Over the Rainbow

When is a rainbow not just a rainbow? When it's a symbol of acceptance and diversity, it seems.

You wouldn't think that a colourful piece of street art could provoke much passion. But Rainbow (Tęczy), a large rainbow arch situated in recent years in Warsaw’s hip Plac Zbawiciela, managed just that.

Sitting to one side of the grassy area in the centre of the square (which is actually circular), the rainbow arch seemed a cheerful multicoloured installation at first glance, something pleasant to look at while sipping a coffee outside one of the plaza's popular bars or cafes.

However, the arch was also caught up in the tide of social change gradually flowing through the Polish capital since the fall of communism. Given its similarity to the rainbow symbol adopted by gay people around the world, many Poles interpreted Rainbow as a work promoting equal rights for the LGBTIQ community.

It was certainly a symbol of tolerance; artist Julita Wójcik, who created the work to mark the Polish presidency of the EU in 2011, has described the piece as representing openness and diversity.

With its steel frame stretching 26m wide and standing 9m high, and being covered with 16,000 artificial flowers, it was a challenge to assemble. The flowers were attached by hand to prefabricated segments of the metal frame in Sopot, which were then shipped to Brussels to be pieced together there.

It was such a hit in the EU capital that it was returned to Poland in 2012 to be installed in Plac Zbawiciela, decked out with new flowers to replace those souvenired by appreciative Belgian passers-by.

In Warsaw, however, it took on a new aura of controversy, situated as it was in front of the Church of the Holy Redeemer. Some felt its installation was a provocative riposte to the Catholic Church’s conservative social stance; others that it merely brightened a square which had become a lively hub of food and drink as well as worship.

Rainbow was targeted by right-wing extremists, being set ablaze on several occasions (though, to be fair, some of these fires may have been caused by rowdy revellers). After an Independence Day rally in 2013, it was burned to the ground.

However, it also became a rallying point for acceptance and diversity. Not only did Warsaw’s long-running mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz commit to rebuilding the rainbow after any damage, but the arch became a focus of campaigns for equality and acceptance. In June 2015 the route of Warsaw's annual Equality Parade was altered by popular demand to pass the arch on its march through the city streets.

Sadly, the rainbow's adventurous stay in the centre of Plac Zbawiciela finally came to an end. The agreement on its placement between the city authorities and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which originally commissioned the work, expired at the end of 2015. In late August that year it was dismantled, and placed into storage at the Centre for Contemporary Art.

Rainbow, however, will survive, though in what form was unclear at the time of research. The arch could be reinstalled on the premises of one of the city's cultural institutions, or the artist may be commissioned to refashion its components into a new form. Ask at the tourist office for details of its current location.

Wherever it ends its days, one thing is clear – this rainbow provokes thought and discussion, as well as being easy on the eye.

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