Artist Łukasz Surowiec, Photo: Marcin Kaliński

Interview with Łukasz Surowiec

Interview by Daniel Miller, March 27, 2012


Maybe I could start by asking you to define the project...


I give something special to Germany.


What do you give?


The national heritage.


You in fact bring a number of trees that were never in Germany...


But the trees are connected with the history and heritage of Germany. So exactly, I return their history.


You return a number of trees from the area of Auschwitz-Birkenau to Berlin.


I return a living cemetery. In Birkenau, the trees are drinking the water from a ground made of ashes, and breathing the same air in which the smoke of the buried bodies was floating. So in a way those people are in these trees.


Was it difficult?


The residents of Birkenau helped me a lot. We dug about 400 trees, but I was unable to transport the trees to Berlin – they were too young to be planted directly in the urban space. In addition, a large part of the trees had damaged roots. I decided to transport them first to my home garden, to look after them, to heal them. In autumn I made a selection of the healthiest trees. I brought about 320 young, about 3-5 years old, well-protected birch trees, so I could be sure that they will adapt to the new environment. I left the rest at home and I treat them further. These trees have enormous symbolic potential, so I could not afford to bring the trees, which might have died here – this could probably lead to misinterpretation.


The trees are like gravestones...


Except it isn't stone. It's different. Stones are dead. They are not a good medium for memory. But plants are. Plants are living things, and have a natural cycle, and need care...


You have worked with trees before. I know that you once exhibited a tree in a gallery. Was this tree also from Auschwitz?


No, it is from my family garden. It is a completely different work, an  autobiographical work, because this tree is the same age as me. My father planted it when I was born.


And you cut it down and put it in a gallery.




So you work a lot with trees...


I feel respect for the nature. It is really strong medium...


The medium of trees...




To do what?


To create a monument that not only needs to be protected from destruction, but is something that you need to actively care for; by watering, by cultivating. With stone monuments, especially large monuments, there is a way in which people can say, we've finished a story, and we now can forget, because we have a big monument.


Which remembers for us...


Exactly. So for me the stone is not a good medium for remembering. It is better for forgetting – the same as bronze.


I want to give people the opportunity to engage actively in remembering the past. A monument cannot do that. Monuments are in a way a visual violence, given by the authorities. People who got involved in my project did it for themselves. I observe them. The planting of the trees is beginning of an intimate contact with the memory for them. These seemingly innocent plants have the potential to organize the history. They will grow in Berlin forever.


So this is a piece of art about the legacy of the Holocaust?


This is a piece about what people can do.  About the possibilities of the human, and our destructive capacities. The trees remind us that something very bad happened. And if we forget about this then it may happen again. The work shows respect to the people who died. And I think that the prisoners who lost their lives in Auschwitz would prefer to be remembered this way, as a living tree, rather than a dead stone.


We Europeans are brought up in a culture whose essence is forgiveness. Christianity has taught us that. We also do not borne ourselves by the fault of our grandparents. But we are aware of the differences to the Jewish culture; this is an very important aspect of the memory, on which especially Germans are trying to work nowadays. I become a part of their “program of dealing with the history” with my project. Still, the most important thing is, out of respect for those who died, to assure that the memory has influence on the contemporary government policy towards the current threats.


How you capture or express that...


I would like to propose a new way of thinking. In consequence of this thinking, maybe it would be possible  to bring back the administration of the Nazi camps back to Germany. I also try to create a trip with young people from Germany to Auschwitz, but with national colors.

What do you mean?


A lot of people visit Auschwitz with their national flags. But I have never heard of any German visitors with flags. It is still not politically correct.


But what would be the meaning of this action?


It is a test. What I hear today is that Germany has completely changed, so what is the problem with the new generation of Germans going to Auschwitz with German flags, and demonstrating that they are the new Germans – open, tolerance ect.?


It must be really brave Germans who understand my intentions. This is also a test for the victims - whether they are ready for such a meeting?


How many people did you ask to take the trees?


The whole team of Berlin Biennale got involved in this project. The team members asked a lot of institutions from Berlin and its outskirts. Each of the team members had a different idea where to ask and where to plant the birches. They did a really great job.


Did you ask the NPD?




How big are the trees?


Between 2 and 5 meters.


Can I put one on my balcony?


If you want?


Would you give me, as a private person?


Yes, sure. Igor Vucic, an artist, a friend of Kunst-Werke and an excellent gardener, planted from the seeds I have collected in Birkenau 4000 small trees. I plan to give those seedlings to the visitors of the 7th Berlin Biennale. Each person will also get a certificate. It is a part of my actions during the 7th Berlin Biennale, you can come to Kunst-Werke and get a tree for yourself.


You are almost creating a kind of tree cult...


It's only a medium...


Medium-sized cult?


Natural-sized. For a better communication.


But what are you communicating? The statements you make on this subject are not really original...


Original is the archaic word for Art - forget it.


So what do you hope, or want to happen?


I want to come back in ten years and make a documentation. I hope the trees will grow in the meantime.


And become a mighty forest?


Yes, exactly. And maybe start a new discussion about responsible for the future .


And you want the Germans to take literal responsibility for administering the former concentration camps?


Yes, because it is not our heritage. It is part of our history, but it was not our activity. We were not the nation who created it. Perhaps it is not the most important issue today, but it is important for the Polish people to transfer this to German hands. We have our own graveyards for which we are responsible. But because the responsibility to take care of Holocaust lies on our shoulders, it is hard for us to talk about our history, and our activities. Giving the Germans responsibility for their activities helps us to talk about our own responsibility. When we're not concerned anymore about the concentration camps, we get the opportunity to start from a clearer position, to work through our own problems and history and things we did wrong. The idea is to divide responsibility, and give each territory or each place of memory to the nation that is responsible for it. And I think this could lead to a new age of partnership between Poland and Germany where is no longer a question of victims, and oppressors, and where we are equally responsible for ourselves, and we can talk on an equal level.


Do you feel oppressed by the treatment of the Holocaust in Poland?


I feel overwhelmed by our national martyrdom. Maybe I did this work to treat these complexes? Art is good in that, because art has a power to say something that you can't say in words.


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