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Teresa Murak

photo: Rafał Guz/Fotorzepa/Forum
Teresa Murak, 2008, photo: Rafał Guz/Fotorzepa/Forum

Performance artist, born July 5, 1949 in the Lublin region; lives and works in Warsaw.

In 1970, after completing a visual arts secondary school and one year of studies in art history at the Catholic University of Lublin, Teresa Murak became a student of the Painting Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She studied under Professor Jan Tarasin and graduated in 1976. In the spring of 1972, she completed her first 'sowing' in the bathroom of the Dziekanka (Dean's House) dormitory, where she resided at the time, thus beginning her career as an independent artist.

Teresa Murak, "Procesja", 1974, fot. Antoni Zdebiak
Teresa Murak, Procession, 1974, photo: Antoni Zdebiak

Murak's debut coincided with the blossoming of neo-avant-garde explorations in Poland and the artist remained an important representative of this current through the end of the 1970s. Her art was distinguishable, firstly, for the originality of her raw material: lady's-smock (both in plant and seed form), remains very much the 'signature' of Teresa Murak's art to this day. The second distinguishing feature, specifically the ephemeral forms she adopted, ranging from actions through performances to interventions (deprived of political accent or an air of contestation), corresponded to neo-avant-garde mottos calling for the unification of the creative process with life (which in Murak's work was symbolized in her plants' continuous movement towards death). Finally, her works were identifiable for their many references to nature, its rhythms and transformations, as well as accents pointing directly to an inspiration with Far Eastern thought (Zen and Tao). The latter trait in fact renders Teresa Murak a precursor in Poland of the current of 'ecological art', which explores and draws links in new ways between the seemingly distant worlds of nature and culture. All of these characteristics are evident in the most important work of her early career, Równowaga balansu / Equilibrium of Balance, realized during the Art Symposium held in Ubbeboda in Sweden (1974). Equilibrium was simultaneously the first in her series of 'sculptures for the Earth'.

Teresa Murak, "Procesja z krzyżem", 1983, fot. Marcin Appe
Teresa Murak, Procession with a Cross, 1983, photo: Marcin Appe

In her art, Teresa Murak has remained loyal to a handful of her own, independently developed themes, which she has at times combined in the creation of unified works. The 'sowings' discussed above dominated her art through the end of the 1970s. Initially they constituted an element of her early interventions like Procesja / Procession (Warsaw, 1974), her ritual sacrum-like actions, an example of which was Wielkanocny dywan / Easter Carpet, and other actions carried out in her native village of Kielczewice (from 1974). The artist's vigils at the side of sprouting lady's-smock were a suggestive variation on her 'sowings'. These lead her to a final form involving physical contact with a 'smock' made of the plant, exemplified in the projects Przyjście zieleni / The Coming of Greenery at the Repassage Gallery in Warsaw and Lady's Smock in Lublin (both projects dating from 1975). The purely performance-based possibilities of using her chosen material, lady's-smock, were revived in an original manner towards the end of the 1980s when Murak created a project under which she remained in a bathtub filled with swollen seeds until these sprouted (Centre for Polish Sculpture, Orońsko, 1989; PS 1 Gallery, New York, 1991). The color and texture of her 'carpets' of vegetation constitute an essential formal and aesthetic element in many of Murak's other works, including her graphic art pieces as well as her photographs and filmed works.

Teresa Murak, Dywan Wielkanocny, Kiełczewice, 1974, fot. Leopold Sarneck
Teresa Murak, Easter Carpet, Kiełczewice, 1974, photo: Leopold Sarneck

The series of works known as 'sculptures for Earth' that began with the above-mentioned piece for the Ubbeboda seminar found continuation in the second half of the 1970s in the form of designs for her so-called 'cosmic sculptures'. In general terms, the concept was to attempt to reflect, in earthly micro-scale, the trajectories of heavenly bodies, and more broadly, the laws and forces that govern the cosmos. This was to be accomplished, however, in a selfless manner: the locations of projects were not to be divulged. Her explorations in this realm were recorded in sketches and subsequently in a series of drawings (gouaches) titled Dla ziemi / For the Earth (from 1985) as well as in plaster models. In the 1990s Murak gave expression to her ever growing courage in the realm of scale through outdoor earth projects, and example of which was a work titled Słońce wschodzi z ziemi / The Sun Rises Out of the Earth, at the Center for Polish Sculpture in Oronsko (1994-1995).

