The following pages are excerpted from Muscle, beefsteak…beefsteak run amok (Multipress) an artist book by Mariken Kramer, with an accompanying text by Kyra Simone.
Borrowing from the phrase Constantin Brâncuși famously used to describe the sculptures of Michelangelo, the book is a playful investigation of sculptural form, materiality, and representation, which draws on Kramer’s experience as an educator at the National Museum in Oslo, where among other things, she facilitates the interpretation of sculpture by children and young people. In this series, staged photographs are placed in constellations with images and details of classical sculptures and motifs from the past, defying a linear traditional and hierarchical approach to art and history.
The story, conceived long before the health crisis took hold in 2020, describes a post apocalyptic world in which a young girl wanders through an empty museum and onwards into a subconscious realm at the bottom of a lake. There, she embarks upon a dreamlike exploration of abstraction and the human body, the life of objects, and the borders between interiors and exteriors.
The roof of the building has been gone for some time now, carried off by unidentifiable birds. Its parameters have been erased, leaving the interior fully exposed to the sky. The columns reach like severed tendons directly into the clouds, the windows weighting them to the ground, vacant as fish tanks. All the frames on the walls are empty, the pedestals unpopulated, the glass cases void of the precious things once locked within. The museum has become a house of ghosts, a phantom collection inhabited by the memories of objects and the moments of looking at them, the long mute stares into impressionist rivers, each a mysterious abyss of a self-contained reality. As X wanders the rooms, a wind passes through them. The sound of her feet is carried on its breath, echoing like a drum in an abandoned castle. She catches her face in the glass of the frames and windows, her child visage floating over the surfaces, drifting through the void as a lone plank of wreckage. She has never seen her own reflection before. Now there is nothing else to look at.
At the top of the stairs is the hall of statues, today just an empty corridor resounding with the flutter of wings. X remembers the first time she saw the marble rendering of N, asleep at the center, a magnificent anatomy at once hulking and delicate. His white chiseled musculature lay completely still, atrophied and inanimate and yet almost real. There was a strange visceral sensation that came of standing before it, as though if one stayed long enough his chest would begin to heave or his eyes flicker open. “No touching” said the plaque beneath the statue. But looking at it felt like touching it, and touching more like looking. Once when she was alone in the gallery, X had laid her hand upon an innocent thigh. The smooth opaque surface was nothing like flesh. It was bloodless and cold, with no breath of life beneath the bulging mass of bone and ligament. Now, like everything else, the body is gone from the room. There are no naked forms to confound the spirit. The shadows fall long from the doorways like coffins across the floor. X stands on one foot and raises her hands above her head. She forms them into the shape of a duck quacking and follows the projection of its silhouette as she walks along the wall. At the end of the great hall, the room fragments off to a gaping hole in the architecture, an open cavity where the landscape creeps in. She stands at the edge of it and looks out at the wilderness, her back sunburned with a giant X from the straps of her bathing suit. At the horizon line, she sees a single cow grazing on a hill.
Outside, there is a lake. It is the sort that lovers have drowned in, where bodies have surfaced after bouts of skinny dipping, emerging from the drained basin as lifeless forms. X walks out through the hole in the building towards the water. She sits on the shore and digs her hands into the mud, traces of meat and blood beneath her fingernails as she molds shapes on the bank, constructing an array of figurines and piles of rocks. The entire hillside leading down to the water is deteriorating into a mass of black sludge. It is textured with the impressions of a child’s handprints, a tactile topography torn open like a wound. X bends down towards the water. She reaches for the surface and again sees her reflection. As the water ripples, she touches her nose, a streak of mud smeared across it from the residue of her fingertips. She lays her face against the water as though it is solid, a pillow or a beloved animal on which to rest her cheek. She stands up and looks at her own nakedness in the water, thumbs swollen from digging. X begins to cover her body in mud. She climbs onto the edge of a rock, feet poised, ready to jump.
