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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Selling the Bialowieza Forest on Ebay

The ‘Białowieża’ exhibition in Berlin and the artist behind it: Kinga Kielczynska, in an arts-science-conservation talk with Stefan Kreft, of SCB-Europe’s Policy Committee. Before you read, you can learn more about Białowieża Forest from one of our earlier blog posts

Kinga Kielczynska: Białowieża Invite. digital print, 2017.
My first impression is the odour of wood, the aromatic smell of freshly carpentered wood. I am given a shy welcome by Kinga Kielczynska, and that late Saturday afternoon, cold and darkening Berlin outside, we have her exhibition in the EXILE gallery for ourselves. She asks me to take off my shoes and takes me into the first room. It is completely laid with spruce boards. Kinga’s shyness vanishes, she is feeling at home in the exhibition – quite like a scientist feels at home when talking about her or his work at a poster session, perhaps. “The ‘Ebay Meditation Room’”, she explains, with a faint smile, both gracious and cunning at the same time. The spruce boards are from a tree that used to live in the Polish part of the Białowieża Forest. “After coming to Białowieża, I had that intuition and went to the local sawmill.” One year ago, the EuropeSection teamed up with local NGOs, IUCN, UNESCO and the EU Commission againstthe tripling of wood harvest that had been defined in the existing Natura 2000 management plan. The forest administration had declared that the wood cut in the course of the much disputed ‘salvage loggings’ would be for local use as fuelwood. However, the sawmill owners assured Kinga this wood is being auctioned just as any other wood. The artist selected and bought enough boards to lay the floor with it. And then, in a witty twist - put the wood for sale on Ebay. “Selling exceptionally beautiful wooden floor. All the way from Białowieża, Poland”. And clarifies: “Białowieża is the last remaining part of the primeval forest in lowland Europe and it is a UNESCO world heritage site”. Using Ebay for exposing people’s greed – what a wonderful fine irony. 

Kinga Kielczynska: Białowieża Ebay Ad
( A4 print, 2017.
In another surprising twist, the sawmill owners accompanied Kinga to Berlin (relatives living over here they had not seen for while) and offered her the favour to lay the floor with the spruce planks she had just bought from them.

I am hearing the artist’s voice twice – the second voice coming from a small MP3 player bedded on a pillow. Kinga’s voice interrogates the visitor with a slowly, but continuously evolving series of questions: “… can you imagine yourself as air … can you imagine yourself as an air conditioner … can air ever be conditioned …”. Although very minimalist, the exhibition room transmits complexity, ambiguities and ambivalences that leave the beholder tentative.

It is like imagining oneself walking through the strange forest that is moving on the computer screen in the other exhibition room. The screensaver is an overlay of a series of pictures taken in the Białowieża Forest. Creepy, I am thinking. And somewhere there walking through the forest, too, one imagines, is the artist with her saw, with half her face missing … I had seen her on the exhibition invite card.

We turn around and sit down in front of a drawing of charcoal on paper covering the entire length of the wall. A distinctly friendly look: women and men, smiling and reaching up their hands, some carrying ball shapes – the Sun? The Earth? She points to a root ball, with a young tree emerging from it. “This is which everything else in the drawing has developed from.” 

Kinga Kielczynska: Białowieża Screensaver.
Composite of all photographs taken by the artist in Białowieża, 2017.
We discover we share the love for nature, and forests in particular. She spent much of her childhood in Poland with her grandparents on the countryside, and I too am from a rural region, three quarters of it covered with forest. 

She explains that, while she doesn’t want to defend the government’s policy in Białowieża, she has the impression that both sides got stuck in yelling at each other. I argue that when it comes to century-old trees, speaking out loudly may be the only option if you want to be heard before they fall. It will take hundreds of years for new trees to grow and replace them, if that’s possible at all.

It would be tragic to see a change in policy when it is already too late for the old trees.

Kinga Kielczynska and her ‘Białowieża Drawing’
(photo: Stefan Kreft)
The exhibition, however, doesn’t take anybody’s side. It asks questions. It is a meditation on the forest, and the people that have lived with it for ages, and their individual understanding of what the forest means to them. 

It has become late. Before Kinga switches off the lights and locks the door, we admire the patterns of lichens on a long piece of bark. “It is from the tree I cut with the saw you see on the picture. A forest guard has explained to me that the bark of a bark-beetle infested tree breaks off differently than that from of other trees.”

I take her to the entrance of the subway, a smile, shy again, and Kinga Kielczynska disappears underground …

… can you imagine yourself as Białowieża Forest … can you imagine yourself as a Białowieża Forest conditioner … can Białowieża Forest ever be conditioned?

Stefan Kreft, February 23, 2017
You can still visit the exhibition (closed on February 11) at:

*Images copyright and courtesy of the artist and EXILE, Berlin, unless noted otherwise.


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