Sinister Parade: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s Wicked Birds Land at the New Museum

An untitled work from "The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg," 2011
(Courtesy the Artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Giò Marconi, Milan)

A long-haired yogi type torn limb from limb by a far more flexible snake; malleable men and women spanking and licking their way through orgies and acts of S&M; models-cum-kinky-mean-girls; and an arctic huntress hopping inside the fleshy carcass of her skewered prey: The content of Nathalie Djurberg’s stop-motion animation is delightfully sardonic, but also fairly brave. The Swedish-born, Berlin-based artist doesn’t hold back. Her painstakingly composed films give physical form to the sort of twisted visions, fantasies, and inner dialogues that many of us try our hardest to quell: the what-ifs, the fears, the perversions, the cold-sweat-inducing dreams.

In this sense, Djurberg has found a perfect medium in clay. “Few artists are using claymation with such a psychological charge to it,” says Gary Carrion-Murayari, associate curator at New York’s New Museum, which will house Djurberg’s exhibition, “The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg,” in its Studio 231 space from May 6 through August 26. “It’s a format that’s familiar to us from childhood, but her work never feels nostalgic. She uses her materials to imagine playing with your body in ways that would be impossible. She has created a unique visual language and the way she uses it, the way she can make these surrogates for our bodies and our emotional states is remarkable.”

This latest exhibition is a dark, immersive installation that features five new animations scored by the artist’s partner and collaborator, Hans Berg, as well as dozens of bird sculptures, each strikingly unique and handcrafted out of clay, wire, and strips of painted canvas. The show—Djurberg’s biggest U.S. outing to date—originated at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and will travel to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, later this year.

The 80 garish and menacing sculptures are the latest advance in a somewhat new direction for Djurberg, who first started creating environments for her work at the urging of curator Germano Celant (who organized her 2008 exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan). This is the most ambitious environment she has constructed since her Silver Lion–winning appearance at the 2009 Venice Biennale, for which she crafted an oversized version of the sinister forest that attacks the stripped-down protagonists in her film, The Experiment.

Much has been made of Djurberg’s blond locks, fair skin, and sweet demeanor, particularly in contrast to her startlingly graphic work. But in many ways these attributes confirm the larger point of her work: that these baser instincts exist within all of us, no matter how pretty or normal we might seem. Born and raised in Lysekil, Sweden, primarily by her mother (who, quite presciently, ran a puppet theater for several years), Djurberg studied painting at the Malmö Art Academy. She was frustrated by the medium and nearly gave up art entirely until she started playing with puppetry and clay, filming scenarios with a Super 8 camera. Suddenly, something clicked. The process kept her disciplined; the childlike aesthetic allowed her to take her ideas, dark and twisted, as far as they could go. The films made their way into group exhibitions throughout Europe. Djurberg was showing steadily on her own by 2004, and by 2006, exhibiting with New York dealer Zach Feuer.

Djurberg starts with a prompt, drawn from things she “sees, hears, experiences, or feels,” as opposed to a fully formed narrative. “If I already see it entirely in my head, there doesn’t seem to be any need for doing it,” she says, sitting next to Berg and speaking via Skype from their home studio in Berlin. “It starts as more of a curiosity, which makes me look for it. And when I find the way I want to see it, then I feel like I have the urge to make it.” She likens the process to sketching. “I am not that interested in making something that is perfect,” she explains.

The story is slowly shaped with each meticulously tweaked frame, photographed as an HD still that is then stitched digitally to the other stills with little editing. “Because of the fragmented aesthetic, you’re always coming from one point and from that point, there are a million different ways you can choose to go,” she says. “So you narrow it down and make those choices. I find it very interesting, especially when everything falls into place.”

On screen, Djurberg’s clay puppets move and emote impressively, their glances and gestures aptly signifying complex emotions like pleasure, bloodlust, and fear. Most of the figures have a fairly specific aesthetic: big eyes, lanky limbs, lumpy skin. It makes them look almost familial and allows them to inhabit a world uniquely their own (as do, say, the Simpsons, and the jaundice they share with other residents of Springfield).

