Maarit Murka

Maarit Murka (1982) is a hyperrealist who comes from the same generation of painters as Katrin Koskaru, Alvar Reisneri, Tõnis Saadoja and Elis Saareväli. The themes for Murka’s works come from life itself: urban living, collective histories, economic booms and crashes, the everyday and the political climate. Estonians have always been frightened of a possible war with Russia; in light of this, Murka has considered Estonia’s current contribution to war zones and the life of soldiers in Afghanistan. However in other works Murka draws back from social criticism and instead dives into the human psyche, considering its essences through  study of the Freudian subconscious. It is through explorationsamongthis range of different subjects, while remaining true to hyperrealism in style, that Murka has painted herself into the recent history of Estonian contemporary art.


In the second floor exhibition hall of the Tartu Art House, black and white flags of the NATO member states hang from the ceiling, as do buckets of paint that drip puddles of paint onto the floorbeneath them. Maarit Murka’s 2014 exhibition Contacts, is  the most memorable exhibition of hers for me personally to date. I was a BA student at the time, studying art history at the University of Tartu and reading Tony Judt’s 900-page tome Postwar for my course on political history, symphathizing with my friends who spent 11 months of their young lives in the military barracks of Tapa, Jõhvi, Võru or Tallinn. As a result, an exhibition about war was very relevant to me. Not to mention the fact that unknown to me or Murka, approximately 1 week after the opening of the exhibition,[1] war broke out a couple of thousand kilometres south of Tartu - little green men invaded the Crimean peninsula, barracks were erected at the Maidan in Kiev and gas bombs beganto fly.

Murka went on a research trip to Afghanistan and was deeply affected by the atmosphere and the events that she  witnessed there. When she returned to Estonia, Murka attempted to depict the everyday life of the soldiers in the barracks: passing time playing computer games, bickering, conversations with girlfriends over Skype, absurd situations with absurd rules, their boredom while waiting - all framed by an absurd war. When talking about Murka, Indrek Grigor has referred to Apolitical (Apolitico, 2003)[2] by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto,a work that also consists of national flags drained of their colour. Why did Murka choose for the NATO flags in her exhibition to be black and white? Perhaps this is simply born out of a general love of monochrome as a colour scheme. Or, perhaps it alludes to the idea that in modern warfare, there can be no colours, bright emotions or multi-coloured flags; this is only appropriate for celebrations,as in medieval chivalric romances. In the Middle East, soldiers with comfortable bases at their disposal are waging an absurd war on terrorism, problematically motivated in the way it sees only the good and the bad, the black and the white. The Ukrainian war also used black and white flags - as well as being represented by the colour green, because the anonymous soldiers bore no insignia, even though everyone knew which country they represented. Everyone also knew that this was not the type of warfare that Estonian boys were thaught in the forests of Tapa. The new war is an information war, and it does not take place in the forest but in the virtual world - hyperreality. A hyperreal war may not even be a real war, but merely a simulation of war; black and white flags that allude to nothing with paint buckets hanging from the ceiling.

Trying to distinguish between photorealism and hyperrealism in the classical sense of Jean Baudrillard, it could be said that Murka started out as a photorealist and is increasingly moving towards hyperrealism. Her earlier works were often painted from photographs or were painted to elude to reality: stills from life where the distance between the copy and the original was palpable, due to the clear painetrly quality and conventions. However, Murka now moves more and more towards eliminating that distance. In other words, towards works where it is impossible to say where reality ends and its copy begins. In her 2013 exhibition Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear, Murka painted an anonymous taped-up object from all sides, creating three-dimensional paintings that were reminiscent of mirrored boxes. Is painting a reflection of reality, a reflection painted from a photo depicting reality, or reality itself - because it seems like reality? Murka played with this same idea in her photo series Illusions from the same year, where spray tan, usually associated with beauty queens and nightlife, is juxtaposed with the notion of art. In Estonian and English, the words ‘kunstnik/artificial’ and ‘kunst/art’ have no semantic connection, even though the root of the word is the same. Art is considered high, artificial tan is considered low, because art is real, but an artificial tan is fake. However, in a world where a spray tan so convincingly replaces the natural, this kind of a distinction can no longer be made. The distance between the copy and the original is gone.

Murka began studying art in 2000. During her student days she was already hailed as a promising painter, a hyperrealist of the new generation who discarded the opulent colours of the Soviet school and began painting in black and white. From 2004-2006, Murka attended the master’s programme in painting at the Kuvataideakatemia in Helsinki. Both during her studies and after graduation, Murka actively participated in exhibitions and exhibited her works - large-format photorealist black and white oil paintings, which have become her trademark for Estonian audiences. Her series’ from this period, such as Kill Your Darlings or Uus algus (A New Beginning, both 2006) all depict half-naked women in modern interiors. Angel wings, guns, the naked female body and low-rise jeans give these works the rhythm of an American action film.   

It can be said that the 2000s called for such a quick and violent approach. It was a time of rapid economic growth in Estonia; the real GDP grew 1.833 times in this period, employment increased and unemployment fell to 4.7 per cent in 2007.[3] In the Estonia of the early 21st century, there was no more cowboy capitalism of the 1990s or the post-Sovietism of a country lagging several decades behind the West. Estonians felt that at long last the time had arrived when becoming one of the five richest states in the European Union could soon be achieved.[4] Murka’s early works are from a world where money was not counted, new buildings sprung up quickly and without much thought, and where jeans, just like taxes and loan interests, remained low.[5] The artist herself sees the influence of the macho spirit of her class at the Estonian Academy of Arts in these, her best  known works: ‘I was afraid that as a woman I could not make art that was too pink and fluffy, so I veered into the garish. The period was like that - protest, attitude images, guns’. Of course, a strong attitude and guns have been the weapon of several feminist artists - one is instantly reminded of Niki de Saint Phalle in her white overalls. Although Murka prefers a white sweatshirt, these clothes express a certain similarity in terms of attitude. Murka’s feminism is not modern queer-feminism, instead she shares some common ground with the second wave feminism of the 1960s. The themes of shooting and using her own body are continued respectively in her series Sihtmärgid (Targets, 2011), and 0.43 (2009), in which Murka attempts to paint while drunk, with her eyes closed and holding her breath, combining hyperreality with psychoanalysis.

On the one hand, Murka’s works are a continuation of the long tradition of hyperrealism in Estonia. On the other hand, it has become a defining rule of her practice to shock the viewer with something new at every exhibition, in order to escape the stock phrase often-used by the media: ‘[Murka] was her splendid self’. While she has remained true to hyperrealism, she keeps reinventing it with each exhibition. Murka does not want to limit herself toaharsh criticism of consumer society like a photorealist, and instead grabs ideas and events from everything - personal life, war, psychoanalysis, feminism. Murka’s first creative period of her black and white paintings came off like harsh dreams, whereasin her latest exhibition Sisus (Inside) at the Vaal Gallery, she has instead played with the vision of viewers, inviting them inside the image to relate to it, and then to arrive finally at hyperreality.


Kaarin Kivirähk

[1] Contacts opened on 13.02.2014. The Crimean War is understood to have begun on 20.02.2014, with the Maidan Revolution taking place on 18.02.2014.

[2] I. Grigor, Maarit Murka kontaktid. – Sirp, 06.03.2014.

[3] A. Purju, Majandus- ja sotsiaalsed arengud Balti riikides: Eesti. Uuring. Euroopa Liit, 2013, p 2.

[4] A statement made by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip in 2006.

[5] Low-rise jeans were shown on the catwalk by the designer Alexander McQueen in 1996; this cut conquered Estonian mainstream fashion in early 21st century.