Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

Scream against Void

Born in Lysekil, Sweden, Nathalie Djurberg was only nineteen years old when she 1997 got into the Malmö Art Academy. At that time, she worked primarily with painting, but gradually began to experiment with Super-8 film. When she then discovered the possibilities of plasticine, the films began to grow into small narratives. She did a bit of filming in one corner of her studio at the academy, not thinking at the time that it was proper art. It was only when an external tutor commented that the films did not fit in anywhere other than in art, that she found the courage to exhibit them.

In these earlier works everything seems simple and innocent. The figures in the films act their parts in drawn or simply constructed sets. The form is reminiscent of children’s TV programmes and seeing her films one undeniably feels like a child again. The world is big and there are exciting new things in it.

But looking closer, things change. Djurberg sardonically exposes the underlying themes of sex and violence in story-telling for children. Should I cry or laugh? They are extremely funny but also tragic – we step into a hyper-neurotic world in which feelings and emotions have replaced rational thought. Girls playing among dazzling flowers suddenly start fighting, a man who jokes increasingly brazenly with two girls is brutally knocked to the ground, and in another film two girls are drowned in excrement. Animals appear, too, not always as cuddly pets but also as untamed or cunning beasts. Even the inserted speech bubbles contain crude and at times misspelt words. It’s children’s films for adults only. The idyll of the world of fairytale is ripped apart by intense brutality and angst.

In all her films the music by Hans Berg, a collaboration that these days has developed into a shared artistic statement, reinforces the feeling of something bordering on collapse. It bleeps and bloops in a mixture of twiddly bits from ice-cream vans and digitised funfair music. Taken as a whole, it is as though the narratives and the music together become a metaphor for a social or in fact societal situation. To an increasing extent, in more and more media, we are bombarded with sex and violence in every possible and impossible variant. Everything is up for sale. It is difficult to defend oneself, to protect one’s own life in such circumstances.

In his diary dated 27 June 1983, Andy Warhol writes: “But then, since the sixties, after years and years and more ‘people’ in the news, you still don’t know anything more about people. Maybe you know more, but you don’t know better. Like you live with someone and not have any idea, either. So what good does all this information do you?”

Well, according to the democratic principles of society, information should make us better citizens. But in today’s cyber-neurotic and satellite-stressed everyday life, there is an overload of information, which makes many of us feel detached and cynical towards the world. Rafael Argullol and Eugenio Trías develop this idea in their “El cansancio de Occidente” (1992): “Passivity is the hallmark of humans today. And it’s clear: if people are turned into spectators and robbed any possibility of influence, this gives rise to a passive being. But all this, of course, takes place under the guise of its opposite. All manner of pseudo-events go on amid a stream of constant activity; activity that reinforces the passive, an uninterrupted motion that fades into immobility. We speak of all the stress and hecticness in our society, but the final impression is of a pursuit of emptiness.”

In their works Djurberg/Berg seem to consciously challenge such a state of passivity. Both by aggressive animation as well as by free-standing mystical horror figures and objects. In some installations they also have three-dimensional sculptures standing side by side with animated films in some kind of Alice-in-Wonderland settings. You walk into some mystical garden or forest, filled with uncanny figures.

For a while Djurberg/Berg tried a less stern approach. The “Waterfall Variations” (2015) were done in Djurberg’s characteristic stop-motion technique. But they were charcoal animations of fizzing waterfalls running through unusual landscapes inhabited by various exotic trees. Colour sections glided slowly over the landscapes, making the charcoal less gloomy and corresponding with Hans Berg’s interpretation of the waterfalls, going in intervals from nervously sparkling sounds to fervent melancholic moods. In contrast to their former animations an almost mindful calmness sets in.

But recently they have returned to plasticine animations. In “Worship” (2016) they blend desires and fantasies of sexual encounters with evil overtones. But the roles are blurred – who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? Somehow it reminds me of the song “Adored And Explored” by Marc Almond: “I want to be inside / Be inside your mind / Riding where your secrets hide / And worship at the shrine / It’s time to be adored and explored / So you wanna be adored and explored / And you’re gonna be adored and explored / So come on and be adored and explored” (1996).

