Duality of the “Survive”

How nature and technology come together in Karen Fritz’s arT¹

By Viktoria Razina

There is a small white cubicle in the middle of the Young Masters exhibition. It holds a big transparent container filled with dust that is hung from the ceiling by thick metal chains. The dust it contains is illuminated by the small light bulb as it falls onto a greenhouse below. The greenhouse is protecting a small landscape inside, and judging by the pile of dust around, it has been doing it for some time. Will the plant adapt? Will the dust ever stop? Will anything change? As you look at the full container, it seems that this suffering won’t end any time soon.

This is the artwork Survive, as made and envisioned by the German artist Karen Fritz. Although the idea of this specific project came to her about one or two years ago, the majority of the visual aspects have already been present in her work for some time. The likes of dust, light, nature and technology create an artwork with a certain scientific, industrial, but also an aesthetic quality.

The most visually prominent element of this work is dust. We watch as it falls down from the container, each release accompanied by the scientific sounding beep of the machine. By the time I saw this artwork in person, the majority of the dust was already released, creating tiny hills that enclosed the greenhouse. Karen’s fascination with dust began during her studies in Toulouse, as she observed the dust from the stones around the city and how it danced in the air with its always changing trajectory. This brought another element into play – the light. As she said during our conversation: “There is this relation between dust and light – you cannot see dust without light, but light itself also cannot be perceived without dust.” In truth, Survive’s particles are so tiny they would be unperceivable by the naked eye. The light from the bulb is what makes it possible to see them.

By continuing this artistic route, she moved from Toulouse’s red dust of city’s bricks to the Saarland region in Germany, well-known for its mining past. The dust is then a combination of Saarland’s natural sandstones with the dust from the stones of the artificial hills which were a direct result of the mining. Karen not only shows how her work changes as she moves around the world and explores specificities of different regions, but she also underlines the prominent theme of this artwork: combining artificial with natural, and questioning both.

That is perhaps best visible in a dichotomy between the dust container and the greenhouse. The container is shaped in the way of industrial dust collectors, but with transparent walls and steel frame. Steel is a new material for her, but she included it because of its crucial role during the industrialization. After all, it was exactly the industrialization and mining which greatly changed the landscape, which brings us full circle back to Survive, where we can observe all these elements, just on a much smaller scale.

The container is also in itself a motor-based dust-releasing machine, which Karen created on her own, and is also installing it into the exhibition space by herself. She also designed the greenhouse, its direct opposite, which in some ways proved to be even more challenging.

The shape of the greenhouse is based on fractal geometry and self similarity, which can be defined as repetition of symmetry on different scales. This phenomenon is quite often occurring in nature, in the shape of coastlines or spiral pattern of seashells. Karen is taking this method as a starting point, and in an intuitive way creates – sculpts even – the greenhouse. This semi-natural shape does not only host a plant, as I presumed from the first glance, but rather a whole biosphere of many layers, including hummus, moss, earth under layer from the forest, and even a blackberry plant. In a way, this makes the installation to be more of a model-sized artificial landscape. This also brought a realisation of our own relation to the space we are in – that the white cubicle with glass wall is actually the greenhouse on its own, and in the way, you are then a biosphere that needs to be protected and isolated. 

During our conversation, Karen mentioned the importance of the body experience and human intervention in this artwork. At first, I was a little bit sceptical – how can a self-sustaining greenhouse need human help, and how can it affect you and your senses? Sure, it had quite a calming effect on me, but it was basically the same principle as watching the candle flame and water whirlpool. But the answers came to me as I spent more time with it. First, the beeping sound got quite annoying. I felt as if it was getting louder and more frequent, so I tried to distract myself by playing with the fallen dust. But then my hands became dirty, and that feeling was so uncomfortable I had to leave to wash them. Other people even started questioning whether it’s safe to breathe there, undoubtedly reminded of the air pollution in our own world. 

The dust is also a key element to the human intervention aspect of this artwork. As you look at the transparent container, you wonder what happens once the dust runs out. Will it be the end of the artwork? The real answer is quite anticlimactic: someone comes, cleans the dust from the floor and puts it back in the container. But this simple act does in fact classify as human intervention, and I would say that it is quite an important one. It turns the whole installation into a giant hourglass that after a certain period needs to be ´turned around´. Karen once mentioned how she does not share the sentiment about technology replacing humans. This reflects in the described concept, as we do need someone who will turn the hourglass around and put the whole artwork back into motion. 

Ultimately, it is hard to determine whether the biosphere will survive or not, or if the greenhouse actually functions as it should. Survive is not trying to answer the questions about survival and isolation, on the contrary, it asks those questions. It is a never ending cycle of relationship between nature, technology, humans, but also a time. In the theme of this exhibition, nothing changes, except, everything changes – but only gradually, and slowly, so by the time you notice the change, the clock is turned, and everything once again looks the same to you.

1] 1.
Viktoria Razina: In Conversation with Karen Fritz in February 2023. Unpublished Manuscript. All quotes are from this interview unless stated otherwise.
2. Karenfritz.net (Karen Fritz) No author, no date given. URL https://karenfritz.net/
Simon Penny: Discussion on fractal geometry during Turbine Plays event during MEDIA ART FRIESLAND YOUNG MASTERS exhibition from 3 to 19 February 2023 in Leeuwarden. Unpublished Manuscript. February 18th 2023.

Photos by Tom Meixner