File Note 65: Nathalie Djurberg - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Jeremy Lewison



Djurberg’s Fables Images References Biography Credits

Djurberg’s Fables

To enter an installation by Nathalie Djurberg is to enter a new world. At the Venice Biennale in 2009 she constructed a forest of exotic plants and triffids. Pervaded by sounds composed by Hans Berg that were at once submarine, cavernous and tropical, insistently rhythmical and piercingly affective, the viewer was unsure whether they were beneath the sea, in a cave or in the jungle, witnessing existential crises of a brutal nature enacted by puppets in low tech films.

At Camden the visitor will enter the central passage beneath a ceiling evincing sunrise and storm, hope and apocalypse, two ends of the spectrum, the beginning of time and the end of time. And then on into a cool world of objects based on glasses, decanters and jugs, illuminated by a cold light, that seem like relics of the past, casting shadows and silhouettes on the floor and walls. Unusually for Djurberg, the soundtrack for all four films, composed by Berg, will be the same, thus creating a subtle, fragile atmosphere enveloping the viewer. Seeing the same objects on screen as those that surround them the viewer will be encouraged to think that they are inhabiting a parallel universe. 

Often seen as ancillary to Djurberg’s work, the soundtrack is in fact a key. There in the background it influences the viewer’s interpretation of the visual presentation in an almost subliminal way. It is a reverberating sound suggestive of an enclosed space, whether a chamber or a body. Opening with pure percussion that provides an underlying, insistent throb throughout, Berg adds delicate and enchanting trills and runs. Tapping noises convey the sound of ice and glass as it is struck but also recall a means of wordless communication used by imprisoned humans. Eventually the percussive rhythm becomes more insistent and is joined by scrapes and tubular sounds with the occasional tinkle of glass as the protagonists on screen expire. As a terrible fate unfolds, Berg’s music becomes more brutal and cavernous, ratcheting up the viewer’s levels of anxiety as though they suddenly become aware of the strength of their own heartbeat. The synaesthetic quality of Berg’s soundtracks owes something to his admiration of the work of Björk, Aphex Twin and Plaid where electronic sounds create mood as much as suggest narrative. Relentlessness is characteristic certainly of the last two.

Djurberg’s world is peopled by archetypes. The bull, the wolf, the bird of prey, the elk, the crocodile, the black woman and the white woman populate her fables, extending the tradition of the 17th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, whose tales were as boldly political as they were ingeniously moralising. A black woman, enclosed within an icy chamber, like a Francis Bacon pope trapped in a glass case or space frame, dangles her leg playfully before an animal trap as though seeking ensnarement. A fox severs one limb and then, having the taste for it, entraps her other leg and bites it off. A crocodile eats a man who thinks he can play with wild animals without consequences. A naked white woman made of butter seduces a bull into licking her to certain entropy. And another bull careers around a room filled with the same glass objects that surround the viewer, cutting himself on the glass and coming to a bloody end. Beings are imperilled by their own wilful actions and yet cannot resist the temptations before them. 

Djurberg’s vision is grotesque. Horrific, humorous, outrageous, revolting, ambiguous, childish, sophisticated, savage, tender, it has all the hallmarks of that venerable tradition perpetuated by Molière, Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Beckett, Georges Bataille, Francis Bacon, Monty Python and Paul McCarthy to name only some of its best known practitioners, where incongruity, physical abnormality, comedy and tragedy make the familiar seem strange and disturbing. Fundamentally the grotesque is not fantastical but rooted in reality. Not make-believe, it is, as Thomas Mann suggested, something excessively true and excessively real. Molière’s comedies stand on the knife-edge of tragedy; his comic heroes are fundamentally flawed human beings who remain comic because they do not recognise their faults. Members of the audience laugh at them but always with the sneaking suspicion that they may be similarly exposed. The grotesque permits us to see the world afresh through a strange and disturbing perspective. The writer or the artist deals with his subject half laughingly and half horrified.

Djurberg’s world consists of tough experiences, where mothers consume their children, are unable to communicate with them and crush their caring daughters beneath their obese bodies; where pus, shit, blood, excrement and farts, those elements of life that we normally conceal, are brought to the fore in a strategy of normalisation, where beauty and squalor, sweet perfume and the stench of decay linger in the air. It is at one and the same time liberating and reinhibiting, returning us to childhood and our desire to play with faecal matter, while simultaneously reinforcing the social taboos that prevent us from doing so. The grotesque reawakens long buried fears, ridiculing and dissipating them through disinhibition but never finally resolving them, so that they remain fundamentally rooted in our psyche. It plays with us, taunts us and amuses us by the very fact that we know that it enacts our fantasies and we may experience them vicariously.

Djurberg’s work is full of ambiguity. The morals of her tales are often left open-ended as though she abdicates the divine responsibility of the puppeteer at the crucial moment. Life is not black and white. The themes of her new films may be horrific but they are infested with beauty and delicacy. Her rich palette of colours, her painterly models and puppets all testify to her original training as a painter and sculptor and her continuing admiration of abstract art. Her roughcast models and their seemingly straight-from-the-can colours are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s Store (1961), another Swedish example of the modern grotesque so closely based on reality. Oldenburg’s ice cream sundaes, dripping with raspberry sauce, and burgers oozing with Ketchup and melted cheese are the ancestors of Djurberg’s bleeding victims. His interest in the erotic, fetishistic nature of consumerist society and his emphasis on the hand-made object also resonate with Djurberg’s vision.

There was a certain perverse quality to Oldenburg’s work, the way in which he took commercial icons and highlighted their grossness. Ed Kienholz also saw the disturbing sides of the modern American dream, revealing the desperation of backstreet abortions and prostitutes in brothels. His was a brutal world. Djurberg has inherited that spirit, as well as that of the French writer, Georges Bataille, who turned morality upside down and found pleasure in all that was deemed to be morally base. Bataille’s richly coloured descriptions and erotic episodes reverberate in Djurberg’s work. Moral uncertainty lies at the heart of it.



Ingmar Bergman (Dir.) Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Björk All Is Full of Love One Little Indian (1998)

Björk Pagan Poetry One Little Indian (2001)

Chris Burden

Donya Feuer (Dir.) The Dancer (2005)

Helen Frankenthaler

Joy Division

Stanley Kubrick

Morris Louis

Yuri Norstein (Dir.) My Green Crocodile (1966)

Camille Saint-Saëns Le Carnaval des Animaux [The Carnival of the Animals] (1886, original score)

Sean Stanek (Dir.) Played (2006)

John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath Penguin (1939)

Lars von Trier (Dir.) Breaking the Waves (1996)

Per Åhlin (Dir.) Resan till Melonia [The Journey to Melonia] (1989)


Nathalie Djurberg (b. 1978, Sweden) lives and works in Berlin. Since 2001 she has been collaborating with Hans Berg, who creates the soundtracks for her animated films. Their work has been shown inter-nationally, including the following solo exhibitions: ‘The Parade’, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA (2011); ‘Human Behaviour’, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, USA (2011); ‘Snakes knows it’s Yoga’, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (2011); Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2009); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA (2008); Sammlung Goetz Museum, Munich, Germany (2008); ‘Turn Into Me’, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy (2008); Kunsthalle Winterthur, Switzerland (2007); MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy (2006); and ‘The 1st at Moderna: Nathalie Djurberg’, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden (2005). In 2009 she won the Silver Lion Award at the 53rd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg are represented by Gió Marconi, Milan, Italy and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, USA.


Jeremy Lewison is an independent curator and writer.

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, Embassy of Sweden, Hadley Martin Fisher Collection and Omni.