Cheer up, yes you are weak and yes, life is hard, yes, you are lowlives, sinners and nobodies, despised and neglected and misunderstood. You boast and lie and cheat and make up stories in your head distorting every experience. It’s like a journey through mud and confusion with small glimpses of air. But ah, those glimpses, those wonderful clean uncompromised breaths with no judgement, that hold all the love for those despicable, wrong doing, faultfinding others and of your own wretched, filthy self, that self that didn’t dare to enter the house, that didn’t dare to sit on the chair, that didn’t dare to taste the porridge, that bitter porridge, that too hot porridge, that sweet tasting porridge. Yes, you are lost, yes you are drowning in coverups and excuses, your feet sink deep in the mud and you are fighting and you are struggling. You drag those muddy shoes in the room, and yes you are welcome, you always were, this is your home, your temple, this is all for you. This is a celebration.
Addressed to the deepest reaches of the human psyche, this statement greets visitors to A Journey Through Mud and Confusion with Small Glimpses of Air, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. It’s an extraordinary spiel of inclusion and welcome written in a colorful, almost folkloric language. Not only does it set the tone for what is to come, but with it, Djurberg neatly strips off the veneer of perfection that is typically overlaid on all facets of life, to reveal what she is after: a messy, earthy truth.
As you are digesting the passage, pulsing music beckons from the next room where the video, One Need not be a House the Brain Has Corridors (2018) is projected. Using stop motion animation, Djurberg creates a dizzying journey into a galvanic netherworld that resembles nothing so much as a dream. The video takes up an entire wall and so you are immersed in the action. The camera angle is your point of view as you move through a long hallway. Every now and then, a disembodied arm appears in the lower right, opening a door, to imply the viewer’s (aka your) persona, imparting a “you are there” immediacy. The setting is curious and evocative. Ornate wallpaper and black and white checkerboard floor suggest a house of ill repute. They also add visual busyness to the host of other data you must process, intensifying the claustrophobia of the labyrinthine hallway. As you proceed, you are confronted, sized up and leered at by a strange and rather sketchy cast of characters rendered in modeling clay: gay S&M bikers, a man selling stolen goods from within his trench coat, a toothy crocodile and a prodigiously fanged, rhinestone-encrusted poodle. They enter and exit through a series of doors, or just hang out in the hallway forming an intimidating gauntlet to pass by. Enigmatic handwritten phrases (in English) appear and disappear on the walls. It’s fleeting, confusing and utterly transfixing and you are compelled to watch the whole thing over again. Berg’s atmospheric score, which fuses techno with more traditional musical components, is simply dazzling and deepens the intensity and menace of the video. One without the other would be so much less and you can fully appreciate the significance of Djurberg and Berg’s collaboration.
That collaboration has been ongoing since 2004 with the two artists working closely together to produce their installations and videos. Djurberg and Berg occupy separate studios, but communicate throughout the lengthy developmental stage by phone and skype, producing the artwork and music simultaneously.
Stop motion animation is a laborious process in the best of circumstances. Djurberg’s expansive casts of bizarre creatures and complex choreography make hers particularly so. Clay provides a medium suitably pliable to enable Djurberg to make whatever she imagines, but constructing and then altering the figures repeatedly to create movement and action is extremely time consuming. The medium plays an important aesthetic role, imbuing a sense of childlike fun to the work and softening some of the darker elements.
Such is the case with Worship (2016), which focuses on our obsession with materialism. In the piece, an assortment of figures engages with the object of their obsession in an overtly sexual way. Djurberg has come up with an oddball assortment of these objects—a popsicle, a fish, a corn cob—as if to say it really doesn’t matter what they are. It’s so over the top, it’s funny. Yet, one is made slightly uncomfortable by Djurberg’s veering so close to stereotypical images. Her no holds barred approach is an unfettered constant throughout her work and everything—race, sex, violence, religion, etc., is fair game. Once again, Berg’s music upholds the visuals with a searing, thumping track. (I liked the score to One Need not be a House the Brain Has Corridors so much, I tried Shazamming it, but no dice.)
Over 80 life-size birds comprise the extravaganza that is The Parade (2011). The birds—flamingos, pelicans, turkeys, eagles, etc.—are simply wonderful, filling a large room with their spirited display. Using painted fabric and clay, Djurberg has created for this installation eccentric, yet quite accurate, versions of various species. Imbued with character, there is something so winning about these avian specimens despite the beady eyes and pointy beaks. Five films whose subject matter revolves around eggs are included in the installation, but I was too caught up in the birds to pay attention to them.
You’ve got to love the kind of mind that comes up with a giant potato for a video screening space. Djurberg’s The Potato (2008) (complete with sprouts) boasts three hollowed out chambers where We Are Not Two, We Are One; Once Removed on My Mother’s Side and It’s the Mother are presented.
The Experiment (2008), which garnered Djurberg and Berg a Silver Lion Award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, presents an extravagant array of fanciful plants. The gallery space is darkened, conveying the sense of being in some kind of primordial, otherworldly forest. Spots bathe the flora in light, making them pop against the background and glisten malignantly. Wandering among these flamboyant and weird creations is a little unsettling; they’re big and intimidating. But one can’t quite shake the impression they’re sentient with a distinctly malevolent bent. The installation includes three videos, The Cave, The Forest and Greed, but as with The Parade, I couldn’t shift my attention away from Djurberg’s captivating “fleurs du mal” to really take them in.
Social satire, obsession and desire play out in Djurberg’s Baroque dramas. Nothing is off limits as she explores the depths of human psychology and confronts existential fear. Djurberg deals in the fantastical and the absurd. She presents a reality that is so unfamiliar and illogical that it takes us back to a time when, as wide-eyed little children, we were first getting our bearings in the world. This experience—off-balance and alien—is what Djurberg recreates for her audience, inspiring with her contemporary fairy tales that elemental desire for, and fear of, that which can never be fully understood.
A tiny taste: