New York

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, This is Heaven, 2019, 4K video stop-motion animation, color, sound, 6 minutes, 36 seconds.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, This is Heaven, 2019, 4K video stop-motion animation, color, sound, 6 minutes, 36 seconds.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery was dominated by four macabre stop-motion animations. In This Is Heaven (all works 2019), a hairy, goblin-faced man wakes up inside his own fantasy of wealth and power. The video is reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s La mort de Sardanapale (The Death of Sardanapalus), 1827, a canvas depicting a scene from the story of an Assyrian monarch who orders the destruction of his slaves, horses, and other possessions after his army has been routed so that his property doesn’t get usurped by his enemies. Like Sardanapalus, Djurberg and Berg’s glutton fills his massive bed with all that he desires, heedless of the destruction he causes. Many meet their ends as the consequence of his avarice. In one alarming sequence, he tosses six nursing piglets aside to fill a chalice with the sow’s milk for his own consumption. As at the close of any morality tale, there is a sense of glee when this false king steps into a gilded bear trap. 

In Damaged Goods, a female anthropoid digs into a box and extracts body parts, attaching and removing them from herself via Frankensteinian acts of dress-up. Some of the things she tries on in search of the perfect form are a baboon’s ass, a tail, a beak, and a set of arms, which she fashions into legs. Spliced into this narrative is footage of the end result: a fully human woman, lying seductively on her stomach and glancing at us while wiggling her fingerlike toes. She is reminiscent of Madonna in her 1989 music video Express Yourself, in which the pop star defiantly prowls catlike through a machinic world, yet remains a kind of pet, observed and trapped in a box.

Artists of previous generations, including Cecelia Condit and the Kuchar brothers, embraced conventional narrative structures while engaging in grotesque forms of entertainment; they are forebears of Djurberg and Berg’s lurid sensibility. But while Condit’s and the Kuchars’ subject matter is mostly grounded in the dogma-free zones of horror and drag, Djurberg and Berg’s use of stop-motion animation puts their references in the realm of children’s television. And, like many kids’ shows, their work is more often than not infused with a sense of ethics. (This is hardly out of step with the times in which we live, especially when this country is experiencing a karmic comeuppance of epic proportions.) Davey and Goliath (1961–2004), a Christian-themed stop-motion program about a boy and his talking dog—produced by the same studio that gave us Gumby—comes to mind as a reference, as do any of the more hip children’s cartoons of the 1970s, in which age and corruption are defeated by youth and idealism in every episode.

The exhibition’s title was taken from its standout piece: One Last Trip to the Underworld, in which a blonde woman in a spangly catsuit descends a ladder and is grabbed by a giant pink octopus. She looks like one of the charming wire-and-cloth figurines from Alexander Calder’s sculptural tableau, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31. The duo performs a ballet of attraction and repulsion, domination and submission. Dreamy music sets a sensuous and darkly numinous mood. The cephalopod ensnares its partner, but then she skips along the tips of its tentacles, allowing it to gently lift her. The ending cuts to black—has she been devoured? It seems likely.

Unlike the other pieces in the exhibition, One Last Trip is sticky because it contains moral vagaries—which seems appropriate for a work about love. New information on octopuses suggests they may be descended from a hyperintelligent breed of alien, or at least from owners of subtly nimble brains. To be absorbed by an amorous mind seems an intense way to be adored and not, I suppose, a nightmare.