Nathalie Djurberg, The Rhinoceros and the Whale, 2008 © Nathalie Djurberg

Nathalie Djurberg

In Le surréalisme (1950) Yvonne Duplessis writes: Humour is not characteristic only of those who do not let themselves be blinded by reality. It also has a more profound side, in that it expresses the desire of the self to be liberated from reality and become impervious to its attacks. The blows from the outer world can even give rise to pleasure. André Breton relates Sigmund Freud’s example of how a condemned man on his way to the gallows on a Monday exclaims: ‘A good start to the week!’ Thanks to the protection of humour against ‘the trials inflicted on us by pain’, it has a ‘higher value’ and ‘we perceive it as especially effective when it comes to liberating and raising us’.”

Breton’s opinion that humour liberates and raises us was an essential aspect of the surrealist approach to the utopian potential of art to create a better and more beautiful world. The humour in Nathalie Djurberg’s films can also be both dark and absurd. At first, everything seems straight-forward and innocuous. The animated figures are made of plasticine and they move around in drawn or crudely built sets. The format is similar to that of children’s TV programmes and there is an undeniable feeling of being a child again as we watch. The world is vast and contains exciting new things.


Nathalie Djurberg
The Rhinoceros and the Whale, 2008
© Nathalie Djurberg
Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, Gió Marconi, Milano/Milan

Soon, however, we realise that the exciting new things have a dark and threatening side. Girls playing among bright flowers suddenly start fighting with each other, and the man who is playfully jostling the girls more and more intrusively is brutally assaulted, and in another film two girls are drowned in excrement. Animals figure too, not always as cuddly toys but also as untamed or treacherous creatures. The Fairytale world is torn asunder by violent brutality and angst. It is about loneliness and man’s sometimes absurd behaviour. But it is also about war, fear, insecurity and sexuality. About death.

Her films are also about social injustices. But where, on the scale of political correctness, do her works fit in? That is by no means unambiguous. We are increasingly being bombarded in more and more media by sex and violence in every conceivable and inconceivable shape and version. Entertainment is merging with information. Politics becomes drama. Drama becomes politics. On the one hand, we are brought up to be active citizens by keeping ourselves informed about current global events. On the other, we can no longer structure or differentiate between truth and lies, right and wrong, reality or fiction. Everything is for sale. It is hard to defend ourselves, to protect our lives, in such an environment.

I suspect that there is a great deal of Nathalie Djurberg herself in these films. It’s Nathalie against the world. She processes her own despair and fear – and lives out some of her own secret fantasies … the sardonic humour in her films creates a detachment to the serious subjects. The sudden shifts between laughter and anguish remind us of Freud – humour becomes a form of insubordination, a refusal to give in to social prejudice.

Djurberg’s works touch on the discussion on how aesthetic experiences can be combined with ethetic issues. For Bertolt Brecht, the aesthetic experience was, above all, found in the field of fiction. As he himself said, a newspaper picture of a factory, for instance, says nothing about the workers’ social, economic or political situation. In order to illustrate these conditions one must create theatre.

The fairytale world is an especially congenial instrument for telling about complex human behaviours. The films explicitly criticise various kinds of bullying and the assaulted or exploited always win in the end. But the humour and the fable ensure for instance, that the violence in Djurberg’s films is never explicit. On the contrary, it takes place in the viewer’s own imagination. The 19th century author Thomas de Quincey claimed that murder as a fine art is not the story about murder but the murder itself; in other words, the presentation of an event is given a greater value than the original event. In consequence, the perspective when regarding a murder cannot be that of the victim, but must be that of the murderer – or the onlooker. If we were able to assume the position of the victim, our fear would be so overwhelming that an aesthetic appreciation would be impossible.

That is probably why Nathalie Djurberg’s films are both entertaining and disturbing, private and general – giving satisfaction and producing pain. Their ambiguity makes them elusive. The works balance between hope and despair. The tension puts me constantly on guard and makes me impervious to it all. Ultimately, therefore, it concerns my refusal as a human being to be ringed or controlled.

John Peter Nilsson

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