Spatial dialogues and Holocaust memory in contemporary Polish art: Yael Bartana, Rafał Betlejewski and Joanna Rajkowska

Uilleam Blacker


The paper analyses how the work of three contemporary artists deal with the memory of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population and the Holocaust. Joanna Rajkowska is one of Poland’s leading contemporary artists and her artworks have been displayed in prominent public sites in Warsaw. Her most famous work is her palm tree in central Warsaw, Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue (2002, ongoing), which references, in its form and physical location on Aleje Jerozolimskie, or Jerusalem Avenue, both Jerusalem and Warsaw’s vanished Jews. Rajkowska has also used important Jewish locations in Warsaw in other work, such as Oxygenator (2007). Yael Bartana is an Israeli artist, but represented Poland at the Venice Biennale in 2011. In her trilogy of films set in Poland, And Europe Will Be Stunned (2006-11), Bartana uses prominent
locations in Warsaw in which to stage performances (the Palace of Culture, the National Stadium, site of the future Museum of Polish Jews) that provocatively posit a return of Jews to Poland. Betlejewski has authored several provocative and creative responses to the absence of Jews in contemporary Poland, such as his I miss you, Jew! project (2004), and his Burning barn performance (2010). The paper will examine the varying strategies through which these artists deal with the problem of the absence of Jews, the trauma of their violent disappearance, and attempt to re-inscribe the vanished Jews back into the landscape of contemporary Poland. The paper argues that all three artists use actual and imagined space in order to create a complex, often ambiguous dialogue between diverse traumatic pasts and the problems of the present. This text is published as a counterpart to the contribution to Disturbing Pasts from the artist Rafał Betlejewski.



Yael Bartana, Rafał Betlejewski Joanna Rajkowska, contemporary art, Poland, Jewish histories, Holocaust, memory, trauma, Israel

Full text: Blacker_p.173-187 (PDF, 1,046 KB)


Biographical note

Uilleam Blacker is a Lecturer in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He was previously a postdoctoral research associate on the project Memory at War (HERA JRP), based at the University of Cambridge, from where he participated in the Disturbing Pasts project. His current research focuses on the memories of communities that disappeared from cities across east-central Europe as a result of the Second World War, as reflected in urban commemoration, literature and art. His general research interests include contemporary Ukrainian, Polish and Russian literatures, and memory, gender,urban and postcolonial studies. Uilleam has also translated the work of several contemporary Ukrainian writers.

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna). To view the film footage on the Open Arts Archive,, follow this link: