Art Catch is a weekly online column by The L’s Patricia Milder. This week, she discusses Nathalie Djurberg, whose work is shown at the Zach Feuer Gallery through January 24.
It’s funny how much viewing context can change the experience of an artist’s work. In Los Angeles at the Armand Hammer Museum (there to see a show of abstract works called "Oranges and Sardines") a couple of weeks ago, I felt all kinds of uncomfortable and embarrassed in front of Nathalie Djurberg’s videos on the first floor. I was with my father, and the conversation went kind of like this. Him: "Ha. Claymation porno." Me: Pretending not to see/hear and walking in the other direction.
Thing is, I love Djurberg’s work, but it is sexually perverse (we’re talking orgies and bestiality), violent, dark, increasingly political, and often shocking in its childlike approach to sex and torture. I seriously cannot think of worse topics than hers for conversation starters during a family holiday visit. But now, safely back in New York, I’m eager to recommend the Swedish-born, Berlin-based artist’s current solo show at Zach Feuer Gallery (until January 24). The work on view there might seem tame at first compared to videos past, but it is not to be missed.
I found myself alone (2008), a ten-minute digital video of clay stop-motion animation, starts with a view of a pristine table setting arranged for an afternoon tea. The candleholders, teapot and cups, inspired by 18th century Neo-Baroque china, are all white with gold trim, decorated with pastel floral patterns and completely reminiscent of the animated Beauty and the Beast. Rose petals and white lace doilies line the table; Berries, tarts, Oreo cookies, pink and light blue candies pile high. To the music of Djurberg’s usual collaborator (and boyfriend) Swedish composer Hans Berg, a dark skinned ballerina spins gracefully around the cups and plates in a bright white and pink tutu that matches the table setting. She quickly becomes clumsy, then mischievous, and by the end of the ten minutes everything (including the ballerina, who is smothered to death by cream and bananas, and dripping candle wax) is destroyed.
According to the gallery staff, there is no meaning behind Djurberg’s use of a black ballerina in this context. They say that this is simply an aesthetic choice, to contrast with the all white background. I don’t buy that, but going with it, aesthetically the choice does work well. In the video, the ballerina dips her hands in chocolate and rubs them all over a big white teapot. And the clean/dirty contrast is made in real space in the gallery installation as well. Zach Feuer’s white walls are smeared in the main space with what is supposed to be chocolate. Clean embroidered grandma-looking curtains, hung in front of the doorways between rooms, are coated with the stuff as if accidentally exposed to the reach of some very bad children, or one naughty black ballerina.
Also on view, in addition to the actual clay set of the stop-motion video presented as a unique sculpture behind Plexiglas, is the charcoal animation digital video Jag sysslar givetvis med trolleri (Of course I am working with magic) (2007). This is a more grotesque and familiarly (for Djurgerg) obscene film, depicting the body of a naked woman that hangs between two gnarled trees. Things go into and out of orifices, limbs come off and grow back in different places, and English subtitles translate phrases roughly sketched in charcoal next to the woman, for example, "of course I am working with the deep rooted untruthfulness of the sincere." The drawings are less flashy than the glossy white clay, but with her light-handed, playful approach to destruction in the main space, it’s nice to have at least a hint here of how strong the artist’s punches can get.