Los Angeles

Nathalie Djurberg

Hammer Museum

Stop-motion animation is generally associated with fairy-tale naïveté, due to its being used, most famously, for kids’ classics like Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), but, as Nathalie Djurberg shows, this quality is not intrinsic to the medium. In Djurberg’s hands, clay depicts but also distorts, representing the human form for a few seconds before slipping into a series of abject deformations. In such instances, the body seems purely incidental and mimesis beside the point, both of them subordinate to the will of an unruly medium. In fact, the low-tech crudity of stop-motion—its defective modeling and awkward motion, in particular—make it strikingly well adapted to such unmerry themes as bodily mutation, civic disintegration, Oedipal rage, and sexual violence. Exploiting these possibilities with apparent delight, Djurberg cannily plays the qualities of the medium against its own accumulated cultural character to produce brutal, deviant vignettes that confound any attempt to find something sweet in the sickly mess.

The lone sculpture, Moving on to greener pastures (all works 2008), was this small exhibition’s least compelling work, the only one that does not benefit from the dissonance between the popular applications of stop-motion animation and Djurberg’s decidedly more sinister motives. The sprawling mixed-media piece depicts an island populated by two constituencies: a tribe of naked, vaguely “native” children, and a hungry family of colossal, deranged crocodiles. Huddled on a hillside, evidently petrified, the pack of children plot their passage from one ridge to another. Below, blocking their path, the crocodiles gaze up expectantly, their manic eyes drunk with the blood of their latest victims. A sentence in the exhibition brochure hastily noted that the sculpture was created in response to the “misleadingly bright and sunny atmosphere” of Los Angeles. Not only is this trope tired (stretching back to the 1930s in literature and seeing its apogee in art long ago in the seminal exhibitions “Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s” and “Sunshine & Noir: Art in LA 1960–1997”), but Moving on to greener pastures lacks all the narrative discomfort and nuanced material play that subtends Djurberg’s best animated work, slipping instead into mundane illustration.

The three animated videos are, by contrast, uniformly repellent and completely mesmerizing. One shows a morbidly obese woman giving birth to a crying rhino in a turquoise room with a padded floor, while another dramatizes the action on Djurberg’s sculptural island. The most compelling, however, is It’s the Mother, in which a naked woman excruciatingly sucks her five progeny back into her body through her vagina, her mouth a gaping wound, her eyes wide with horror and streaming globular baby-blue tears. Despite the agony of her ordeal, this Mother remains strong. As she assimilates each child, her body distends and distorts wildly, becoming a monstrous composite mutation of her own offspring, the film serving as a dark allegory of motherhood.

It is difficult to look at Djurberg’s works, given their often violent character, without perceiving a fertile if tangential relationship to media imagery. Her animations carry oblique, uncomfortable associations with photographs of half-obliterated bodies strewn across the streets of Baghdad and of bloated corpses floating in the Mississippi River in the wake of Katrina. Considered alongside such images, the debasements and distortions of Djurberg’s universe reveal themselves to have a more literal, mimetic relationship to the world than one might like to think.

Christopher Bedford