A woman in the future is asleep on a chair, head bent towards a hand mirror resting in her lap. She is old and frigid, hair in a sweep of braids draped over the side of her neck where she sits completely still, on display before a room full of people. “Which is the copy? And which is the original?” asks the instructor, as he passes out Xeroxed sheets of paper with the same image on it, a diagram labeled with the heading “life confronts mortality.” Everyone looks around at each other, holding the papers up and then gazing at the woman’s body. They begin to sketch her as though she is young, transmitting onto the page what they think they are looking at, rather than what they actually see. Their hands have never felt sagging flesh. They have no streaks of grey anywhere on their own bodies. The renderings look like children’s drawings. No one has investigated the tear in the woman’s blue stockings, a hole revealing a patch of skin.
X descends into the lake, plummeting below the surface like a doll dropped into a manhole. When she reaches the bottom, there is nothing but sludge. The same sludge that was sliding down the hillside towards the water. The sludge of men once made out of clay. The sludge of bones cracked open and emptied of marrow. X reaches out for a fistful of the substance but it dissolves in her hands. She grasps at something beneath the mud, digging out a shape that emerges from the bottom of the lake. Once fully uncovered she recognizes the figure. It is the statue of N she has gazed at so many times in the museum, the slopes of his outline imprinted on her mind. Boyish and bare, he is missing an arm. His body is bent to look down at something, forming the same gesture X made when she reached for her reflection in the lake. As she circles around him, the backs of their hands graze each against other from where they hang at each of their sides, one made of flesh, the other of stone. “I’ve missed you,” she says, looking up at him, air bubbles carrying each word emitted from her mouth towards his face.
They walk together across the bottom of the lake. It feels like a desert on the moon, a place with no gravity. The atmosphere billows over them blurring the fine details. They move through it like gods painted on ceilings, floating through a blue that could be water or air, as decomposing flecks of gold from the imagined heavens of frescos shower over them. They follow the current to a door in the floor. Beyond it is a room full of bodies. Maimed blocks of marble and bronze lay about covered with sheets, like so many cadavers. N has been here before. These are his people. They have stood together for centuries as though before a firing squad, eyes upon them always. The whispers of air vents have hummed them into paralysis. Some lie on the table as if soon to be operated on. Others remain frozen in their final poses, to be still forever like deities in a tomb, collecting dust at the meeting point between unnamed worlds. None of them look as though they have ever seen anything far off in the distance. Their hearts do not tremble when a person comes near. Those who believe the essence of a thing can inhabit its image are long gone now. This is an age of empty vessels. Piled against each other in the corners the figures fade into blank pages. Many are missing genitals and parts of their faces, the victims of vandals who have passed in the night, hammering off their ears to leave them deaf to prayer, removing their noses to obstruct the breathing passage—a deliberate destruction meant to deactivate the image, to protect themselves against acts of revenge in the afterlife for the death of the objects rendered. One day, all the supple torsos and fragmented limbs, the elbows of goddesses, the Egyptian tendrils, will be trimmed back into rectangles and built into palaces, repurposed in an ancient future where there is no word for art, only for equipment. X looks around the room at the stationary bodies. She cuts eye holes in all the sheets covering their faces.
Far above them on land, the single cow is still on the hillside. Behind him is an entire coral of cows, locked inside a pen. Their chests heave like accordions as they stand there en masse, heads bent low towards trays of food. Each is allotted his own TV dinner, all the proper food groups in their separate compartments: the line, the curve, the unnameable color. The muscles in the animals’ legs twitch to the rhythm of their heartbeats. They chip their teeth on the crumbs of Roman noses hewn in stone. None of the bovines know they will soon be slaughtered. None of them have imagined that somewhere there are people drinking milk. The cows have never imagined anything at all. Beyond the fence the sky is blank as an empty canvas. It rushes over them, ejecting sheafs of wheat to be spun into gold. The spark of an idea precipitates from the nothingness, pattering over their backs like a swarm of invisible flies. The sound of trickling water can be heard in the distance. A bird flutters from the museum. The flock of cattle begins to stir.
“If you saw it in the forest, would you try to shoot it down?” asks the instructor, holding up a still life painting of a pheasant beside a cage of the living creature.
