Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg
Walker Art Center
When my friend Ida was fifteen, she went to school for the annual end-of-year event. Traditionally, all the ninth graders would put on costumes, then roam around the school teasing and throwing candies to the younger kids. Ida needed a costume. So she asked her mother to help her sew a fat suit.
They fashioned a bulbous second skin that featured a splendid pair of protruding breasts (sporting enormous nipples made from pacifiers), a dimpled, swollen ass, hairy armpits, and a magnificent thatch of thick black pubic hair. She completed the look with a garter belt, black silk stockings, high heels, fake eyelashes, an enormous red mouth, and a mop of bouncy blonde corkscrew curls. Her mother took a few pictures. Then Ida went to school. As she tells it, her teacher seemed uncomfortable, but made no comment.
It is similarly difficult to comment on the grotesque human bodies that populate Nathalie Djurberg’s installation The Parade (2011). Some, like Ida’s suit, are corpulent, their breasts and bellies wiggling and swaying; others are absurdly elongated, with curling fingers and toes, and one is emaciated, all skeletal angles. To see these bodies in action is to witness a visceral and inarticulate corporeality. Mouths snarl, eyes bug out, nostrils flare. These bodies are better understood not through words, but through the body’s own functions—a shudder, a gasp, a giggle, an orgasm.
However, if I had to settle on a word with which to begin describing The Parade (as I must, since there is no way around the linguistic constraints of a written review), it would be “unseemly.” Comprised of five digital animations (running approximately six minutes each), more than eighty sculptures, and a soundtrack by Djurberg’s long-time collaborator Hans Berg, The Parade is an unapologetic exercise in carnivalesque indulgence, a world populated by base pleasures, comic humiliation, and rollicking brutality. In many ways, the installation concocts scenes that are simultaneously inviting and discomfiting—or discomfiting precisely because they are so inviting.
At the center of the installation stands a resplendent flock of birds of varying sizes and species. Sporting dazzlingly unnatural plumage in garish colors, these birds beckon the viewer with all the elegance of a bad drag queen, and hum with the nervous energy of a party about to happen. Fashioned from relatively humble materials—foam, wire, clay, fabric, and globs of acrylic paint—the birds have an unfinished, home-spun aspect that make them better-suited to a small-town parade float than their venerable museum context.
However, as playful and accessible as they might seem, the birds are altogether more sinister (an ambiguity clearly apparent to the children I observed in the gallery, who oscillated between excitement and abject terror). Diseased and dripping with imperfect applications of paint, up close they reveal distorted features: bubbling necks, gnarled toes, downy heads, mottled beaks. Their postures are menacing, too. Many of the birds stand ready to strike, their wings spread wide, claws curled. Smaller birds cling to the backs of larger ones, whose necks crane backward, their mouths opened in a silent caw. As I made my way among the crowd, I felt simultaneously seduced and repulsed. Desiring to get a closer look at its bold blue-green plumage, I approached a bird just slightly taller than I. Suddenly I found myself face-to-face with its glassy red eye. I began to notice that not only this creature, but all these birds, had the same bulging eyes. And they all seemed to be looking at me.
In his pornographic novella Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille mines the symbolic connotations of the eye as a metaphor for sexual desire. Simone, the story’s dissipated heroine, takes pleasure in eyes and their globular analogues.1 Eggs, bull’s testicles, and eyeballs themselves hold great sexual appeal for young Simone. There is something of Bataille’s primordial and ritualistic eroticism in The Parade. Just as the bird sculptures simultaneously threaten and beckon the viewer with an unwavering crowd of staring eyes, the installation’s five videos all suggest that the eye is a powerful tool for both violence and desire. Accompanied by Berg’s tense electronic soundtrack, the videos depict nightmarish encounters between humans and animals fashioned from crudely cheerful claymations. In Open window (all works 2011), a hairless, bone-white little figure fends off the attacks of an enormous bird that swoops in through the window; in Deceiving looks, a lithe, nude black female dodges the bites and tangles of a growing army of mask-wearing snakes; and in Bad eggs, a trio of pudgy, purposeful babushkas attempt to force a scrawny bird into a bubbling cauldron of soup. Regarding each other with menace, suspicion, curiosity, and abject terror, the videos’ subjects all appear to be playing strange, sadistic games with one another.