The difference between Djurberg/Berg’s installations, and, let’s say, a cynical laissez faire view of life, or a ghost train in a luna park, is the grown-up narrative they add to the experience. Their work deals with various different relations: relations between people, between animals and humans, between people that look like animals but behave like humans, and vice versa. You feel that something familiar is going astray. Something real is blurred into something unreal.

In the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” (1929), André Breton writes: “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point in the spirit at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as contradictory.”

Djurberg/Berg’s subjects revolve around such an opinion. The hysterical laughter, combined with tragedy and violence, can also be traced back to Dadaism. “Dada is the seed for a new type of human individual: beyond the moral, Christian-Medieval burden of sin, Dada is the negation of the meaning of life hitherto, i.e. of a culture that was not tragic but only arid,” writes Raoul Hausmann in “Dada, Eine literarische Dokumentation”, ed. Richard Huelsenbeck (1964).

The historical references in their work can somehow be summarised in the often recurring dichotomy: private – public. We see private fantasies beyond what we would call moral or decent. Sometimes I am embarrassed by the outspoken sexual desires or violent acts of revenge. Are these self-confessional statements by the artists? No, I don’t think so. What makes Djurberg/Berg’s art more than a therapeutic rehearsal of the uncanniness of the ordinary is the possibility of allegorical interpretations.

As I mentioned earlier, their fierce aesthetic can be viewed as a reaction against a numb and levelled societal climate. But it is also a response to a psycho-social condition of today. Both news and social media have made the line between the private and the public very thin and fragile. Something that was meant to be kept very private can more than ever before be transformed into public knowledge. Also the lack of “human interaction” in our digital methods of communicating opens up for a “horror vacui”. You have to fill your life with the most spectacular or daring adventures to impress both yourself and the other. But since nobody really reacts, you have to increase your tone to be heard.

Djurberg/Berg combines a hysterical and high-pitched tragic tone with a dose of humour – a sardonic humour. I smile, giggle and laugh despite the often violent events in the narrative. The abrupt shifts between laughter and despair create a link with Sigmund Freud – humour becomes a form of disobedience, a refusal to submit to social prejudice. Or as Yvonne Duplessis writes in “Le surréalisme” (1950): “Humour is not only the hallmark of those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by reality. It also has a more profound aspect, to the extent that it expresses the self’s will to liberate itself from reality and to become immune to its attacks. The shocks of the external world can even give rise to pleasure. André Breton quotes Freud’s example, in which a condemned man calls out on his way to the gallows one Monday: ‘The week is beginning well!’ Thanks to the way humour spares us ‘the test that pain forces on us’, it has a ‘higher value’, and ‘we see it as especially effective for liberating and elevating ourselves’.”

Breton’s interpretation of humour as being “for liberating and elevating ourselves” was an important component in surrealism’s view of art’s utopian potential for creating a better, more beautiful world. The surrealists wanted to change the world by revealing the “true” reality of the unconscious: an absolute truth, beyond the false façade of bourgeois reason.

Djurberg/Berg also sneak into our unconscious. But I don’t believe they do it to reveal a utopian dream of a better world. In contrast to subtle ironies, which we have seen a lot of in contemporary art in recent decades, they use laughter and humour to confront blurred realities and want us to see through the falsehood and mendacity. Specifically, the world of fairytale is an effective tool here, since it occasionally strengthens prejudices rather than demolishing them. By using its form but changing its content, the films can, for example, criticise bullying in all its forms, and it is always the beaten or abused who win in the end.

I also dwell upon the paradox between how a modern social welfare policy has created a secure, democratic cultural climate at the same time as resulting in an artistic desire to transgress accepted norms. In one way or another, most of Djurberg/Berg’s works deal with solitude and humanity’s occasionally absurd behaviour. But also with war, fear, insecurity, sexuality and recently issues of race. It is as though they bring out aspects of humanity and its surroundings that we do not want to acknowledge. By exposing the horrible with a twist of nonsense rebellion and sardonic humour, Djurberg/Berg paradoxically make it less frightening. We can face our demons, but let them stay where they belong.

John Peter Nilsson

 

 

Interview

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg in a conversation with Thomas Häusle

THOMAS

Since 2004, you´ve always been called an artist couple. What did you do before? And did the content of your work change?

