Original|Maya Kramer:Uncontrollable Absence

Shunhua Jin, Original, October 25, 2018

The ghost is dancing in the void of life. 


Prometheus, the Great Fire Thief, brought technology to mankind and lifted us out of the primitive stage. The technology myth has always accompanied human development; our nautical, industrial, and informational revolutions convinced us that it was a human, Pangu, who split heaven open and created the earth. Bernard Stiegler also compared technology to a crutch for humanity. On the other hand, however, the questioning of technology, industry, and progress is unending.


Anarchist Peter Kropotkin's search for a pristine life, Marx's theory of alienation, and the Frankfurt School's critique of the Kulturindustrie (culture industry) all expressed concerns about technology.

The advent of the new millennium saw the September 11th attacks, and ecological and environmental issues became a popular topic of debate in the fields of international politics, economics, art, and culture.

Artist Maya Kramer remains skeptical of the technology industry: on the high-speed train of human development, the conquest of nature has become a self-detonated explosive device running out of control-leading Kramer to create art based on environmental issues. Yet her works do not reveal sharp edges or raise alarm signals, but rather present fragmented and faintly discernable objects, revealing a poetic absence.  


Upon first entering the exhibition hall, one might mistake this for a group show, with varied sculptures, paintings, and films filling the space. The sculptures mimic nature, with cool colors and simple shapes, whereas the installations are vivid. But if you look at her works closely, you'll notice the branches, dead leaves, feathers, and wreckage are all linked throughout the space.


When you walk through the door, you'll see two sculptures, Flashpoint and Closed Circuit--a greyish-white trunk pierces through the wall and a black branch is bent into a circle. This circle evokes different associations: recycling, historical reincarnation, dilemma, self-encroachment. The greyish-white trunk stabs through the wall like a sword and Maya arranges its roots into the shape of a heart, echoing the nearby painting Apparition. A tree no longer grows naturally, but is trapped in a cage. 


Trees are one of Kramer's main subjects. Kramer began contemplating environmental issues in 2006 while living in Brooklyn, New York. She spent two years creating a large installation, There is No Logic to the Days,a jungle made from discarded newspapers. In this circular chain-a tree to paper to a paper tree-the tree's insides are hollowed out and its life is lost. Here, the newspaper is used as material for a rootless log, sculpting a "nature" devoid of life. Although the newspaper represents a manmade product, carrying the weight of human activities and history, Kramer does not exert any value judgment. Her work does not construct a progressive theory, but is a way of documenting-she creates an interior tension by positioning fabricated objects, history, nature, and other vocabularies next to one another.


In 2009, Kramer made another tree installation, From Where it Springs. For this work, Kramer collected various waste papers and fashioned them into a wishing tree, in front of which the audience could make wishes into a microphone. A wishing tree is often seen as immortal, an object from which an eternal stream of life emanates a divine radiance. Human desires rarely pertain to natural lives, however. These artificial trees are given a phantom spirit of divinity. When facing them, will the viewer ponder their absence of life?         


Kramer often uses coal, dead leaves, laundry powder, and other everyday objects in her art, twisting ordinary items to create a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Cascade glows with strange, artificial colors that resemble neon lights or light pollution, rendering indented fragments of birds. In fact, acrylic paints provide ubiquitous artificial colors. In two other pieces, Kramer uses yellow and blue acrylic paints as the background upon which leaves float; these leaves are carefully contained in a glass box, as if displayed in a natural history museum. But when one looks closely, the surfaces of the leaves are covered with rust, toxins spreading underneath their exquisite peacock pigments.


Slow Swirl presents upward-spiraling black feathers using the diorama method, but these feathers are made of coal-a source of air pollution. Leaves, feathers, and other symbolic natural fragments suggest the absence of a subject and void of life, yet the source of their creation is the subject of disintegration. Again, a ghost fills the negative space of life.

There is Nothing You Can Measure Anymore looks like three x-ray photos. A plaster model of a tiger skull is displayed in a glass cabinet; laundry detergent drips from the tiger's skull until it disintegrates. This work contains a double metaphor: human activities are driving tigers--a symbol of strength--to the verge of extinction, while laundry detergent-an ordinary daily object-harbors such an extraordinary destructive power that it can dissolve a tiger skull. The x-ray intensifies the chilling effect of the work in a way that appears to be a reverse use of instrumental rationality-it investigates how the soft laundry detergent can erode a tiger through a "scientific" lens. This contrast of power is a recurring theme in Kramer's art, such as the toxin underneath the exquisite façade mentioned previously.


The installation Preserved II is at the far end of the gallery, where a circuit loop erects like the interior of a refrigerator. Its surface is covered with white frost, which gradually thaws to reveal the copper wire -the cycle repeats like a working refrigerator. Here, the themes of loop, cycle, and dilemma re-emerge. "Cycle" is also a recurring notion in systems of human control; it seems to be constantly correcting the orbit of excessive development, or a perpetual struggle of human beings conquering nature. Mankind declares victory with uneasiness, concealing nature's loss with life's conveniences. In the same logic of the laundry detergent, Kramer uses a refrigerator (the Freon in refrigerators is a well-known source of air pollution) to address the issue of air pollution. The ceiling of the exhibition room is painted with elusive, low-hanging patches of blue sky and white clouds. The copper wire cyclically frosts and de-frosts, making a clear reference to the broken sky. Outside the exhibition hall, a verdant bamboo grove is bathed in sunlight. The air in Shanghai has been cool and clear recently, but the fractured sky suggests the intangible nature of truth in daily life. 


The environmental theme might not be a new topic-the documentary Beijing Besieged by Waste and the smog-turned-brick sculpture created by Chinese artist Nut Brother are all widely discussed, as these works expose the horrific reality of pollution. Yet Kramer presents a clear world that is somewhat melancholy, revealing an idealistic and poetic scar of pollution. Kramer seems to be polishing this scar to make it presentable. Like the frequently-held global climate conferences, the environmental protection issues, and the efforts to control rising sea levels, Kramer and we the audience all know that the uncontrollable process of industrialization often presents a predictable image. As the root cause of environmental issues, the unstoppable advance of technology and industrialization inevitably lead to an absence of life. 


I almost forgot about the strange window (Grey Zone) in the exhibition hall-it is black and closed, with water dripping on the glass. This window exhibits the essence of Kramer's art: silent and seemingly controlled. Yet it evokes one's curiosity to observe and contemplate again and again as if responding to a calling. What is missing?