When I was a young child, there were very popular television advertisements featuring The California Raisins — animated, anthropomorphised fruit singing rhythm and blues songs. These claymation characters were simultaneously endearing and sinister, the latter because they seemed to be lurking in cupboards and lunchboxes, waiting for their moment to surprise us. It is similar with artists Nathalie Djurberg’s and Hans Berg’s claymation characters in their trilogy of short videos, being shown in their solo exhibition ‘Who am I to Judge, or, It Must be Something Delicious’ at Lisson Gallery. Except that the Swedish husband-and-wife duo’s characters are perhaps more perverse and insalubrious.
This psychologically probing exhibition, which also includes a solo sculpture and an installation with about 60 silicone figurines — static, three-dimensional versions of the same characters who feature in the films, frolicking and engaging in riotous behaviour — is is a dark, Freudian wonderland. In highlighting human beings’ erotic inclinations, the artists tap into the grotesque, the tragicomic, the provocatively preposterous. As uneasy voyeurs, we are witnesses to those moments when one surrenders to carnal pleasures, with no regard for morality or social conduct. And within Djurberg’s and Berg’s pieces, we are witnesses to the additional witnesses and their delight or apathy to the situation.
In ‘Delights of an Undirected Mind’, a nearly seven-minute clay animation video, we are treated to an orgiastic bedtime story which takes place primarily in one small bedroom, in which distorted, familiar characters explore fantasy, role-play, and deviance. There is, among other characters, a mouse driving around in circles on a motorcycle with two hot dogs as passengers, an alligator receiving amorous gestures from an octopus and a fox, a camel pouring himself tea with a lot of extra ‘milk’, and a young girl defecating on the sheets and covering it up with a pillow. There is a bed with two courgettes spooning, and in another bed a moustachioed and bearded rotund character stirs a creamy yellow substance that he shares with a young girl and a frosted and sprinkled donut. Berg’s repetitive, hypnotic soundtrack, reminiscent of the house and techno music one might hear at a club, seems to set the pace for the video. The characters’ constant movement is in sync with the pulsating basslines.
Also shown in the pitch-black, custom-built viewing room is the video ‘Worship’, on a continuous loop with the other two videos, each of which takes Djurberg four to five months to create. The piece, with its extra-terrestrial-charged soundscape, is essentially an animated, exaggerated hip-hop video, with a clothed woman caressing her posterior and breasts in a suggestive manner, and scantily clad women in separate scenes rubbing their bodies on a banana, an ice lolly decorated with sequins, a cat, and what looks to be a carp. The male in the video alternates between riding a motorcycle, stroking his bare belly and chest exposed under a hooded tracksuit, and playing with a swim ring. This various paraphernalia seems to allude to male and female genitalia. Exploitation pervades the piece, and we are unsure at times who the perpetrators are and who the victims are. Lust and greed escalate to possession, which in turn intensifies until it becomes full-blown worship.
The third video, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, is set in a dark woodland not unlike the one in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned. The protagonist is a limbed moon who appears to prance among the trees. The moon, along with the other three characters — a girl, a pig, and a cabin — spew lines about fear, about shame, about regret. The lass and swine take turns licking a lollipop and the cabin is smoking a cigarette. Although the sexual undertones are in line with the first two videos, the artists have decided to push the boundaries of sexuality in this piece, beyond the realm of mere urges, impulses, and infatuations.
Leaving the viewing room, we are greeted by the installation which features motionless remnants of the films; the animation has stopped, and our eyes become the camera filming the mannequin challenge. The various vignettes blur into each other, and the debauchery is equal parts hilarious and pathetic – pathetic in the characters’ desperation. We see a faeces with appendages saying in a speech bubble ‘I did nothing to help my brother’ while being licked by My Little Pony. We see the moon swallowing a carrot, with the carrot asking ‘Did I say I love this?’. We see an acorn peeling a banana, and all around the banana are speech bubbles questioning ‘WAS IT REMARKABLE?’ Three record players at the sides of the installation are each playing a different track at different intervals.
A few steps from the installation, on a cordoned off area with a shelf, sits a single sculpture. It is the same moon starring in the video, only this time with a Pinocchio-like nose, and a guilt-laden expression, proclaiming in a speech bubble ‘Yes I did it’. We are not made aware what he did, and whether he actually did it, or if the insinuation is that he is lying.
Throughout this exhibition, Djurberg and Berg have utilised animation, sound, and sculpture to magnify the basest of natural human instincts, including jealousy, revenge, lust, submission, and dominance. I find the fact that the artists are married intriguing, as they are exploring feelings, needs, drives, and compulsions which inevitably rear their ugly heads within a partnership. The duo began working closely together about 13 years ago, and have since produced transgressive narratives brimming with symbolic meaning and subconscious considerations.
I imagine Freud would enjoy this exhibition. Perhaps his ashes in their urn in Golders Green – not five miles from this Lisson Gallery show – are forming themselves into characters, dancing to that entrancing beat they can hear from afar. Or perhaps I’ve just spent too much time with Nathalie Djurberg’s and Hans Berg’s creations.
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Lisson Gallery, London until 6th May 2017
Lisha Aquino Rooney is an artist and writer. Lisha can be followed on Instagram @lisharoon