February 22 – May 26, 2019
The forest and the house are two psychologically-charged domains in the Western imaginary, both ruled by the play of light and shadow. When we can’t see the far edge of the trees, a forest becomes an unfathomable mystery, and its secrets take on a more threatening character with the fall of night. The house, on the other hand, is the most intimate and familiar place, where one shelters the inner self from the world, and hides one’s own secrets in the shadows. These archetypal impressions, which Gaston Bachelard famously called “the poetics of space,” have been expressed and engrained over many centuries by fairy tales. In these familiar stories, the inner and outer worlds are crossed, so that the landscape is suffused with the psyche, which is in turn personified by the scenery and characters. It is at this crossroads of fairy tales and psychology that the claymation films by Swedish artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg perform their witchery.
The three claymation films by Djurberg (an animator) and Berg (a sound artist) currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art revolve around the settings of the forest and the house. In Dark Side of the Moon (2017), a girl in the woods at night tries to gain entry to a little thatched house, but finds the door locked. A pig and a fox emerge from the trees to taunt her, suggesting the house contains a secret. Djurberg’s sculpting of these characters, with bulging eyes, flapping mouths, and highly mottled, rippling clay skins give them a distinctly grotesque aspect. They speak through paper speech bubbles, and the silent action is set to Berg’s undulating score, which blends digital synths with whimsical harps and wind instruments that recall Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
The pig questions the girl’s curiosity—“But what if it’s shameful? Disgraceful? Immoral?”
The windows and roofline of the hut itself become eyes and a toothy mouth, across which a telling grin curls ominously.
The moon swings low in the forest to intervene, saying, “It was buried so long, forgotten…lick your lollipop and forget all about it.”
We don’t get to see inside the house before the end of the seven-minute film. Its purpose is not to reveal this secret, but to personify the psychology of discovering it. In European fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, and Baba Yaga, forests are the site where self-knowledge is uncovered, or where a life-defining trial is faced. The Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz wrote that “Fairy tales are the purest, simplest expression of collective unconscious processes.”1 We can likewise understand Dark Side of the Moon as the representation of an individual psyche, in which the young protagonist confronts her own secret, and is variously inhibited and encouraged by facets of her own consciousness.
Snake With a Mouth Sewn Shut, or, This is a Celebration (2018) also reads as an inner narrative. In one empty room, several avatars including a baby, a full-grown woman in a diaper, and a skeletal serpent-woman engage in an argument of mutual loathing and dependency. Cryptic and bleak, Snake With a Mouth Sewn Shut is less rewarding than the earliest work on view, Delights of an Undirected Mind (2016), where a child’s bedroom comes alive in a fever-dream fantasy of anthropomorphic animals. It is a stunning achievement in stop-motion as the bedroom explodes into a shifting menagerie of characters including a salacious-looking fox in a white fur stole, a half-peeled banana, a can of Carnation evaporated milk that spills evocatively over the bed, and a hungry wolf in a nightdress. Everything takes on an erotic dimension—the orifice at the center of a doughnut, the humps on a camel’s back, the latex-like skin of a black octopus, the slicing of a cake—and as the scene cuts repeatedly to a vision of a matador with a bulging crotch, we get the impression that this is a moment of libidinal awakening.
Throughout her work, Djurberg shows us that claymation is the perfect medium for exploring the uncanny proximity of the grotesque and the appetizing, as well as lust and revulsion. The suggestive carnality of her and Berg’s films elaborates on Carl Jung’s belief in the cultural function of fairy tales to examine “the shadow,” which he defined as every aspect of the psyche outside the light of consciousness. The shadow is what we lock away, perhaps in a lonely hut or a high tower; it is what we fear encountering in the dark wood. There are both collective and individual shadows. The innate eros of the child, for instance, is something often suppressed in our collective efforts to protect children as long as possible from the trauma of becoming sexual beings. But the child usually discovers it long before it comes into the light of day—with luck, that encounter takes place in the safety of one’s own room, provoked by a toy or suggestive cartoon, or by an old story about a girl getting “eaten” by a wolf. Djurberg and Berg’s films remind us that the “mature content” disclaimer outside the BMA’s black box might as well appear on the cover of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—but that doesn’t mean they’re not for kids.
- Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (1974).