Interview Sweden

Small world of sex and violence

Nathalie Djurberg’s disturbing films set to the music of her partner Hans Berg take clay animation to a new level

Still from the films Hungry Hungry Hippos, 2007

Sex, violence and humiliation are recurrent themes in the animated films of Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Blood, sweat and tears are all in evidence—though made of the clay that is Djurberg’s favoured medium. While she devises the plots and directs the animation of the short films, her partner Berg composes the accompanying music. After their first solo show in their native Sweden in 2004, the couple became known to a wider audience when Djurberg won the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Their latest show, which features sculptures as well as the film Snakes Knows It’s Yoga, is on until 1 May at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The couple met in Berlin, where they still live and work together.

The Art Newspaper: You recently began to print both your names on posters and invitations for exhibitions instead of only Nathalie’s. Has the way you work together changed?

Nathalie Djurberg:
Hans is the only person I can work with. In school I couldn’t even do team sports. He understands what I want without me having to explain much. It is impossible to separate the music from the work. Nothing has really changed in terms of how we work together. In fact it is almost embarrassing that his name was not included from the beginning.

Hans Berg: It was also idleness on my part. Sometimes I would not be let in to a private view

ND: No one said hello. Now his name is on the posters, they can’t ignore him.

Looking through the catalogue for your show at Prada in Milan in 2008 I was astonished by how many films you have made that I haven’t seen, despite having followed your work for seven years.

ND:
That might be because I had never shown some of them before because I considered them failures. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about a film, but much later I grow to like it. Even Hans has not seen all of them.

You started by doing simple animated drawings, then you began to work with clay, and in Venice you showed huge installations in which televisions were showing your films. Now you are exhibiting small sculptures without film in Rotterdam.

ND:
The reason for starting with animations was that I had a problem with letting a picture stand for itself, so I animated it. In animations everything—form, colour and subject—becomes quite natural. But as an artist you have to develop. Going three-dimensional is part of my development.

But you still see film as your main medium?

ND:
Yes, but when I am tired of something I like to do something else and that’s why I started working with sculptures. In the Hanover and Rotterdam exhibition the sculptures are not just taken out of the films, they stand for themselves.

Do you still destroy the figures you make for your films?

ND:
Almost always. The collector Ingvild Goetz was the first one who bought figures produced for a film—Hungry Hungry Hippos in 2007. She really liked them and I thought they would work as sculptures.

Recurrent topics in your films are self-hate, humiliation, sex, power and violence…

HB:
All the nice ones…

ND: They inform the structures of power. It interests me how you can illustrate a global problem by looking at the private sphere. The structures of power look similar in families and in society as a whole. Evil interests me: the question of whether you choose to act in an evil way. If I had grown up in Nazi Germany, would I have become a Nazi or would I have hidden Jewish families in the cellar? It’s easy to judge others without knowing how you yourself would have acted. But at some point we all have a choice; you must choose to be good or bad.

The use of sex in your films is very ambivalent.

ND:
Sex is such an intense thing to use, but it can also refer to non-sexual relations.

HB: The idea is to show structures of power—what is OK and what is shameful or wrong. Often one has the desire for something that is perhaps wrong.

ND: The other day I saw a film about Isabella Rossellini on TV that interested me. She said that today sex is presented as something that is fantastic every time, but that she had never experienced it like that—sometimes one does not feel anything, sometimes it is fantastic, sometimes awkward, sometimes just painful. There is a whole spectrum.

HB: Sex is so closely related to power and humiliation, to using somebody. So it’s a useful symbol.

But in your early film Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt, 2004, sex seems to stand only for sex?

HB:
There is also a sub-context.

Why we have the urge to do things over and over again appears to be a central question in that film. Clearly it relates to sex, but can also be applied to other things such as art. Why do you have the urge to do things over and over again?

ND:
I did make that film several times, in fact. When I started it I was quite young and socially inexperienced. At that time the film was only about one thing: sexuality. Then I did it again. I became conscious there was something driving me. I often come back to the question of why I have to do things again and again? Repetition interests me.

An almost perfectionist aesthetic is characteristic of the works of some of the biggest names in art today—Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand and many others. You are kind of the opposite: your clay figures are far from perfectly made?

ND:
It’s all about control. I do everything myself, and I have full control over the whole artistic process. The material contributes to the topics the films deal with. I don’t see why I should use a computer when I can do it by hand. I couldn’t use actors because I would lose some control. It is me playing the role of all the figures. If you look at a film about rape, I am acting as the rapist as well as the one being raped. To animate the movements you must imagine how it feels.

Since winning the Silver Lion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, museums must be queueing up to show your work. Is there a place you would like to exhibit, but haven’t?

ND:
It would be cool to have a solo show in Berlin, but no one has asked us. We have been in the biennale here and in a group show. Maybe it’s because I don’t go out much but sit at home and work, or maybe in Berlin they are simply not that interested in what I am doing. But it would be lots of fun, because Berlin is where we live.

To what extent are your films autobiographical? People often suffer in them. Do you have to have suffered to become an artist or is that just a cliché?

ND:
It is important to understand others’ pain and experience empathy. But this question is too complicated—you have to go for easier ones!

One of your earlier films, Florentine, 2005, remains unclear when it comes to a pivotal question: was there an incestuous relationship between father and daughter?

ND:
I also think it’s unclear—and I like that.

Despite all the violence and humiliation your films also have funny elements.

ND:
It’s almost impossible not to when doing clay animation. But what is impossible is something sublime.

HB: Wagner’s “Ring” in clay, for example.

ND: In some of the films things look pretty funny at first, but then seriousness follows.

Do you mind if some people buy your works only because you have recently become famous?

ND:
There are probably people doing that, but either way, it means we are getting money so Hans can continue doing his music and I my films.

HB: I still have a problem understanding why people buy art.

ND: I do not collect; I don’t care at all about owning art.


Hans Berg and Nathalie Djurberg
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