Prof. Marta Smolińska “Desire for lack and fragmented traces: Katarzyna Kujawska-Murphy on the trail of Diane Arbus”


Marta Smolińska
Desire for lack and fragmented traces:
Kasia Kujawska-Murphy on the trail of Diane Arbus

TV Documentation:

Westbeth – a famous building in New York’s West Village, in which for a couple of decades artists have been living for relatively little money – has in itself become a legend and an inspiration for many of them. Its energy has permeated also into the project by Katarzyna Kujawska-Murphy, who in this oldest artistic commune in New York decided to look for the traces of Diane Arbus, its former resident, creating a project entitled “Transformation Mistakes Into Truth” (2016). In 1971, being forty-eight years old, the photographer committed suicide in Westbeth, slashing her wrists and taking an overdose of psychotropic medications. Her spectre is still haunting both the thoughts of Westbeth’s regular residents as well as the visiting scholars from various foundations.
No wonder, then, that Kujawska-Murphy has been haunted as well – we are after all living in an anachronic world full of nostalgia, where we are constantly on the search for the traces of the 20th century, one of the icons of which Arbus undoubtedly was. Her photographs, portraying those that have so far been invisible, made it possible for the Other to enter into the zone of representation. Kujawska-Murphy managed to contact the oldest residents of Westbeth, who still remember the photographer as their neighbor whom they ran across in the halls or in the elevator, sometimes sharing a small talk.

Their narratives, recorded by the artist, present Wesbeth – a place mythologized and desired by artists from all over the world – as an almost demonic site, famous for a considerable number of suicides committed on its premises. The question about the
reasons for such a condition remains unanswered in these stories. Despite living in an artistic commune, its members stress their overwhelming solitude.

Kujawska-Murphy’s project thus touches on not only a concrete events in Wesbeth’s history, but also universalizes it, asking questions about artists’ condition and (in)ability to overcome the boundary of isolation – even in a place such as this, a building meant for being used only by artists. It turns out, then, that Westbeth is a fortress of intense states of solitude, which often culminate with some ultimate decisions and taking one’s own life.

Kujawska-Murphy presents us with the plans of the building, as if trying to consider its other name, coined after a series of suicides: Death Beth. In some
sense she pursues a kind of visual psychology and sociology of architecture. It has been long known that the shape, height, size, and plan of the building
in which we live influence our constitution to a great extent. The artist thus makes us confront the blueprint of Westbeth’s particular parts, sketched out on a wall; the parts which inspired her to create a spatial installation using tridimensional elements,
compatible with the character of all of her previous work. The shape of these elements has been borrowed from the plan of the building and its colors – the white of the halls contrasted with the red of the EXIT labels.

Kujawska-Murphy decontextualizes the corners of the rooms, the contour of the walls and all the nuances of the two-dimensional projection, as if she tried to get to the essence of Westbeth and extract its key aspects out of its tissue. In the lower room of the Wozownia Art Gallery in Toruń, we can then experience with our own bodies the spatial divisions symbolizing the building in which Diane Arbus decided to end her life. With the distribution of these elements – now abstract lines and shapes – entropy,
chaos, and fragmentation come to the fore. There is no clear whole, no clear explanation why Westbeth is also Death Beth. The building, or rather Kujawska- Murphy’s
travesty of it, is silent, but, still, it evokes energy, condensed also in the memories of its oldest residents.

These memories, resounding in the gallery’s space, correlate with Westbeth’s plan and the corresponding multi-element spatial installation. We enter the world of specters, where Diane Arbus’s traces are as elusive as human memory. The former
neighbors of the photographer recall meeting her and sharing some small conversations, suggesting that there was no sign of Arbus’s thinking about
suicide. We will never learn whether they are honest or whether it is their way to justify themselves for not preventing the tragedy. Telling their stories in front
of Kujawska-Murphy’s camera makes them the protagonists of an artistic project, an opportunity they eagerly seize. There is no way to tell where the boundary between their self-creation and actual old relations with Arbus goes. It can be well assumed
that their narratives are also in some (considerable) way created.

