The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: One Last Trip to the Underworld

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Installation view, <em>One Last Trip to the Underworld</em>, 2019. Photo by Pierre Le Hors. Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Installation view, One Last Trip to the Underworld, 2019. Photo by Pierre Le Hors. Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

On View
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg: One Last Trip To The Underworld
November 1 – December 20, 2019
New York

One Last Trip to the Underworld is the world premiere of four video works by sculptor and stop-animation video artist Nathalie Djurberg and electronic composer Hans Berg. The artists give us not the underworld of antiquity, but a contemporary fall down the rabbit hole into the Freudian unconscious of repressed desires, perversity, and what Freud called day-residues. Odd forms of sex featuring Freud’s favorite body parts—vagina, anus, mouth, and penis—dominate. Women are ravaged by a collection of clowns and hairy anthropomorphized creatures with long penis tails and sharp teeth. This is a comic book version of the Marquis de Sade, complete with some Sadeian “black humor,” and stunts pulled from the pornographic imagination. The figures in the stop motion films are crude, awkward, and downright ugly. We can only hope this is not one last trip to the underworld, because the artists have given us a realm from which nothing can emerge transformed. When Persephone was raped by Hades in the underworld, antiquity got a mystery religion out of the deal when she was reunited with her mother Demeter, the grain goddess of agricultural renewal. No such transformational possibilities exist in these videos. Instead, we remain trapped with no redemptive endings or kernels of wheat to blossom forth.

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Damaged Goods, 2019. Stop motion animation, 6 minutes, 28 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles

The beautiful youth god Eros is the victim here, and we fear he has been trashed so badly he will never be reunited with Psyche, that butterfly-winged personification of the human soul. The underworld of Djurberg and Berg is a loveless realm representing a dark Weltanschauung. How did we get here? Did it happen when de Sade was released from the Bastille and an anticlerical frenzy made holy matrimony a relic, severing sex from the sacred? György Lukács and Herbert Marcuse would later push licentiousness and sexual liberation as a carrot to sell Marxism. This erotic revolution proved to not be all fun and games. It also ushered in a sinister shadow legacy of traumatized young victims, dark-web sex trafficking, and a pornography of violence, the effects of which we are still reeling from today. Eros needs to be reunited with his mother Aphrodite, that goddess of positive human relations, feeling, and love. There is no love in the underworld of Djurberg and Berg, we don’t feel empathy for the participants being violated, there is no positive relatedness, and they don’t even fight back. The video captions say it best, “damaged goods” and “and my heart stops.” The novelty animation, and the hip carnivalesque processions of manipulated images feel more empty than satirical.

In How to Slay a Demon (2019), one of the videos in the main gallery, we even witness a mockery of the Eleusinian mysteries. Demeter and Persephone’s mystery box (cista mystica), has been replaced by a chocolate chest, from which emerges a grotesque dismembered woman whose body parts are replaced by a collection of animal extremities. When the quirky novelty of the mechanics wears off, we are left to contemplate what this is saying about the state of contemporary women, in our age of misogyny, power politics, and Jeffery Epstein. Are the artist’s images of ravishment as a grotesque amusement all that fun? Where is the transformational move our age is crying out for? Artists used to function as psychopomps to help us navigate dead zones. In the videos even the formerly helpful animals once associated with deities are in on the defilement—the once sacred bear of Artemis ravishes the headless woman, along with a blue elephant that used to personify the god Ganesh, not rape.

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, This is Heaven, 2019. Stop motion animation, 6 minutes, 36 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.

In another video, This is Heaven (2019) we are at last taken out of the underworld into a paradise filled with bling. There is no Dante’s Beatrice or St. Peter to greet us, just a hairy creature with a Tibetan styled mask with tusks for a head. What formerly passed for a sacred cow enters, laden with bags filled with jewels and gold. Paradise is all about cash. One of the few fragments we have describing the Eleusinian mysteries describes how each participant carried a piglet on their ritualistic journey to the underworld. Here even the piglets fall prey as they are snatched away so the sow can be suckled by the hairy monster. Every politician and leader in the ancient world was a participant in the Eleusinian mysteries, an enactment of agricultural and spiritual renewal. Now we have leaders and captains of industry destroying nature. Though important and much needed, environmental art is not helping us make an urgent collective transformational move on the deepest levels of psyche.

Two of the three installations feature large flower sculptures on floor bases, meant to suggest an abundance of sexual nectar being sucked by birds with phallic beaks. These sculptural takes on Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil] (1857), are more modeled and polished than the figures in the videos, and have an atelier produced feel. This is a dark version of the Garden of Eden, like the one in Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer (1958), where all of the plants were carnivorous and consumed live flesh. The pound of flesh here feels like a move toward a marketable product.

I left the exhibition feeling sad, and wanted to send the artists a volume of Karl Kerényi’s Hermes Guide of Souls (1943). Kerényi could have shown Djurberg and Berg another side of the equation. A great scholar of the mysteries of antiquity, Kerényi understood the spiritual need for the mysteries, which is why he was driven from Hungary by György Lukács’s purge of dissenting intellectuals in 1945. Disheartened, I wanted to visit that sublime personification of Persephone, the Peplos Kore (530 BC) at the Acropolis Museum, and dream that democracy and spirit could still be aided by artists. Djurberg and Berg present the problem without any vision for a solution. Even the more Dionysian melodies of Berg fail to transport us and do the trick. The Archaic period was riddled with anxiety, we know that from reading their poetry, but they had Archaic smiles, faith in a pantheon, and sculptural perfection to uplift the Polis. Djurberg and Berg give us neither beauty nor hope to transport us forward. I pray other artists will step in so this will not be the last trip to the underworld.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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