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Human Behavior: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Human Behavior: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg
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Let’s start with a preamblic warning of sorts:

The juxtaposition of meaning and medium has become a common feature in contemporary art. Whether it’s Jeff Koons fabricating balloon dogs out of polished metal, Jake and Dino Chapman recreating Goya’s “Disasters of War” with life-sized mannequins, or Claes Oldenburg presenting soft toilets and drum kits, the act of material transformation as a means of encouraging new ways of seeing is now firmly entrenched in our visual vocabulary. It’s a way for artists to say, “Here’s this thing you know and understand, now consider it in a different way”. The effects, when it’s done right, can be surprising and jarring.

Of course this particular tactic has its drawbacks too. The most glaring is the tendency to let material juxtapositions become a kind of visual short-cut; a quick way of seeming to say something, without saying much of anything at all. Recreating Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808″ with staples must be a commentary on something, right? How could it not be? The issue of materials and meaning was raised by Hyeperallergic writer Kyle Chayka recently. He took the artist Ai Weiwei to task for what he perceived to be exactly this kind of visual trickery. In his post “The Worst Ai Weiwei Ever”, Chayka states flatly that the artist’s recent sculpture “did not succeed at transcending its sources.”

The point of course is that audiences, if not getting wiser, are at least getting wise to this particular maneuver. As such, we’re served well by looking a little more closely (and perhaps thinking a little more critically) the next time we see an enterprising artist exhibiting some variant of the formula “Art object A crafted from surprising material B”.

So why the warning? Well, it turns out the Swedish born artist Nathalie Djurberg finds herself in reasonable proximity to those practicing just this kind of material transformation. In her case though the medium isn’t mannequins, marble, or metal, it’s that gentlest of pop-culture art forms, stop-action clay animation (claymation). Claymation, when viewed at the zenith of its popularity, is represented by such wholesome offerings as Gumby, Davey and Goliath, Chicken Run, and Wallace and Gromit. Djurberg, by contrast, employs claymation’s simple charms to illustrate some fairly harsh realities.

Human Behavior (currently on view at the Wexner Center) features four of Djurberg’s short stop-motion films. Thematically these works are connected by their examination of power, authority, abuse, and victimization; and while the context varies, those central themes remain a constant. In The Natural Selection the abuse of power is played out along racial and ethnic lines while New Movements in Fashion explores the subjugation of women in the context of beauty and fashion. Religious authority as well as the violence of war (perhaps the ultimate tool of power) are also given their due.

It’s admittedly hard stuff to watch. Violence, humiliation, and cruelty don’t lessen appreciably even when they’re depicted in the gentle medium of claymation. This challenging aspect of Djurberg’s films is acknowledged by the Wexner Center as well in the form of some terse verbiage. Gallery signage and publicity note that Human Behavior is “recommended for mature audiences”. That’s a prudent warning, but one that perhaps overstates the case. That’s because much of the power that resides in Djurberg’s work comes not from the things you do see, but rather from the things you don’t. (Still, unless you’re prepared to answer some tough questions about sexual abuse, violence, body image, and ethnic intimidation, I’d let the young ones skip this show.)

Abuse of power, bullying, and victimization typically follow a very predictable pattern. In short, they escalate; ensuring that the next act of compliance or degradation is always worse than the preceding one. Djurberg utilizes this arc of cruelty to ratchet up our anxiety. Her work creates a tension that forces viewers to confront the horrors they see while simultaneously dreading the horrors that come next. It’s a tension that plays out again and again as Djurberg taps into our own understanding of abusive power. Put another way, you don’t need to know a lot about history to know that nothing good ever comes from people being forced to strip, parade their bodies, or divide into groups by age or gender.

If all this sounds like a bit much, it certainly has the potential to be. In the wrong hands this kind of work careens towards pedantic, polemical, obvious, and (perhaps worst of all) freak-show gimmickry. Djurberg side-steps these pitfalls by demonstrating both a rich understanding of the psychological aspects of power and the ability to convey that nuance through the stop motion process.

As it turns out, Human Behavior is an accurate title for this exhibition. It’s a phrase that alludes to the psychological complexity permeating the work. Sure, there’s some cartoon style cruelty, but Djurberg always probes a little deeper, looking not just at the banality associated with evil, but also the humanity. Djurberg captures moments of agonizing passivity alongside flashes of regret. She explores the bond between the victims, highlighting their propensity not just to support each other but also to antagonize. She mines the relationship of the victim and the tormentor, illustrating (perhaps most heartbreakingly) the hopefulness of those who believe that if they just endure the humiliation a little longer and follow the instructions a little more closely the cruelty will end.

It should be noted too that the scores for these films (all composed by Djurberg collaborator Hans Berg) add tremendously to the work. Presented with the rich and challenging visuals of Djurberg’s stories it’s perhaps easy to forget the role an effective soundtrack can play. From the eerie drone that permeates The Experiment (Greed), to the relentless pulse of The Natural Selection, Berg strikes chords that complement the narrative and propel the action.

At first glance, claymation might seem to be a surprising medium for Djurberg’s unsettling vignettes. Our experience with the form is typically one couched in childlike wonder. On reflection though I’d suggest it all fits together perfectly. What medium after all, is better suited to tell the story of power and manipulation than one that’s based on exactly those attributes?

Human Behavior: Nathalie Djurber with Music by Hans Berg is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through July 31, 2011.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

Photo Credits:

Nathalie Djurberg
The Experiment (Greed) (still), 2009
Clay animation, digital video
10 mins., 45 secs.
Edition of 4
Music by Hans Berg
Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, and Giò Marconi, Milan

Nathalie Djurberg
The Natural Selection (still), 2006
Clay animation, digital video
11 mins., 28 secs.
Edition of 4
Music by Hans Berg
Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, and Giò Marconi, Milan

Nathalie Djurberg
New Movements in Fashion (still), 2006
Clay animation, digital video
9 mins., 24 secs.
Edition of 4
Music by Hans Berg

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One Response to Human Behavior: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg

  1. Walker Evans
    Walker May 22, 2011 7:37 pm at 7:37 pm

    This is a great review, Jeff. I haven’t been to see this show, but will see if I can’t sneak over here to check it out soon.

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