Teresa Murak, "Uciszająca burzę", 1985/2016, fot. Maciej Musiał
Teresa Murak, Silicing a Thunderstorm, 1985/2016, photo: Maciej Musiał

At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s important events in Teresa Murak's personal life (marriage, numerous relocations culminating in her settling in the countryside, and the birth of her son Mateusz on November 1, 1979) coincided with the advent of Martial Law and the descent of artistic life into the catacombs of underground life in Poland. Although she participated throughout this time in the independent movement of exhibitions sited in private homes and in churches, this was very much a period of quietude for the artist, one of gathering strength for a new leg of her creative path. In a metaphorical sense, it began with her 'solutions' (in the chemical sense) and works made of swept up dust that was subsequently 'kneaded' into a mass with water (action during a plein-air in Pontenano, Italy, summer 1985). She also used sludge (creating her first installation, made of river sludge, in January of 1986 in Lublin) or bog - perceiving this material as being the site of rotting and perishing in its nature, yet one in which the battle for life continues. Leaven bread and the symbolism inherent in it - an unusually potent metaphor in both existential and cultural terms - were something she focused on in a series of ritualistic performance art pieces (Moltkerei Gallery, Cologne, 1986). In a piece lasting several days which the artist spent in a forest, Murak created a memorable combination of both dichotomous currents - solution and sludge, beginning and end (Polish-Norwegian Symposium 'Nature-Art', Lillehammer, summer 1987).

Her son Mateusz's First Communion in 1988 brought with it a series of coincidences and acquaintances that in turn lead to a discovery that would delineate the next current Teresa Murak would undertake in her art. Specifically, the artist discovered a series of old rags that nuns used to polish the church floor. Worn-through after five decades of being used, she presented the rags for the first time as objects at an exhibition held in 1988 at the Dziekanka (Dean's House) Gallery. In her subsequent projects, Teresa Murak combined the Ścierki wizytek / Rags of the Visitation Nuns with her other themes. This occurred in her performances at the Labyrinth Gallery (Lublin, 1988) and at the Moltkerei Gallery (Cologne, 1989), and finally in a street action held during an event titled Sztuka jako gest prywatny (Art as Private Gesture), held in Koszalin in 1989. For the latter, the artist sowed plants in the holes of the rags. In a project realized in 1990 at the Hotel Sztuki (Art Hotel) in Łódź, Murak effectively synthesized her 'sowings' with her 'solutions' (the material for which was dust swept up from the corners of an attic) and 'rags', bringing them together in a ritual that was somewhat diabolic in its expression.

In the 1990s, by which time the artist had acquired the status of a classic representative of the neo-avant-garde, Murak gained recognition from members of the young generation, interested in the feminist and body-art elements of her art.

Selected group exhibitions:

  • 1973 - 5. Biennial of Spatial Forms, Elblag
  • 1974 - Art Symposium - 100 Days, Ubbeboda (Sweden)
  • 1979 - Works and Words International Art Manifestation, De Appel, Amsterdam
  • 1982/83 - 2. Convergence Jeune Expression, Grand Palais, Paris
  • 1983 - Sign of the Cross, Zytnia Street Parish, Warsaw
  • 1987, 1989, 1993 - 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Biennial of New Art, Zielona Gora
  • 1990 - Rauma Biennale Balticum, Rauma (Finland); Structure in Progress III, Łódź
  • 1994 - Ars Erotica, National Museum, Warsaw; Oikos, Regional Museum, Bydgoszcz
  • 1996 - Kunst und Natur / Sztuka wobec natury Ludwigshafen - Altenburg - Warsaw
  • 1997 - Art from Poland, Mucsarnok, Budapest
  • 1998 - Body and the East, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana

Author: Maryla Sitkowska, Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, January 2003's picture
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