I first encountered Nathalie Djurberg’s mesmerizing charcoal stop-motion video Jag sysslar givetvis med trolleri (Of Course I Am Working with Magic, 2007) at Art Basel, Miami. Amidst the noise of the fair I was utterly rapt by the eerie, torturous scenes of a naked young woman wandering into a ghostly forest where she becomes imprisoned by branches that cut her up, limb by limb. The amputated appendages are reattached – legs for arms, arms for legs – before she is beheaded, disembowelled, and skinned; finally, her skeleton dissolves into dust. The smudges, erasure and build-up of the charcoal convey an urgent and mysterious counterpoise to the Swedish artist’s more frequently exhibited coloured clay animations. Moreover, the stark simplicity of the medium, paired with the sadistic perversion necessary for Djurberg, a female artist, to create the tortured woman, reverberated with a resonance that was unforgettable and bold.
A few weeks later neither the images nor the music – a score full of foreboding composed by Hans Berg, Djurberg’s frequent, and only, collaborator on the films – had left my mind, and I was thrilled to rediscover the piece appropriately installed in a shrouded black box at Zach Feuer’s New York gallery. The projection was accompanied by a fanciful clay animation, I Found Myself Alone (2008), in which a black ballerina pirouettes through a large table set for tea. Like many of Djurberg’s projects, the piece begins serenely enough, with twirls through a whimsical wonderland of china and sweets fit for the Sugar Plum Fairy. The inevitable turn to darkness begins when a candle drips onto the ballerina and covers her head in a coat of sludgy wax. Momentarily waylaid and weepy, the dancer wipes herself clean and sets off in a newly determined – and destructive – direction.
Gleaming with the eyes of a child lit up at a marvellous and impish idea, the dancer proceeds to paint a porcelain vase with chocolate sauce and, in the process, falls prey to the saccharine world that surrounds her. Stuffed cookies ooze and slide underfoot, an avalanche of cream and bananas cascade around her and milky tea threatens to drown her. With each awkward pitfall the heroine is increasingly in peril until, unceremoniously, she is buried by the wax that drips from a gold candelabrum. Recalling Snow White’s rosy apple, gluttony, racism and sin, the project was as disturbing as Jag sysslar givetvis med trolleri.
Djurberg included the table-top as an auton-omous sculpture, and the intricately rendered neo-baroque assemblage provided a glimpse into the rigorous detail and effort necessary to create her clay environments. Its stasis, however, only furthered the positive impressions of the films and, in particular, the expressive animation of the figures and the captivating scores. Far more subversive and effective was the show’s final component: ‘chocolate’-smeared curtains and walls, which were disarming, insouciant and unabashedly base.