“No, sir,” says the room full of people in unison, each holding a sack of feathers and a gun.
The old woman is still asleep on her chair by the window. Everything about her appears human. But when the pheasant sings, she doesn’t stir. Even in her dream she doesn’t recognize the sound.
N sifts through the fragmented body parts. He gazes forlornly at a severed finger on his palm, the chiseled joints clinking against the marble of his own hand. He holds up an arm to the socket of his torn off shoulder. A tear rolls down his cheek, as he stands among the bodies. His weeping grows heavier the longer he looks. It begins to flow down the sides of his perfect abdomen, washing the dust from his thighs and spilling onto the floor. On the other side of the room X climbs out the window with a piece of broken face in her hands. She jumps down from the ledge into the underwater garden. Leopards and peacocks are bathing in the fountain at the center of it. X walks up to the edge and pulls a book from her satchel. It is a dictionary. She flips to the back of it where the definition of “a work of art” is blacked out on the last page. “The imitation of a natural object, chiefly the human form, represented in its true proportions,” she reads aloud to the animals, holding the broken face in front of her own visage. The words were written by government officials, men in powdered wigs concerned with transport tariffs, least qualified of anyone to give meaning to the undefined. X can barely keep her eyes open as she reads the obscured phrase. She is bored to sleep before she is able to turn the page.
BEEFSTEAK RUN AMOK
A torrent of N’s tears seeps under the door and upwards to the surface where it overflows from the lake. The ground beneath it shakes as it becomes a tidal wave that spills onto the shore. Up on the hill the cows run around in their pen, galloping and butting their heads at each other in chaos. One can see now that the slope leading down to the water is an enormous defaced skull, as a crack in the earth opens up to reveal the crevice of half-parted lips, the crumbling mouth of another queen erased from visual culture. The woman by the window sighs in her sleep. The braids in her hair begin to unravel.
X lies in the sea grass (an enveloping fur) and dreams of sacrificial livestock—the image of the mystic lamb left on the altar, layers of paint scraped away to reveal human eyes. A piece of sky floats by, a square of cloud, a torn-out page. A gold shape passes through them, sharp as a tool. It doesn’t look like a bird, but X knows it is one. If she looks at it long enough, she sees the gesture of flight through space. Tonight. northern lights will flash through the heavens. In the morning, all the children will find streaks of color in their hair. They will ring out their braids like dish towels heavy with water over the plants on the windowsill. They will run their fingers through it and find paint dripping from their hands.
On the top floor of the museum, N sits naked at the open air bar, drowning his sorrows, as he stress eats an expensive piece of rare steak. He has ridden the elevator here, up from the bottom of the lake, through antiquity and all the way to post modernism and the nameless age beyond. The delicacy on his plate is listed in the section of the menu titled “Abstraction,” a savory dish the region is known for called “essence of cow.” If he puts on his opera glasses N can see the cattle pen in the distance. It is empty now, like the halls of the museum, every animal disappeared into thin air, their existences diminished to hoof prints in the mud spelling out a rhetorical question.
When the shaking stops, a wave of marble washes onto the shore. With it, all manner of rubble dredged up from the bottom of the lake—an alabaster foot, a severed lamb’s head, chisel hammers and bottles eroded to abstract shapes. Last to wash up is X’s body, now unrecognizable, a lump of reflective surfaces, gold and smooth, bereft of rough edges, the nucleus of her being evolved into a sculpture. There are no bows or frills to indicate the object she has become is anything from the male imagination, and yet the gesture of the shape alone is the essence of woman, all women rolled into one, an inexpressible effigy that transcends its material. The shape is curved and rounded at one end, like a long necked figure gazing down into a mirror. When the people see it they will say it is a phallus. It will scandalize society. They will give it her name.
The old woman by the window finally opens her eyes. The irises are dead, as though they are made of glass or have never seen anything living. White trumpet flowers cover the hillside surrounding the lake, a field that reaches into infinity. A phone rings from somewhere in one of the empty offices in the museum. The gold shape lies paralyzed on the shore, dying to answer it.