — The 30-foot-tall rainbow sculpture in downtown Savior Square here is looking somewhat the worse for wear these days, half covered in patches of artificial flowers and half bare from being set on fire. What was intended as a work of public art without an overt political message beyond the need for inclusiveness, according to the artist behind it, has instead become part of a culture war over homosexuality that has been brewing in one of Europe’s most Catholic countries.

Since its June installation in the square — a busy crossing place for trams that also has a famous church and a buzzing bar and cafe scene — the rainbow has been set on fire four times and come under attack from right-wing politicians and Web sites.

Stanislaw Pieta, a member of Parliament from the conservative Law and Justice Party, the main opposition faction in Poland, called the placement of the rainbow on a grassy circle in front of the church a “disgusting gesture, offensive to Catholics.” He added, “It’s a provocation.”

Although city officials and the artist, Julita Wojcik, say the rainbow is not a monument to gay rights, both its supporters and opponents find they can agree on what the rainbow symbolizes.

The debate over gay rights has gathered steam in Europe over the past year. France’s lower house passed a bill last month that will grant the right to marry to same-sex couples if the upper house approves it in April, as expected. Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court last month expanded adoption rights for gay couples.

Poland’s first openly gay and transgender members of Parliament were elected in 2011. But their reception, even from the most prominent members of society, has been anything but a universal embrace. Lech Walesa, the former president, revered anti-Communist opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, surprised many here when he declared that gay lawmakers should be sitting in the back rows of the Polish Parliament, “or even behind a wall.”

Dorota Chojna, 39, a volunteer who has helped repair the burned rainbow, said in a telephone interview that she felt uneasy. “As a homosexual person, I don’t feel safe in Warsaw,” she said. “I became involved in the rebuilding to oppose pervasive homophobia, among other reasons.”

Poland’s economy has thrived in recent years, avoiding the deep recessions that have plagued its neighbors in Eastern Europe as well as the stagnation that has set in among countries to the west. But like many societies in the former Soviet bloc, Poland is divided between those who have benefited from the dynamic economy and those who feel left behind by rapid change, social as well as economic.

The rainbow was not the first work of public art to receive criticism here in Poland’s capital. While the city has long featured statues of kings, saints and the beloved composer Chopin, a 50-foot artificial palm tree by the artist Joanna Rajkowska caused confusion and no small amount of consternation when it was erected in 2002. A work about the city’s lost Jewish population — referring to the warmer climate in Israel — the palm tree has slowly been accepted as part of the city’s skyline.

“If the city is to develop, it needs new symbols,” said Ms. Rajkowska, who supports the rainbow.

Known as Plac Zbawiciela in Polish, Savior Square takes its name from the 19th-century Church of the Holiest Savior, whose twin spires tower over it. But the square is also known as Plac Hipstera, or hipster square. While older residents in overcoats and berets go to Mass at the church, minor celebrities and affluent teenagers sip lattes, all within sight of the damaged arch.

The structure was first installed in front of the European Parliament in Brussels in September 2011, to honor Poland’s turn at the rotating presidency of the European Union. Ms. Wojcik, its creator, said in an interview at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw that the rainbow was intended as a symbol of tolerance.

“In 2011, Poland was seen as a homophobic country,” she said. “I wanted to show that we’re not closed, but open-minded.”

Ms. Wojcik brought the rainbow back to Poland last June, in time for the European soccer championships that Poland hosted with neighboring Ukraine. Then the trouble began.

Originally covered with some 16,000 artificial flowers, the rainbow quickly turned into a giant Rorschach test for residents. To some, the rainbow is just a rainbow. “I think about the happiness in life,” said Jadwiga Wilczynska, 78, smiling as she looked at the sculpture.

To Wlodzimierz Paszynski, the deputy mayor of Warsaw, “It’s a sign of unity; it evokes warm feelings.”

Ms. Wojcik, 42, said: “The rainbow is not a pro- or anti-gay declaration. It’s about tolerance, diversity, openness.” She said her goal was to strip the rainbow of all its political meaning, leaving the interpretation open and making it a bridge of mutual tolerance. She apparently did not succeed in that goal, since the one reading of the sculpture has overshadowed any others.

At least one of the four fires has been deemed an accident from New Year’s fireworks. In another fire, the perpetrator was inebriated and, according to the Warsaw police, he did not disclose his motives. The other two fires remain unsolved.

Some insist that there is no larger goal behind the attacks. “It’s just vandalism,” said Maria Klosinska, whose sister owns Charlotte, a bistro on the square.

But the critic Roman Pawlowski wrote on the Polish online news site that calling the arson “vandalism” was a euphemism. “Actually, we’re dealing with an act of terror,” he wrote.

The Rev. Dariusz Kowalczyk, a Jesuit priest, reminded readers of the Roman Catholic weekly Idziemy that rainbows have other connotations. “When we see a rainbow in the sky, we shouldn’t think about gay activists, but about Noah’s covenant with God,” he wrote.

The rainbow was meant to be a temporary fixture, but city authorities agreed to push back the date of its dismantling several times, and in February they decided to leave it there for another year. At night it becomes a jungle gym for adults, many of whom have been enjoying time in a nearby bar, who climb on top and even crawl inside the steel frame.

For a planned refurbishing, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a publicly financed organization that sponsored the rainbow, is looking for flame-resistant materials. But some feel that for a city scarred by war and Communism, the tattered, slightly charred version of the rainbow is fitting.

“It’s a testimony of sorts,” said Marcin Malenczyk, the owner of Karma Coffee, one of the cafes on the square. “It’s good that it’s had its adventures.”

Nicholas Kulish contributed reporting from Berlin.