Why a rainbow sculpture epitomises the political conflict in Poland today

18 Jun 2018

Last week, in the warm summer heat in Warsaw, a curtain of water began to spray in an arc across the busy intersection at Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour Square), with a hologram projected against the mist to illuminate the colours of a rainbow. 


Established to open the Warsaw Pride celebrations, the rainbow was commissioned in defiance against a country which has a track-record of limited gay rights. Ola Muzinska, Chairperson of Love Does Not Exclude Association, which helped to create the sculpture, told The Telegraph: ‘this rainbow signifies the start of a wider campaign to raise awareness of LGBT rights and in particular the fight for marriage equality in Poland.’


But this rainbow is also a replacement for an older rainbow which used to stand in the same spot; a sculpture marred by controversy, violent remonstrations and political turmoil.


Unveiled in 2012, the original monument ‘Tęcza’, or rainbow, constructed of artificial flowers by Julita Wójcik, was supposed to be a symbol of modern Warsaw. It was moved to the city from its initial placement in Wigry and Brussels and, as a worldwide icon associated with peace, hope, and the LGBT+ movement, the aim was to create a physical emblem of contemporary living in a country stilted by slow liberalisation – that is, until it was burnt down at least seven times by right-wing individuals. Despite recurrent reconstruction and financial support from citizens, and oaths by The Mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz of current Opposition Party Civic Platform (PO) that the installation ‘will be rebuilt as many times as necessary’, the rainbow was permanently removed in August 2015, two months before right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS) gained a majority in governmental elections.


One act of arson even occurred on Poland’s Independence Day, with costs to repair the monument at 70 thousand złoty. It has been pointed out that tensions over the sculpture were exacerbated by its continued position on the square as it was initially only supposed to stand for a few months. Nonetheless, nobody was ever apprehended for the sculpture’s destruction, indicating a political apathy to liberal thought. 


Placing the monument in Plac Zbawiciela was always going to provoke consternation, with the brooding spires of the Church of the Holiest Saviour, Plac Zbawiciela’s central building, appearing eclipsed by the new addition of the 26-metre wide rainbow which straddled the centre of the square. One of the organisers of the sculpture went even further, suggesting the arc of the rainbow reflected the arches of the arcades and buildings in the square, physically placing the creation within the surrounding architecture, in an area which reflects both tradition and – nowadays – modernity, with lively contemporary cafes spilling onto the streets.


Conservative and right-wing supporters were not happy.


As a staunch Catholic nation, gay-rights in Poland have been met by a tsunami of traditionalist attitudes, despite some progress over recent years. Poland will be an imminent host to a record number of gay pride marches, and there is the potential for a first gay President with support growing for charismatic Robert Biedroń. But progress has been agonisingly slow, with gay marriage still forbidden and proposals for a Gender Accordance Act for gender recognition vetoed by President Andrzej Duda. A poll by Equaldex in 2013 revealed that 46 percent of the country surveyed said that society should not accept homosexuality. 


Back after the Independence Day arson, Member of Parliament Stanisław Pięta, complained that the ‘hideous rainbow had hurt the feelings of believers,’ whilst current facto leader of the country and president of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, said in 2005 that ‘it is absolutely clear a homosexual should not be a teacher’. Even Poland’s arguably most internationally renowned politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lech Wałęsa, told Polish television news in 2013 that gay politicians should ‘sit at the back of parliament’ or ‘behind a wall’ as they ‘know they are a minority’. Wałęsa’s son Jarosław, member of the European Parliament, said his father’s remarks were ‘harmful’ and ‘typical of the older generation in Poland’ whose ‘mentality has not kept pace with developments in our society’.


Wałęsa did not face any hate crime charges, as the penal code in Poland does not mention hatred against those of a different sexual orientation. 


As Wałęsa’s son pointed out, of central importance here is the schism between modernity and tradition, which rears its head almost continually in Poland, a country pockmarked by the legacy of history.


Poland is not keeping up, with the refusal to accept liberal attitudes cemented by three years of rule under the current government. The situation should not be this way: the Rainbow sculpture was opened around the same time as UEFA Euro 2012, an event held jointly by Poland and Ukraine which promised an internationalism and vitality for both nations. Poland saw it as an opportunity to build on its growing economic and political success, being the only country not to have fallen into recession in 2009. And yet, with the rise of PiS in recent years, concern is growing. First there were curbs to the media; then to the judiciary – all underlined by a consistent deterioration in acceptance of liberal attitudes.


Poland’s state-owned English news site, thenews.pl, refused to report on the new rainbow sculpture. Historically, they have covered only the rainbow’s destruction.


Wójcik once said:“It is not the Rainbow that divides, it was a litmus test. It made it visible in public light that there is a part in Polish society which is open for discussion, for otherness, and another part which is conservative, traditionalist, and which has a problem with accepting the presence of people who follow different values.”


Tęcza symbolised these conflicts, with Wójcik’s art usually representing simple creations which only achieve a deeper meaning in a context which threatens to destroy them. 


Of course, this is exactly what happened with her sculpture – and its ghostly remains, now in hologram form, show exactly the fragmented society Poland is becoming. 

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