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Identity

These Swedish Artists Are Tackling Gender Inequality with Puppets

We talked to duo Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg about how they combine animation, sculpture, and sound to address political issues like gender, racism, and poverty.
December 18, 2015, 6:25pm
© Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

In a practice that combines animation, sculpture, and sound, Swedish duo Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg create perverse narratives and environments that stir up and serve the stuff of the psyche. With Djurberg focusing on images and Berg on sound, their work addresses basic psychological drives—obsession, envy, greed, lust, the will to power or to submission—without heavy-handedness. There are no moral standards on parade here, and things are always changing shape.

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The pair is best known for their richly symbolic claymation videos, which are both uncomfortably cute and darkly funny. In Snakes Knows It's Yoga (2010), a yogi is violently dismembered by an eponymous snake; in Untitled (2010), a woman licks a frog to get psychedelically high. Both scenarios present the search for spiritual enlightenment through the obliteration of the self, opting instead to show us the obliteration of the body.

Indeed, throughout their films the body is torn apart, reformed, its boundaries transgressed. The body works as a stage for pleasure and pain, a violently contested site that represents both the limit of the individual and a space negotiated by deep and often unspoken cultural mores. In Hungry Hungry Hippos (2007) a trio of half-naked obese women toy with a slender African boy, shifting uncomfortably between adulation and abuse. In another film, a group of priests attack naked young women who keep appearing from beneath their robes. The works are not only erotic and violent and visceral, but also labor intensive; the artists remodel each figurine for each shot.

In the weeks leading up to Djurberg and Berg's upcoming January at the Gerhardsen Gerner Gallery in Oslo, we talked to the artists—who work as a pair—about how they work together, the appeal of animals, and why they tackle political issues like gender, racism, and poverty with puppets.

BROADLY: You're both essentially self-taught in your mediums of choice. How did you get started with this stuff?
Nathalie Djurberg: I did go to art school but learned animation by myself, developing the practice alongside the ideas.

© Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Hans Berg: I'm completely self-taught except for some piano lessons, but I've always had a huge interest in music, and I think when the interest is really genuine the learning happens naturally. For me it started with mixing music, putting two tape recorders next to each other and pressing play and record, then getting a mic and making my first rip of a techno track, then stumbling upon synthesizers, computer programs. And as Nathalie said, teaching myself the skills as the ideas developed.

How do you think about the relationship between sound and image?
We're not very academic about this. It's all about how you perceive the work, image, and sculptures you can see and/or touch. The music is just there in space and time; there's nothing to see, to hold on to, it just fills the room. You perceive the music and are influenced by it before you have a chance to interpret it, so you're already put in a certain mood when you see the visual part of the work, which you have time to process and reflect upon. The music can change the atmosphere of the space continually. The combination of sound and image enhances both mediums. Perhaps if you focus on one of them, the other one influences you more subconsciously.

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I know that sometimes you begin a piece with music first, and sometimes you start with a visual element—a sculpture or animated form. Is the making process different from each starting point?
Yes, it depends on the work. It always starts with an idea and some discussion, and then whatever comes first, comes naturally. If it's the music, it's because that will drive the process of the making of the visual elements and vice versa. So basically it's all about the process; what we need to react to in order to make the work. That's the beauty of a collaboration in which we each do different things.

© Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Does your work ever completely deviate from the original idea in the course of making it?
Djurberg: It never stays exactly the same, or maybe it did once or twice, but then I lost interest in it completely, as then there was nothing left for me to discover.

Berg: Most of the time it goes in another direction, because my original idea is usually quite vague. When I start working on something and get deeper in the process, a deeper understanding of the work arises and the idea evolves.

There's an incredible violence in your animation—terrible things are always happening to the figures and forms, because they can't die. Is that part of your attraction to the medium?
Djurberg: And they were never alive, they are not people. They have no ethnicity, no nationality, no gender, no social status—they are puppets. What I do is just show these things, so that when a viewer or I myself look at the work [and] make a connection with the real world and real issues. It is an awareness of the issues that is shown with the help of puppets.

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The only real harm an animation can do is to your emotions or beliefs about yourself and the world. So, yes, that is a big part of the attraction.

© Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

In the claymation films, you see the piece being made and unmade. What is the relationship between destruction and creativity for you?
They depend on each other. Sometimes there's no difference.

Throughout your work we see the female body being manipulated to tell stories about power, greed, and sexual violence. Do you think of these issues as central to your work?
Djurberg: Yes, because I'm a woman it feels very relevant to me, and these issues relate to me personally as a female body in a very male-dominated world. But I think that no issue should be exclusive to the person impersonating it. If I were a man, I hope I would still be concerned with women's issues, as I am also interested in the male, but more from a female perspective; racism but from the perspective of being white; poverty even though I do not live in poverty.

© Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg

Animals are always messing with the humans in your films. Why are they important to you?
Djurberg: Because they're easy and fun. They allow me to show human traits without narrowing it down to a person. In a way it's more clean cut, but also because it strips away the seriousness that the human body has, the pretentiousness of humans, but still shows just that, humanity.

Do you think of the internal lives of your characters while you're working?
Djurberg: I do while I'm animating them, but it's still only me, and I am very aware of that. I feel the movement in my body before I can animate it in the puppet. The same for emotions and moods.

Your films have become more abstract lately. How has that evolved, and how has that changed the way you work together?
Djurberg: Lately yes, the work has been more abstract, but now there's more story. Yes, it changed the way we work together. Hans's music was always a crucial part of the work, but now I really see that it is at least 50 percent of it, and sometimes I'm more interested in what the music does than what the images do. As Hans said earlier, the music presides over the images, because it reaches your brain faster than they do; you are already influenced by the music when you are making up your mind about what you see.