PRINT March 2007


IN SWEDISH ARTIST Nathalie Djurberg’s Claymation film The Necessity of Loss, 2006, a man who cannot resist acting on his overwhelming attraction to a young girl decides he must castrate himself. But he still has arms with which to touch her, and so he lops off one of them, then both his legs, and finally his head. But even this disembodied state won’t “save” him from the feared inappropriate sexual liaison: At this point the girl cheerfully removes her underwear and sits on his face.

Djurberg’s short Claymation films (of which The Necessity of Loss is by no means the most extreme or unsparing) are often reminiscent, in their schematic character, of archetypal scenes from Freud’s theories of sexuality—except that Djurberg’s narratives seem bluntly literal, as if taking place in a realm where repression has burned off completely. A man’s body, here, is not symbolically parceled but actually parceled. Events unfold with a curious simplicity, driving them closer to the realm of fairy tales; but in Djurberg’s stories mythical threats and nightmares are not overcome. As in fairy tales, animals commonly appear, but they don’t seem in symbolic service to any human psychic economy, even as they perform sexual favors—like the moose that a belligerent queen humps as they ride together through a forest (The Secret Handshake, 2006), the queen clinging to the moose’s underside.

Composer Hans Berg scores her films, but Djurberg executes every other aspect of the labor-intensive process of stop-motion animation herself, rendering her figures and the sets she builds to house them with painstaking care. The figures’ clothing is handmade, and each interior features its own elaborate, studied aesthetic—Rococo, Spanish Colonial, imperial Prussian—to which Berg’s charmingly layered music is delicately attuned. The overall effect is meticulous, but handcrafted rather than slick. Almost everything is plasticine, and thereby ingeniously subsumed into material uniformity; even coffee poured from a coffeepot is made of this hobby-shop putty, as is a room’s picture-frame molding, giving the walls the appearance of iced cakes.

Djurberg studied at Sweden’s Malmö Art Academy, where she received her MFA in 2002, and she now lives and works in Berlin. Perhaps these northern regional identifications present a less sentimental cultural field. Here in the US, where an entire generation continues to be plagued by the McSweeney’s/Believer clan and their moralizing preoccupation with kiddiehood, Djurberg comes as welcome relief. Children in her films are not caught in some wondrous moment of “innocence.” They are as monstrous and crudely complex as everyone else. Even her characters’ capacity to cry copious, foamy blue tears doesn’t make them seem tender. Often those who cry are not victims but aggressors whose tears only further indict them—not only are they sadists, they steal their victim’s only recourse: the right to suffer. In Dumstrut (Dunce), 2006, a boy tortures a cat, putting his finger into its anus and swinging it around by its tail. When the cat successfully evades him, he cries. And at the end of Florentin, 2004, a man cries as he has the tables turned on him by the two young girls he’s been spanking. These characters weep not out of remorse, or empathy, or sorrow. They weep because their bubble of omnipotence has been temporarily burst, forcing them to confront the ultimate drag: somebody else’s (uncontrollable) subjectivity.

Djurberg herself seems rather unsentimental. In an interview in the catalogue for her current show at the Kunsthalle Wien, when asked about a “typical working day,” she replied: “I try to get up at 8 o’clock. When I don’t succeed, I’ll try again at 9:30. Before, I used to chew a lot of tobacco the first thing, but since I quit I just weep a little about it and then go right to work.” In an e-mail to me, she mentioned admiring Swedish painter Dick Bengtsson (who mysteriously applied swastikas to many of his canvases) and said Chris Burden was her favorite artist, citing Through the Night Softly, 1973, his naked crawl across broken glass. While the sensibility of Burden’s sardonic experiments in pain and discipline seem kindred enough, formally one is tempted to link Djurberg’s work to a different lineage, to surrealist figures such as Carol Rama, Meret Oppenheim, or Hans Bellmer.

That said, certainly, like Bengtsson, Djurberg seems unafraid of social critique that runs afoul of primly acceptable leftist doxa. In The Natural Selection, 2006, a group of Africans who seem to represent no specific tribe but rather a faux-ethnographic hodgepodge (men in Mobutu leopard print, women with Hottentot proportions) receive militaristic instructions (LINE UPP [sic] IN STRAIGHT LINES, AND MOVE OUT) that are painted on the wall behind them. The stereotyping and obscene, slave-auction commands employed here are a far cry from the soft, covert racism of a social democracy such as Sweden, where, as Djurberg comments, “You’re so afraid of becoming something . . . that you don’t even dare take up the question.” As a kind of antidote, she demonstrates the crudest of power structures, soliciting the viewer to ponder distances—both perceived and real—between her “natural selection” and an enlightened (but mostly white) nation and its publicly stated commitments to tolerance and diversity.

An offscreen authority figure similarly directs a group of racially mixed supermodel types in New Movements in Fashion, 2006, but here the painted texts—e.g., LOOSEN UPP [sic] A LITTLE and PLEASENT [sic] BEHAVIOUR—seem like fashion-industry norms plus internalized female degradation writ large. The women engage in a series of frantic outfit changes, first donning baby bonnets and sucking pacifiers, then turning from “professional” women to parochial schoolgirls to ballerinas—dolls that Djurberg forces into various stereotyped roles, including not just sex kitten but also punisher and victim, as two are knelt in orange smocks, their heads shaved like the “marked” women of liberated France. Djurberg is clearly sympathetic to the problems of shopper’s lust and body-image tyrannies, but unlike, say, Sylvie Fleury or Vanessa Beecroft, she is incisively critical as well.

Djurberg started out as a painter but was never satisfied, she told me, “letting one image stand for itself.” On the verge of quitting art altogether, she experimented with animation and realized it solved the problem of singularity (“instead of one image I can have thousands”), foregrounding her interest in action and movement. Yet a relationship to painting seems to linger. The Swing, 2005, Djurberg’s most subtle and metaphoric treatment of erotic play, is a reworking of Fragonard’s Rococo masterpiece: An enthralled boy pushes a pink-clad, pantalooned girl to and fro. She kicks off her shoe—an obvious fetish object, as Norman Bryson has pointed out, meant to defuse the threat of female nudity. The boy grabs it, clutching it to his face. She leaps off the swing and crawls away—an act that unequivocally breaks the contract on which Fragonard’s work hinges, between the boy and his proxy, the viewer, both of whom want a look up the girl’s skirt.

At the end of The Swing, the girl finds herself in a glistening terrain of lumps of bright but putrid colors—chocolaty browns, sickly greens, fuchsia pinks—the basic units or building blocks of Djurberg’s trade: plasticine. Is this place the “warehouse” out of which the Rococo tableau took its form? Or is it the logical endpoint to the story, a fantasy space into which the heroine passes because there is no real escape—from the dimensions of a painting, Rococo’s tacit significations, or her role as object? Like most fantasies, it’s double-edged—candy-colored, but verging on scatological—and its inhabitants won’t bend to her will, like the bunnies that blink frostily at her when she summons them. Whether this goopy landscape is some originary material or a make-believe coda to the “real” story of courtship’s erotic play and evasions is unclear, but it doesn’t matter: By the pragmatic conventions of video display, the piece is shown as a loop, going from beginning to end to beginning—a scenario destined, like people and their compulsions, to keep repeating itself.

Rachel Kushner is a Los Angeles–based writer.