Artists

Teresa Murak

Born in 1949, Kiełczewicach, Poland

Lives and works in Warsaw, Poland

 

After completing her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Earth Artist Teresa Murak (b. 1949) became a pioneer of eco-feminist art in Poland. As a student, Murak collaborated with scientists and ecologists to produce scientific drawings of plant structures before developing her earth works and performances. Influenced by Jesuit and Eastern philosophy Murak initiates processes of growth, symbiotic systems and ritual as a process-based practice. Murak’s work quietly engages with femininity and nature through a culturally and politically repressive time in Poland in the 1970 and 80s and continuously to today. The poetic avant-garde politics of her ecologically engaged work has more actuality today than ever. The intimacy of Mura’s work transcends seamlessly into her public projects

Murak used sprouted lady’s smock (cardamine pratensis) in many of her 70s and 80s performances, a plant with such a simple root structure it can grow in nearly any conditions, even without soil. In Polish culture, lady’s smock is associated with Easter as a symbol of revival, and has been used as herbal remedy. In 1972, Murak completed her first ‘sowing’ in the bathroom of the Dziekanka dormitory. Observing how lady’s smock had grown on and around a t-shirt left on a rack in the dormitory bathroom, Murak was fascinated how the plant became a part of the object and the space surrounding it, transforming the t-shirt into a partly alive anti-form art object. The concept of the cultivation of thickly grown plant structures Murak later expands into large-scale minimal eco-sculptures like suspended walls and elongates lanes on gallery floors, or wavy organic structures overgrowing architecture, absorbing space and giving it a new symbiotic destination.

“Murak combines two tendencies which are difficult to reconcile – she shows the life force present in nature and also conforms to the rigor of basic forms – and thus endows her work with the spirit of synthesis which has an almost mythical touch.”

“Intimacy Revealed” by Andzej Kostolowski, Teresa Murak, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biala, 1998

The concept and gesture of ‘sowing’ – a spiritual and cosmic interpretation of the cultivation of plants – defines Murak’s body of work and developed into an engagement with performative processes and ritual. In the performance piece “Rownowaga balansu/ Equilibrium of Balance” at an art symposium in Ubbeboda, Sweden in 1974, Murak dug a hole by hand for 30 days and transferred the earth she removed into a mound alongside the hole. The depression was 162 cm deep, the height of Murak, and following its completion, Murak sowed both mound and hole with lady’s smock seeds. The piece was destroyed three days later by a bulldozer following the orders of the city. The destruction of the work contrasts the gentle resistance and ritualistic character of Murak’s art when appearing in socially sanctioned public space. The ecosystem growing on avant-garde form Murak brought into existence disappeared without a trace of her meditative labor or the plant life that had begun to sprout there, – artistic labor done in anticipation of its potential destruction or disappearance.

“In 1974 people could see Teresa Murak walking for two hours in a cloak covered with a think layer of green growing plants. This action was not only a demonstration of freedom and some kind of disrespect in the semi-reality of those times in Poland. “Illogically” dressed, Teresa, Murak, when compared with her absurd surroundings, turned out to be surprisingly rational.”

“Intimacy Revealed” by Andzej Kostolowski, Teresa Murak, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biala, 1998

The performance was titled “Procession” and is now exists in photographs showing an awkward creature, a giant formless green shape passing the sidewalks, crossing the street, standing in powerful silent posture on a square, engaging in an impenetrable activity in a telephone booth, and walking the hallways of the art academy, – like the ghost of spring, a mythological recurrence or a visitation of the spirit of ecological warning and revival. Murak uses the materials provided by an ecosystem, the ultimate public sphere, and reinserts them into the human world with renewed attention to symbiosis.

In the performance “Sowing 30-Cradle” (1975), Murak is documented holding for days lady’s smock seeds in the palm of her hand until they sprouted. In this exceptionally poetic and humble concept of cultivation, Murak engages in a tenderly symbiotic process with non-human life, an act of utmost respect and protection to the drama and beauty of nature’s growth while breaking beyond all known form of the potential of artistic creation. In the 1976 performance “Sowing 31-“Woman’s Calendar” at Galeria Labirynt, Lubin, Murak cut triangular pieces of lady’s smock from a plant bed and placed them on the body of a naked reposed woman. The piece has a strong feminist tone. As with her palms, Murak repurposes the human body as a surface to shared with plants, a “garden on her body”. In Murak’s artistic practice, plants come to fill the void made by people, a reversal of human progress and its desire for ‘built environments’. Interacting with human bodies, the lady’s smock in Murak’s work fills the cracks in people’s life, as seeds sprout into the crease of a palm or receive the warmth radiating off of skin. The human body becomes the vessel for the agency of plants, as in Murak’s 1975 piece “The Green beings to show” at Repassage Gallery, Warsaw, where the artist wore a living dress, covered with sprouted lady’s smock.

“Clothes of Visitation” are the delicate remainders of Murak’s performance at the Hotel of Art and at Galeria Wschodnia Lodz in 1990. The artist collected cloths torn from extensive use for cleaning floors by nuns in an Order in Warsaw. Murak wet the rags and collected dust from the floors in the performance spaces. In the subsequent installation, the rags are the remainders of the genuine process Murak engaged in, – objects imbued with fragility and entropy, not unlike Eva Hesse’s anti-form works made of suspended latex sheets. As a neo-avant-gardist, the material integrity and intactness is not a central concern to her art. Revered as art objects, the rags become the ghosts of the spaces and processes they were used and conceived in, the dust absorbed in them bears an ultimately entropic and iconoclastic gesture.

Teresa Murak lives and works in Warsaw, Poland. Her work is included in the public collections such as the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw and the Museum of Art in Lodz. In 1991 Murak gave the performance “Seed” at PS1, New York. In 1996 the artist realized the outdoor “Sculpture for the Earth” for Sammlung Hoffman, Berlin. In 1998 Murak received a survey exhibition and catalog at Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biala, Poland, recognizing her as a pioneer of land art in the Polish neo-avant-garde. In 2016, Zachęta National Art Gallery in Warsaw held another survey show of Murak’s practice.

(Text on Teresa Murak in collaboration with  Emma Engle)