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Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade
Where the Wild Things Are

By Eric Crosby and Dean Otto

Primal, personal, and psychological, Nathalie Djurberg’s art “doesn’t look like anything else out there,” says Eric Crosby, who co-curated the Berlin-based artist’s first major US museum show. In a new interview, Crosby, exhibition co-curator Dean Otto, and Walker magazine editor Julie Caniglia discuss how Djurberg’s claymation animations and sculptures fall outside conventions of both the film and contemporary visual arts worlds, while channeling a “universality of experience that speaks to us all.”

Julie Caniglia

How has Nathalie Djurberg’s work evolved in the past three or four years?

Eric Crosby

It’s taken an interesting turn, as she’s begun exhibiting sculptures in concert with her videos. Her piece at the 2009 Venice Biennale, The Experiment, was a sinister Garden of Eden scenario of grotesque plant sculptures, standing amidst various video projections, and you’re meant to navigate through that space. For that installation, she won the Silver Lion, an award for the most promising young artist in the exhibition.

For The Parade, Nathalie and Hans are conceiving the gallery space in a similar way—as an environment, rather than a presentation of discrete sculptures and videos. You’re meant to be surrounded by this large flock of more than 80 bird sculptures, which range from just a few inches high to about seven feet tall, all standing directly on the floor. The flock stares back at you in a menacing way.

Dean Otto

She’s seeking out ways for her sculptures to enhance the videos, and vice versa, especially within this new work for the Walker, which ties the sculptures in the gallery with the projections. Hans has composed the soundtracks for each of the five videos, taking into account how they would blend together and become one overarching soundscape for the installation.

Crosby

Their work is particularly well-suited for the Walker because of our interest in interdisciplinary practices. And it’s their first opportunity to really conceive such an immersive environment in a museum. They’re used to working in spaces with a raw or more industrial feel, or smaller galleries—arenas that don’t really compare to the pristine, white-cube expanse of the Burnet Gallery.

Caniglia

Where do you see their work fitting in the broader contemporary art world, especially after Djurberg received the award at the Venice Biennale, which really raised her international stature?

Crosby

Well, Nathalie’s making work that doesn’t look like anything else out there today. It’s at odds with much of what’s happening in the field of contemporary art. Of course, it’s hard to generalize, but it seems to fall outside the more conceptually oriented work of our day. It’s a little too personal, too chaotic, too psychological, too handmade. She’s really charting her own course. And yet, for all that, her vision is intensely clear and specific.

Otto

You can draw a lot of parallels between Nathalie’s work and that of a filmmaker and animator such as Brent Green, whose work we showed at the Walker last winter. He’s also an animator—kind of an outsider within the larger film community—and he is also bridging visual art and film, showing the sculptural elements he creates for his films in a gallery setting. But Nathalie is creating sculptures and films that are intended to exist together.

Crosby

It’s interesting to note her early training in painting, and how, through a disappointment with that, she found her way to animation. I tend to see her work in the context of artists since the 1960s who have veered away from major movements—Minimalism or conceptualism or Pop art—and have pursued highly subjective, sculptural and performative practices. Nathalie is deeply invested in the work of the Viennese Actionists from the 1960s, for instance. I also think of really obsessive sculptors such as Yayoi Kusama or Paul Thek, who used their own bodies as source material, or someone like Carolee Schneemann, whose performative work explores the body as a site of transformation.

Otto

Many visual artists are working in film and video right now, but Nathalie’s gone the opposite direction, exploring sculpture while she’s been doing video since the late ’90s. She’s also completely self-taught as an animator, as is Hans with music composition—unlike most working artists today. And they don’t work with assistants, which is unusual for artists as prolific as they are. But Nathalie wouldn’t have it any other way.

Caniglia

Last spring you each made visits to the artists’ Berlin studio while organizing the exhibition. What was that like?

Otto

They work and live in a large apartment in Kreuzberg, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Berlin. It was fascinating to see how much of the work for The Parade had been piling up—bird sculptures and puppets everywhere. They live around this material all the time.

Crosby

There are boxes and boxes of materials, and paint jars spilling over, plastic tarps all over the floor. There’s so little separation between their life and their art. Nathalie is a compulsive workaholic, so Hans witnesses the work in development, which feeds into their collaborations as he’s scoring the videos. Their relationship is symbiotic, and they don’t really have to communicate much about the genesis of the work. Rather, it’s just a matter of living with it and absorbing it; that’s how the collaboration ends up being most fruitful.