NATHALIE

Yeah. I mean. I was already an artist and already doing animations and I had been trying to work with musicians also. But that didn´t work. I also tried to steal music and cut it and use that. But that didn´t work really either. So… I forgot the question. What was the question? What did you do before? No I mean I made art and Hans made music but I don´t think you took it that serious before you started working-

HANS

No, before I was always making music. I didn´t really commit to it so much. It was more like a hobby. And then I met Nathalie and started working and she made me realize that music is the most important thing that I wanted to do and so I started working on it full time. So she convinced me to take the step and actually do this.

NATHALIE

The work changed- For me the music is really really like 50% of the work because if you take away the music, the work becomes something else and so for me the music is incredibly important. I think that one of the most important things for me to do was to let go of control of that big part of the work because it really changes how you view the work. So letting Hans complete freedom to actually change the work to where he also wanted it to go.

HANS

Yeah. In the beginning was not so…

THOMAS

And if you stick to the music, how does it work to get it? Do you influence each other during the production process? Or is it separate processes that kind of grow in together afterwards?

NATHALIE

I think that there is one part that is collective, because we have our studios at home so it´s so close and it´s the entire environment in which we work. But then the process of the making and the ideas I have for the animation and so, it´s completely mine and very private but then I share it with Hans and his process is also very private, so there are these two separate spheres and then we share a part of it.

HANS

Yes because it´s so little the space between our studios. So we come and discuss things that we are working on. Nathalie can come and listen a little bit of music that I´m doing and I come and see what she´s doing.

NATHALIE

Yes because I can´t avoid hearing you working on it! I hear this loop over and over for days and even weeks and sometimes it makes me come and listen to it again. Incredibly annoying

THOMAS

You, Nathalie, said recently, actually yesterday, something maybe very important. It´s not the “what” that counts for you, is more the “why” that really counts in what you´re doing. Even in the perception of you art and the “what” is mainly developed in the mind and the view of the visitor. What´s the “why” then? What´s your “why”?

NATHALIE

First just a tiny little bit about the “what”. It´s not even in the mind of the visitor, I think, because the “what” is only when you step back and want it explained. It´s like sitting down to have dinner but explaining every course. Like here you have the potatoes and is taste kind of like this, there is some butter in it and here you have this and there´s the meat. And the meat tastes kind of like this. But that will never explain-

THOMAS

So the “what” is more “about” and not “it”?

NATHALIE

Yeah and because the “what” can never explain what it actually is. So no matter how much you explain the “what”, or the more you explain it, the more you take away what it actually is, because it removes you from what it is. Because art is so great! I think in the society, we rely so much on speech, so much on theories and concept and be able to translate all that into words. But art is so fantastic, because you don´t need to. And it´s actually usually better when you don´t talk too much about it, because you lose what it actually is, which is something better described not in words but as the making of it. So, when you said yesterday you were going to ask me about the “why” and not the “what”, it intrigued me, because “why” is so interesting for me. I was actually thinking about it all night and be like “why not?”

HANS

But “why” is a key question more for the understanding of what we are doing. “why” goes more to the core of what we are doing. ´Cause “what” is a descriptive kind of thing but “why” already is like “What is the thing that drives us forward to make this?”

NATHALIE

And then you can come to the “why not” because you can drag something so long that it completely loses it´s meaning and in a way it´s meaningless. You take away the art. Probably no one will die if I stop making art. So it´s not sure that anybody would care at all. For me this becomes interesting because then I really have to do it. For me. It´s for me. And if it doesn´t really affect me or change me or really interest me or pull me or drag me somewhere, it can´t be interesting for someone else. You can´t do something and be cut off from that and still have it count for someone else. Because we are not that separate.

HANS

It´s also a bit what we are talking about, ideas, where they come from. We are talking about what pulls you and intrigues you. It´s something, it sounds like we have that under control. Because we´ve been talking about ideas and where they come from. We don´t make them. They appear somewhere and for me it´s more like- My job is more to see when an idea comes up and sort of grab it.

