On ViewThe New Museum
May 2 – August 26, 2012
I first encountered the graphically visceral, clay-based animations and musical scores of Nathalie Djurberg and her collaborator, Hans Berg, at the 2007 Performa Biennial, for which the two were commissioned to perform one of Djurberg’s films live. In front of a packed house, the pair pranced, gyrated, and drummed on household “instruments” such as folding chairs and buckets, all against the backdrop of Djurberg’s projected video, “Kids & Dogs” (2007), which featured a hunger-induced gang war in the back alley of an urban ghetto. Since Performa, the 30-something Swede’s work has progressed with the same momentum as her rise to art stardom, with solo exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, the New Museum, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, for which her current project, The Parade, was first conceived. Adapted for the New Museum’s new annex space, Studio 231, Djurberg’s installation introduces an unsettling cast of characters—over 80 freestanding avian sculptures composed of raw and painted canvas, wire, and clay, alongside five animations—that plumbs the darkest recesses of animal and human behavior.
Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, still from Deceiving looks, 2011. Courtesy the artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Giò Marconi, Milan.
“Deceiving Looks” (2011), the first of five videos encountered upon entering the darkened space, sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Here, a female figure burrows holes in an innocuous desert landscape of cadmium yellow flanked against an ultramarine sky. The plot soon turns sinister, however (Djurberg’s hallmark), as masked snake-like creatures emerge from the recently dug warrens, first seeming to attack the horrified woman and then turning on each other and themselves as they perform various acts of self-cannibalism. With each dismembering chomp, Pepto-pink and turquoise clay oozes from the freshly inflicted wounds, driving home the transformative potential of raw material as a stand-in for reality—in this case, clay’s proximity to the fleshly substances of blood and bone.
Such corporeal associations reach their climax in “I wasn’t made to play the son” (2011), an approximately six-minute loop of disconcerting torment. The idea of masquerade as a shield for one’s pathologies (think Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) is played out here, in nightmarishly vulgar displays of patriarchal dominance, when two anonymously masked birdlike assailants torture, dismember, and finally kill the film’s violet-colored female protagonist. The violence of the actions—so brutal that despite the piece’s claymation roots, it was almost impossible to watch in its entirety—upends itself in concert with the balletic gentility of the victim’s captors as they cavort across the woman’s decimated body, taunting her with psychologically affective phrases like, “I treated you like a son; I wasn’t made to play the son,” writ in chalk on the alley walls.
On a somewhat lighter note, the rainbow-hued bird sculptures that fill the gallery space—ranging from the tiniest of sparrows to an ostrich sized behemoth—add a fleck of humor to the exhibition’s otherwise menacing tone. Aloof and puerile in their gaze, they silently squawk, posture, and peck at the floor, the effect heightened by Berg’s musical accompaniment—a creepy, rhythmic blend of two-note alternations peppered with dramatic passages of violin.
The term schadenfreude is defined by the English dictionary as “a malicious satisfaction obtained from the misfortune of others.” That is not to say that this is the only feeling one registers upon viewing the work of Djurberg and Berg, yet it is an affect not to be discounted; it is the basis of the work’s draw. We can be vulgar creatures just as we can be moral ones, complex in our pathological pursuits of desire and passion. Djurberg deftly taps into such tenebrous corners of the unencumbered subconscious—fetishistic, depraved, as well as imaginative and extraordinary. These are not easy territories to mine, and she should therefore be applauded.
Birds are the closest in the ancestral chain to the dinosaurs: cold-blooded, and unique in their ability to move between terra firma and the heavens. It is in Djurberg’s physical representation of these fantastical chimeras, and their oddly feathered processional, that the intention of The Parade truly registers. These beings embody the allegorical visualization of our own desire to consistently alter our reality—to elevate humanity from its basest, most primal level—by pointing to the very perversions that motivate these drives.
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