Otto

With all these projects in development all over the apartment, they had to clear a space so we could sit down and have coffee. It really is very different from a typical live/work studio setup.

Crosby

I agree. It’s more of a working space than it is a living space. But I think that really speaks to the nature of their collaboration, its intensity. Nathalie could easily have a separate studio, but I think she needs to live with her work. It’s deeply personal. It seems to make sense that it develops in the home, because she thrives on constant contact with it.

Caniglia

Beyond these personal aspects of the work, where do the birds and other animals come into play? The Parade includes new videos with both animals and humans, but in this exhibition, at least, the former seem to dominate.

Crosby

A lot of Nathalie’s earliest videos feature domestic settings and sadistic human dramas, but she’s always been interested in the connections between animal and human behavior. One curious example is her 2004 short, Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt. It basically represents just that, a scene in the girl’s bedroom that plays out again and again. Then an intertitle flashes up that says, “Why do I feel compelled to do such things again and again?”

Otto

Nathalie has long been very interested in animals, animal behavior, and nature documentaries—mating rituals, or ways that animals go through physical transformations to attract mates. We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about how often the behavior in these documentaries crosses over into human psychology.

Crosby

I think that’s why her interest in the idea of the bird flock is a uniquely human one: how a social body forms and how it makes an outsider feel—and of course, all visitors to the exhibition will be in the position of the thing that doesn’t belong. She’s interested in this interplay between the alienated figure and the group, and how a social body develops a kind of consciousness, how it behaves, and how it has an independent psychology. More recently, the work overall has migrated toward archetypal figures and places; it’s more about the universality of certain kinds of emotional experiences. By stripping the human figure of any kind of recognizable mise-en-scène or clothing, Nathalie is interested in depicting her human figures as animals.

Otto

I agree with Eric that this new body of work definitely has a more universal appeal, evoking experiences that everyone goes through. It’s focusing on conflicts of behavior, too: trying to be good versus giving in to our natural instincts, and the ways that we try to reject negative impulses that are innate.

Caniglia

You mentioned earlier that Djurberg trained as a painter. That seems to figure in her process in interesting if subtle ways. Can you talk more about that?

Crosby

In this new body of work, many of the birds’ individual feathers are made of hand-painted canvas. Like Claes Oldenburg, one of Nathalie’s favorite artists, she’s literally using the materials of painting to make three-dimensional forms. Painting is relevant to her process, too. She started these sculptures working from specific bird species, and as the work developed, they became increasingly abstract, to the point where some of them no longer even resemble birds.

Otto

Her process in making the videos is also very intuitive and low-tech. She’s working with a high-definition still camera and shooting frame by frame with these handmade puppets. The videos are stitched together with basic software and very little editing. She works so quickly that sometimes she has to cut out frames where her hand is in the image.

Crosby

It’s interesting to see how her gestural and painterly approach to sculpture also applies with the videos. She sometimes begins them without even knowing where the narratives will take her, just starting a scenario with a couple characters and a setting. The scene then inevitably devolves into an abstract scattering of plasticine body parts.

Caniglia

It seems like that handmade quality is a powerful factor in terms of how people see, or react to, this work.

Crosby

Through her investment in the handmade and the intuitive, I think she channels a universality of experience that speaks to us all. Nathalie is open to countless interpretations of her work.

Otto

There’s a psychological directness to the work that finds a perfect analog in its rough quality. If it were polished like Pixar movies or Nick Park’s Wallace and Grommit animation, it wouldn’t have the emotional resonance it does—this confessional aspect of the work wouldn’t be given a voice. And yet in its rawness, it finds a kind of clarity. Everyone can find something to identify with in these films, however disturbing.

Crosby

It’s hard to explain how compelling her work is, don’t you think? You just have to see it. You can’t look away from some of these scenarios, and the way that she’s working with the material. It taps into something very primal, which is another way of saying it doesn’t require insider knowledge.

Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade (detail), 2011

The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg

Trailer for the exhibition The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg, on view at the Walker September 8–December 31, 2011.

Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade (detail), 2011

Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade (detail), 2011

Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade (detail), 2011

Nathalie Djurberg at work

Photo: Hans Berg

Still from Nathalie Djurberg’s Deceiving looks, 2011

Stills from Nathalie Djurberg’s I am saving this egg for later, 2011

Still from Nathalie Djurberg’s Bad eggs, 2011