THOMAS

So the question of what inspires you and the content, the things, where do the ideas come from is hard to answer…

NATHALIE

I think that one is answerable and quite easy to answer but because I think it´s a product of everything, (well I can only speak for myself but I know this also includes Hans) of how all the conditioning I have as a person, where I grew up, the society around me, the country I brought up, I was fed in imagery and stories and how I perceive that world and the difficulties of perceiving something or accepting something or been against or with it. So I think that…I forgot the question again. I had a point and I lost it!

THOMAS

It was about the inspiring. You started saying kind of that everything is the source. And this maybe leads to another question. Is it you and your life and everything that happens in your life the source of the topics and the art work? It´s all of it. Because it sometimes seems that you are not so depending on art history or other artist´s works. A lot of artists, they quote and they develop and further develop and go on that canon of art history. You seem no to do that.

NATHALIE

No, sometimes I wish I did that. Only when I wish to sound smart. No…I don´t. I think that even the art that itself refers so much to art history and philosophy or whatever that artists refer to. And even thought that happens art can still stand by itself and I´m not that interested in it or if I am interested in art and some art really really fascinates me I don´t necessarily have to connect it to what I´m doing. For me art is more what I keep on doing, what I keep on having a fascination for to do. And it doesn´t have to do anything! Or it does. Everything that I say or hear can also be the opposite of that. But if the art history never happened I would still want to create this. And this is a search so it´s a looking and trying to find what it is that I was actually looking for but that point never comes because there is no one finished. There´s no end to that. I think for Hans it´s even more abstract than for me.

THOMAS

Another thing you said is that art for you is your “free zone”. And a “free zone” is free from hypocrisy, free from hiding, pretending, free from masks. And what I wanted to know concerning “free zone” is, because it´s something very personal, very precious, very vulnerable even. Why? why did you decide to share it?

NATHALIE

But first the free zone is not completely free or amazing or fantastic all the time. The free is also to see that “oh! I´m very scared or worried to do this” and still I choose to do it because somewhere in the society it has to be allowed to do this. So as long as that doesn´t hurt anyone else. Well of course art can hurt someone´s feelings or something like that, but it´s not an action against someone. OK but the “why”. Why share it? Why not? There are several answers to why share it with someone else. The best one is that someone gets something out of seeing what we are doing and has a reaction to that. The funniest reaction would be if someone thinks “oh! This is great! It did something to me”. Then there´s joy and you feel “wow” and in that there´s a sharing. The sharing it´s fantastic. It´s fantastic to share something with someone. We have made something and someone gets touched by that. It makes the distance between you and that someone much less. So that´s why. And if someone wouldn´t have a positive reaction, that can be important too for that person. You can´t say what it would be good for that person. You can´t say what it would be good for someone else but- And the other “why”, why sharing is- No I don´t know.

HANS

No, but it´s true. You could sit and make art and make music at home and just not show it to anyone, but sharing is a big part of it. You want to connect with people. You want to be liked

NATHALIE

Yeah yeah, well liked, but you might also be disliked. You might even be more disliked than liked.

HANS

There´s a social aspect. You want to give it out and connect.

THOMAS

But it´s not missionary.

NATHALIE & HANS

No, I don´t think so, no

HANS

No, because there is so much of the internal process during the making.

NATHALIE

No but missionary is saying that I have something important to say that I can teach you. But I really really don´t feel like I have that. It´s just the showing. There is something that I see that happened in me creative. Someone else got something out of it. But how can I- Sometimes I feel like Hans does that for me. Oh, you, mm. You really pushed it to where I wanted to go for the animation “Worship”. When he had finished the music for that. And we were talking about yes, the music is physical. So you look at something that looks physical but it´s actually not, and it passes. But the music really hits you in your body and- So then I got something out of that.

THOMAS

The stop-motion technique for the animations, the clay and the settings, can relate to puppet theatre. It appears almost childliken in a way. The contrast between form and content sometimes couldn´t be bigger. Is it kind of like a strategy and purpose to maximize impact? Or is it just a very personal way to see it?

NATHALIE

No, it´s not a strategy because it´s- Stop-motion and working with puppets it´s the medium that I found that works best for me but of course you have that contrast between what it appears to be for children and the content. For me it´s just the smoothest way to do what I want to do. I think that if I would find in in painting or working with actors, I would. But I really don´t. I don´t get it there, because I have to keep it really close to me to keep it interesting for me.