The project is complemented with those fragments of the film that depict the insides of the sterile white halls of Westbeth. There is something hospital-like, claustrophobic, and psychedelic in them. These aspects are accentuated by the use of
frames and Kujawska-Murphy’s manner of proceeding with the visual narratives; she decided to underscore these overwhelming qualities. It is both suffocating and chilly at the same time. The footage is sometimes put sideways or upside down: as the
implied audience of the film we wander over a wall or a ceiling, passing countless round-shaped light bulbs, shedding disturbing, almost laboratory-like light. Westbeth does not look cozy. The halls follow the rhythm of the pattern of doors behind which
artists celebrate their loneliness and isolation. From time to time, the frames present a red EXIT label, viewed from upside down, literally and metaphorically connoting the (im)possibility to leave. It is like a leitmotif which makes us realize that Westbeth can become a labyrinth from which some cannot escape. What happened behind Diane Arbus’s door? How often had she walked down the psychedelic halls? What did she feel then? Kujawska-Murphy directs the camera with much empathy, emphasizing the peculiar, unfriendly architecture which fosters the development of depression. She bends time-space so as to touch on the traces of the famous artist-suicide and take us to an elusive, ghostly world. In the description of the project, the artist stresses: “One of the film’s visible elements is unidirectional entropy connected with life, human body, memory, truth, walls, and utopia; psychological obsessions and social ‘norms’” (trans. mine). The entropy augments chaos and fragmentation – the traces disappear, even though it may sometimes seem that we have found an actual clue. The title of the project – “Transformation Mistakes Into Truth” – is also far from being clear.

Within Kujawska-Murphy’s visual and formal narrative, mistakes inherent in human memory or interferences in interpersonal communication and transmitting stories seem to be the road to the truth. However, the truth – just as Dian Arbus’s traces – is only (and as much as) a spectre. It feeds our nostalgia with what has been lost, but it is not able to bring back actual presence, or at least sketch out the so called facts.

Paradoxically, Kujawska-Murphy’s project can be read also as a specific self-portrait of the artist, which can be classified as a type popular in contemporary art – that of a the so called self-portrait without the self.

1) We cannot see the artist’s image, but we can feel that it is her that visited Westbeth and experienced an intense confrontation with unidirectional entropy and depressive architecture.

As the artist writes, “existing in time does not make human individuals consistent beings, but rather a series of successive characters, a sequence of separate events. Someone proceeds with the project, someone else finishes it. Being some kind of ourselves all the time, we are different selves.

Identity is always elusive.” (trans. mine). Undoubtedly, Kujawska-Murphy finished the project having been haunted not only by Diane Arbus, but also by the phenomenon of Westbeth itself. In spite of the anxiety, which she acknowledges in her self commentary, she faces the challenge of searching for the unattainable: “Entropy is the object of the anxiety. But there is also an object of desire (Jacques Lacan’s object petit a), which leads to desire not with reference to an object, but to its lack. This desire is a much stronger driving force than an accepted state of fulfillment. Each utopia brought to existence ceases to satisfy – instantly, there emerges a desire for the unattainable.”

1) Cf. Martina Weinhardt, Selbstbild ohne Selbst:
Dekonstruktionen eines Genres in der zeitgenössischen
Kunst, Berlin 2004. Katarzyna Kujawska-Murphy’s project
engages also in a dialogue with Izabella Gustowska’s films,
created within “New York and a girl” project, in which the
artist – living in Westbeth – looks for the traces of Josephine

Kasia Kujawska-Murphy
works in a field of drawing, painting, installation, video. Works in the area of space and time; her art considers psychological aspects of sight and perception to which she subordinates the media she uses in her installation, video and drawing. Her fascinations with the Modernism and Constructivism as well as Art of 60’ and 70’ is often a challenge in a form of her artifacts.
In 2010 received a state distinction of Ministry of Culture and National Heritage: “Deserved for Polish Culture”, in 1997 she won the Ministry of Culture Prize for the best MA. Degree Diploma; Kasia studied in two art universities: (at Academy of Fine Arts where she graduated at Painting and Video disciplines) and at Also studied at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London (1995/96).
Kasia continues her work both in the role of Artist and Curator. She has exhibited internationally including shows in Poland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, England, Germany, that includes Bauhaus School in Dessau, Westbeth. Kasia has been inviting to give international lectures wildly including Columbia University, School of Visual Arts in New York and Kyoto University of AR, and other symposiums and
initiating projects with these international contacts, she has played a leading curatorial role in creating major art shows in Poland and Japan. She setup a permanent art exchange between Polish and Japanese artists from Poznan and Osaka (Kansai region). Since 2003 she has been organized art shows for Polish artists at The International Art Exhibition in The Contemporary Art Space in Osaka, Japan, also promotes English contemporary art in Poland. Kasia played a pivotal role in curating and organizing an Art District “Re:Generation (International Art Show in Forgotten Districts of). These events involved international Artists as well as art students in exhibiting in Public spaces as means of regeneration of forgotten parts of the city through art. Participated in many international symposiums, including Columbia University and the School of Visual Arts in New York, Kyoto University in Japan and at Bauhaus School in Dessau. She; presented at numerous individual and group exhibitions in Poland, Japan, England, Korea, Germany, Italy, USA, Ukraine.

Katarzyna Kujawska-Murphy, Marta Smolińska
Maciej Pokornowski
archive: Kasia Kujawska-Murphy
Gallery of Contemporary Art Wozownia

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