In a communal square in the Old Town district of Krakow, Poland, a sculpture by Karolina Grzywnowicz courted passersby last week with a humdrum form summoned by way of extraordinary materials: cuts of 1,350-plus-year-old wood of a kind found in the primeval forest known as Białowieża. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site near the border of Poland and Belarus, the ancient natural forest is home to an abundance of creatures and twisting, towering manifestations of arboreal growth. It is also home to controversial logging activities that the Polish government has increased of late despite forceful pleas from the European Union.
“It’s amazing—so beautiful and powerful, an entire atmosphere,” Grzywnowicz said of the storied forest. Based in London and Warsaw, the artist grew up in Krakow and had returned home to present her sculpture last week as part of Unsound, an experimental-music festival with multidisciplinary ambitions. (The program this year included talks presented with ARTnews.) Displayed outdoors in a vitrine, the work centers on a pristine pallet of the sort used to move goods via forklift, with the addition of three digital signs bearing data related to the number of trees cut and prices for lumber at auction.
The centerpiece of the installation, titled Still Life, was made with rare and expensive black oak, a variety of wood that takes on a deep black hue after regular oak soaks in water and undergoes a natural process that turns it completely dark all the way through. “It’s a long natural process, an action between oak and water,” Grzywnowicz said. “No matter what direction you cut, it’s black.”
Sometimes oak is soaked deliberately and sometimes the process occurs on its own—as was the case with the wood that Grzywnowicz sourced after it had fallen in water and remained for 1,350 years. “I got a certificate after I tested the wood,” the artist said of its verified age.
Black oak traffics most commonly as a luxury good, so Grzywnowicz decided to enlist it for the form of a pallet—that most utilitarian of entities. “I wanted to present a contrast between the trivial form of a palette and this very unique material,” she said. As for the digital signs, with scrolling red text: “This is the Polish style of advertising. You can see them everywhere. They’re part of the Polish landscape.”
The concerns addressed in Still Life carry over into other aspects of Grzywnowicz’s practice. In 2015, at Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, she exhibited a multipart work called The Weeds that drew on wild growth in what used to be thriving villages in southeastern Poland. After World War II, at the request of Joseph Stalin, the Polish government forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people in response to new borders with the Soviet Union and burned their homes to erase traces of their former states. “If you don’t want a problem, you just relocate all the people—that’s what you do!,” Grzywnowicz said with a fatalistic laugh not uncommon in the former Eastern Bloc. “Now it’s the most wild part of Poland—there is no evidence that people used to live there. But through the plants you can restore the topography of the villages.”
Similarly, Still Life is suffused with a sense of remembrance and preservation tuned to present ecological times. “It’s not only a problem in Poland,” Grzywnowicz said of the destructive logging in Białowieża. “The same problem is in Tasmania, Brazil, and other parts of the world. It’s a conflict between two ways of thinking: people who treat nature with respect and an attitude that nature should have a right to self-regulate, and others who just want to profit from it and show power by control.”