Djurberg is quick to note that Berg’s accompanying music is key. The two were collaborators before they were a couple. “A mutual friend forced us to work together,” says Berg, a self-taught electronic music producer, with a laugh. As Djurberg recounts, “I gave him a film that I didn’t like—I figured he couldn’t screw it up because I hated it anyway—and he turned it around.” The music, which was largely electronic early on and has since evolved into something darker and more symphonic, “pushed the work in the direction that I wanted to go,” Djurberg adds. “And it humbled me a bit. The music contains you and keeps you focused. It creates an emotional aspect to the work.”

Djurberg’s new films are not as explicitly sexual as fans might expect. Lately, she has been looking toward the animal world for inspiration—birds, specifically. The artist has never thought much of them. She once considered birds to be fairly dull, their pea-sized brains lacking the capacity for much beyond flapping, pecking, defecating, and slurping down the occasional worm. It didn’t help that she had had some personal experience with an unruly winged creature. When she was a kid, her mother rescued a seagull that had fallen from its nest and placed it in Djurberg’s bedroom. It smelled horrible, and it shit everywhere, but her mother fed it, cared for it, and taught it how to fly by tossing it in the air and forcing it to use its wings. Then one day, that dumb bird just up and flew away.

Ever since, Djurberg says, “I thought there really wasn’t anything interesting about birds, except for the way they display themselves”—breasts forward, wings back, beaks up. But in researching birds’ predilection toward pageantry, Djurberg came across something else. “The more research I did, the more I saw that there is an awareness and intelligence in them.” For instance, some species try to engage others through play, others can recognize themselves in a mirror, and others make big, blue exaggerated nests—organic bachelor pads, if you will—to attract a mate. “It’s kind of remarkable what this tiny brain can do,” she adds. “The more I looked at it, the more amazed and amused I got. That outward parade or display is really an inward search for all these funny rituals and emotions.”

This unexpected dichotomy and the way it relates to human codes of conduct is the basis of “The Parade.” The new films, all 2011, are installed throughout the artist’s winged menagerie and set to an aptly haunting soundtrack by Berg (think operatic violins and the occasional blast of a foreboding horn). They offer a series of semirelated vignettes, each picking apart a human/animal interaction and the often-tragic consequences thereof.

“Typically, when you interact with animals you don’t have to protect yourself so much in an emotional and psychological way,” Djurberg says. But what happens when animals behave in ways that are decidedly more human? And when we give in to our own animal-like instincts?

“When you look at animals, you start to see the behavioral patterns that we have more clearly,” Djurberg says. “It simplifies them, in a sense. And makes people wonder what we really are. There is this YouTube video Hans showed me of a dog playing the piano, walking on the keys and shouting. You look at this animal at the keyboard and think, What is he doing? Whereas with humans, we know that it is this drive to create.”

In Bad Eggs, three pudgy old women yank a colorful pelican from the sky. They pluck its feathers and torment it until it starts to produce eggs. In Open Window, a strikingly similar bird plays an entirely different role, serving as protector and advocate to a young boy who’s spooked by seemingly supernatural goings-on in his room (the window just won’t stay put). In the end, he clings to the bird as a child would its mother.

The most disturbing film on view is I Wasn’t Made to Play the Son. In it, two men don Venetian-style bird masks and something akin to 18th-century European garb and torture and mutilate a woman while pacing back and forth atop her body. She calls out to one of them, via text scrawled in paint on the back wall (Djurberg’s films never have dialogue), that she “treated him like a son.” His response, per the piece’s title, is that’s not a role I was made to play.

As the woman writhes in pain, the bird-men start snipping away her extremities: first toes, then fingers, then nipples. Green, pink, and yellow clay seeps out of each wound. It’s hard to watch, nauseating even, though the masks pose an interesting conundrum: Would it be quite so sickening if the perpetrators had not been men in masquerade, but actual birds? “You can’t really say something is cruel when it’s something one is not aware of,” Djurberg says. “We don’t use the word ‘cruelty’ to refer to how an animal behaves, we only use it with human beings.”

Djurberg herself struggles to watch the films sometimes. But, she notes, “if I’m not nervous, and if I don’t feel emotional about it or embarrassed, maybe it’s not that important. Maybe
it is too clear and too safe.”

“You have to invest,” Berg adds. “Even if you’re a little scared.”

Click on the slide show to see the work of Nathalie Djurberg.

This article appeared in the May issue of Modern Painters magazine.