HANS

So the effect that seems childlike and then you get surprised by the theme is more bonus or a coincidence, maybe

NATHALIE

Well, it´s not a bonus or coincidence cause it´s just inherit on the way I work. That process happened that made me discover stop-motion and made me really really attracted to it. It made me feel what I wanted to see, what I wanted to find out. It was the easiest way.

THOMAS

Around or before “The Black Pot” you decided to leave that kind of figurative characters and plot. Can you explain this almost radical development within your work?

NATHALIE

No, I can´t explain it. I was just really tired of it. It felt like- I made one animation, Hans made the music and then I felt like, yeah, no. I have nothing more to say. Completely no interest in me whatsoever to tell any story ever again. It really felt finished. That there was nothing to drag. Where there´s not an interest or an idea, there´s nothing to do. But then there was interest for something else. We had talked more and more about music and what that was, and I got really interested in abstraction and I never cared about that before, so-

HANS

Around that time also, when the animations became more abstract, more innwards looking, suddenly the music had a much bigger role. I also turned into my techno way of making, because I also make techno music so I used that side more. The music got a bigger role in animations and they sort of came up to the same level. That was also a big change in the work.

NATHALIE

But then after a few years, because of course what you show also drags a bit behind which also makes you feel a bit like you never show any new work and you are already onto something else. But the interest just came back for me, more free. I could do again, actually whatever I wanted. If there´s any way you can do whatever you want, it should be in art. So the new animations are for me a bit more abstract and don´t have to follow a storyline or anything.

THOMAS

What I find interesting following that kind of thought or thinking in “Worship”, it´s about sexuality, it´s kind of explicit. The actions as explicit as they are or appear, they stay implied. The characters sort of just pretend.

HANS

It´s all implied in that film. I mean the film isn´t explicit really itself. Nothing happens. Everything takes place in the mind of the viewer, which I find very interesting. The film is so open and leaves everything open. It´s just the suggestions. Strong suggestions. But I don´t know, it´s also not even too obvious-

NATHALIE

Yeah. Well, it´s pretty obvious. No need to do more. Maybe I would have done more, because of course sometimes I´m like “How far can I go?” “How far should I go?” “How far do I want to go?”. Usually when I feel like I´m not allowed to do this or, I shouldn´t do this, or how will this be perceived?, that´s where the freedom aspect comes in and I know that I have to do it because I´m censoring myself before it is even done. In this animation I didn´t censor. I didn´t not do anything I wanted to do. Because it´s not really, it´s not about intercourse. It´s about scraping on the surface of wanting sexuality and go really deep. I don´t have words for this. But I also get happy about that because I did the film. For me it´s ok not to be able to really say what it is.

THOMAS

Is it sort of an escape plan? The pretending, not showing entirely what you see and leaving it open?

NATHALIE

Not an escape. I think if you are fed- If you really see everything, you are fed and you have the closure. That´s what porn does. You watch porn but It´s just to get to the closure. It´s just to come to the “huh”. And whether that starts up again, it´s something else. But this is not about coming to the finishing point. This is to see that there´s something else than the finishing point.

HANS

It´s more about the strive

NATHALIE

Since art is supposed to be free, everyone that sees it and have and interpretation, that interpretation is right. It´s not wrong. So if someone is like “well this is just for the closure” “this is just to reach that end” then good, ok, for that person, that´s what it is. So when I say what it is for me, it´s just exactly what it is for me and I can´t say what it´s for anyone else, but- Now I lost what- I forgot the question.

Exhibition Pictures Worship 2016

Courtesy the artists /Gio Marconi, Lisson Gallery und Hans Jörg Kapeller
Waterfall Variation (Overtones)
Worship, 2016 Filmstill
Ausstellungsansicht, 2016
The Winner, 2015 Filmstill
Worship, 2016 filmstill

Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

Worship
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg
Scream against Void

Editor Kunstraum Dornbirn, Thomas Häusle
Texts John Peter Nilsson, Gerald Matt, Interview with Thomas Häusle
Installationviews and details
Verlag für Moderne Kunst
ISBN 978-3-90313-153-8