When I heard that one of the newer exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art would feature stop-motion animation, I was pretty damned excited. Basically all I ever want in any visual entertainment is stop-motion animation, for real. But that description is only scratching the surface of Nathalie Djurberg’s work, produced in conjunction with her partner, Hans Berg, a composer. Djurberg combines elements of installation, sculpture, video, and sound to create her immersive room-size works, the newest of which is titled A World of Glass. For this piece, viewers enter an enclosed dark room lined with several rows of long tables, upon which rest hosts of small translucent sculpture- resembling glass but actually rendered in polyurethane. On all four walls are projected four different films, short claymation stories featuring violent and sexual interactions between humans and animals. Over the presentation Hans Berg’s eerie, ethereal soundscape plays, establishing a quiet, strange mood throughout.
Born in Sweden and now based in Berlin, Djurberg is known for her bizarre, surreal imagery and unexpected pairings of sex and violence. Scholar Nancy Princenthal sees her compositions as examinations of human and animal relationships “both from the point of view of humanity’s inherent bestiality–understood, conventionally, to mean our lust, hunger, viciousness–and from the perspective of our physical domination” (The Reckoning, 90). Her figures are crude and colorful, taking on a kind of naive look in their imperfect, thumbprinted surfaces and exaggerated facial features. In previous installations, Djurberg has created mid-size sculptures in the same style as her animated characters, as in The Parade (exhibited at the Walker in 2011). For A World of Glass, she casts household objects and kitchenwares into unreal glass-like sculptures. Viewers walk among the long tables on which they stand unguarded, treading carefully for fear of smashing them into pieces. The irony is, of course, that they are not actually glass but polyurethane, thick and sturdy despite their appearance of fragility. They are detailed and a little strange, some misshapen and even lumpen, others perfect in their recreation, all slightly aglow in the darkened space.
I like these devious little sculptures, but I’m really there for the animation, which is itself captivating, and decidedly off-putting. In one film, a naked woman is melting like butter, both helped and hindered by the advances of a large bull who attempts to lick her back into shape. In another, a naked man wrestles with crocodiles and hippos that snap their jaws in anticipation of a meal, but when he dons a red fox-like mask he seems to gain the upper hand and their battle starts to resemble an orgy. In the third, a black woman (whose features resemble a caricature, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it’s just the result of Djurberg’s cartoonish style) sits in a room made of ice, surrounded by various animals. She continually catches herself in a large bear trap, and the animals can only help her escape by chewing off her appendages. In the final film, a furry bison attempts to remain still in a room full of glass objects (echoing the sculptures in the gallery), but eventually knocks over several shelves and they all shatter.
The animation is somewhat stuttery and artificial, intentionally revealing strings and armatures, never fully committing to the films’ own fantasies despite their attention to detail. I find Djurberg’s imagery frightening but captivating, confusing but thought-provoking. She has noted that a formative experience for her was when a fellow student showed a hardcore porn film to her biology class. She was twelve. The apparent juxtaposition of childlike innocence with pornographic content is central to her videos on view in A World of Glass. The characters shift between victims and aggressors multiple times, and no one appears to maintain control of their situation. The women seem to find equal parts delight and discomfort in their own sexual liberation. There is pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, humor and horror, color and darkness, and a lot of weirdness. I find the work as a whole wonderfully original, but also unsettling. Which may well be the artist’s intention. Curator Anna Stothart concludes:
“Trespassing the border between good and evil, this remarkable and unsettling work updates the traditional folktale and suggests that the hierarchies and distinctions that uphold societal organization are simply a response to the voracious, and amoral, demands of our so-called animal nature. While the lessons of A World of Glass are patently unclear, the installation invites us into an alternate world in which can confront aspects of our own desires and demons.”
Flowers & Mushrooms. Ed. Toni Stooss. Hirmer Publishers, 2014.
Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Prestel, 2013.
Anna Stothart. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A World of Glass. Exhibition Booklet. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2014.by