Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg’s disturbing films, realised in claymation (that staple of children’s programmes Hartbeat , Gumby and Wallace & Gromit), plumb the fears and fantasies that have plagued human beings since time began. Her weird and wonderful films narrate fairytale-like stories featuring princesses, ogres and fantastical beasts (such as big bad wolves clothed in army fatigues and toting submachine guns), and show the artist looking at complex societal woes like racism, bullying and sexism through a prism of deep-seated folkloric narratives.
There is an unmistakeably gothic dimension to Djurberg’s work, placing her among a number of rising artists using similar motifs in what might increasingly be described as a mini gothic revival. Tense and alarming scenarios frequently develop in her videos, such as the attack on two female clay puppets by a lascivious male, or a tiger continuously licking a female’s derrière, and replicate the unexpected and recurring narratives found in nightmares. These grotesque dramas tap into timeless gothic themes like the fragmentation of the body and repetition as trauma; the puppets’ plasticine limbs are easily separated, a condition enthusiastically exploited in Djurberg’s work.
In her 2007 video Hungry Hungry Hippoes (whose title – barring its idiosyncratic spelling – is lifted from the popular children’s boardgame), Djurberg creates a monstrous scene in which three enormous leaky matrons engage in sexual activity with a naked, thumbsucking black child. And what Hungry Hungry Hippoes and Djurberg’s wider practice so skilfully dramatise is not only children’s fear of adults but also adults’ fear of children. In this particular video, lumpy, misshapen women cluck and coo as they go about their nasty business, which entails abusing a young child and eventually locking him inside a cupboard. These freakish women embody, in all their fleshy grotesqueness, society’s fear of the devouring, Oedipal mother.
On the flipside of this is Feed All the Hungry Little Children (2007), which follows a heavily made-up prostitute as she strolls through a shantytown. Small naked children, many smeared with what looks like excrement, pop out of hiding places (some even emerge from cages) to crowd around her. Initially she is pleased with the attention, but later becomes increasingly frightened by their open mouths and desperately clawing hands. Batting them away, she lactates over them to keep them at bay.
Djurberg’s willingness to explore problematic relationships between adults and children, coupled with her use of pliable, gooey materials, suggests influences ranging from Louise Bourgeois to Paul McCarthy. Her upcoming exhibition at the Fondazione Prada, in Milan (19 April until June), extends the gothic motif of corporal partibility even further: each new work will be screened inside a model of a culled body part, while the Fondazione space will be transformed into a replica of the inside of the human body, making for a truly grisly theatre.
This article was first published in the March 2008 issue.