The five videos are played on a loop, timed to coincide with Berg’s soundtrack. However, one video, I wasn’t made to play the son, continues beyond the other four by about twenty seconds, accompanied by the music. This video stands out as the most disturbing because of the degree and extent of the violence it depicts. In the video, a large nude woman with purple skin, exaggerated, spherical breasts with swollen red nipples, a tumble of wavy brown hair, and a wide red mouth lies on the floor of a dark, empty room. A pair of men roughly half the woman’s size, wearing knee breeches and painted, beaked masks stand above her. Each brandishes a pair of scissors, and they make short work of her. Snip!—one takes her left nipple, and pink clay erupts from the wound. Snip!—the other removes her big toe, and green clay spurts out. Snip!—they remove her knee cap. This one bleeds red. They stand over her face. A close-up reveals bright white teeth. They pull them out with pliers. Her mouth foams yellow. As they work, slogans appear on the wall behind them, suggesting dialogue between the victim and her aggressors. “I TREATED YOU LIKE A SON,” says one. “I WASN’T MEANT TO BE TREATED LIKE A SON,” the wall responds. As they work, the men pause to wipe the sweat from their brows. They caress her face. “RELAX,” says the wall. “BREATHE EASY,” it encourages. “IT WON’T HURT NONE,” it insists. By the time they have finished, her legs have been severed; her left breast has been blown apart and drowns in a pool of pink, blue, orange, and yellow clay; her mouth hangs open pointlessly. Meanwhile, the men prance around her with raised knees.
This scene betrays a profound ambivalence about sexual violence that courses throughout The Parade. Despite the horrific brutality on-screen—a woman snipped to smithereens—its rendering in cheerful, vibrant claymation makes I wasn’t made to play the son seem—dare I say it—kind of funny. When wrapped up in the decidedly un-funny issue of violence against women, humor flies in the face of some of the chief principles of feminism. This kind of sexual impiety is about as comfortable as a rape joke. Difficult questions arise: Is this ok? Who is hurting whom? Is this meant to be fun?
Part of the problem is that it is not entirely clear whether Djurberg rejects or indulges in the violence she depicts. Another, more obvious example arises in Djurberg’s 2004 video Tiger licking girl’s butt, in which a young girl emerges from the shower wrapped in a towel, then suddenly finds herself being tailed (pun intended) by a tiger, intent on—you guessed it—licking her butt. The girl initially resists. Then she caves. Then she starts to enjoy it. Meanwhile, text flashes on the screen: “WHY DO I HAVE THIS URGE TO DO THESE THINGS OVER AND OVER AGAIN?” Here, Djurberg gleefully enacts the shame of taking pleasure in a sex act that is obviously taboo—a shame that redoubles itself in the event that a viewer gets turned on too.
By calling Djurberg’s work “gleeful,” it might seem that Djurberg is making light of some very serious political issues. However, I believe that Djurberg’s cheekiness approaches sexual violence with a profound awareness of the political consequences of such violence and of the destabilizing power of a raucous and impious use of humor. At the same time, Djurberg’s work also forces us to confront a contentious issue for feminism: the possibility that violence and pleasure are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The Parade mines a powerful and enduring legacy of cultural myths around the female body. It is no accident that the majority of human figures in Djurberg’s animations are ana- tomically and exaggeratedly female. With their swollen red mouths and breasts, the women in I wasn’t meant to play the son and Deceiving looks cite a colonialist visual culture that painted black women as hyper-sexualized victims ripe for the taking. In contrast, the babushkas in Bad eggs remove their peasant garb and reveal mountains of excess flesh, maternal bodies ruined by childbearing, breast-feeding, and domestic drudgery. Throughout The Parade, the female body is a powerfully disturbing site of creation and destruction; like an overripe fruit sliding into putrefaction, these bodies exhibit the uncontainable threat of fertility.
In her book The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo charts the archetypal association of the female body with physical excess, earthly pleasures, and horrific disturbances. She places the grotesque female body squarely at the center of what Mikhail Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque,” a riotous social mode that courses through The Parade. For Bakhtin, the carnival is a site of powerful social indeterminacy in which power is upended—master and servant trade places, bodies turn inside out. Laughter, and its convulsive undoing of the human body, are central. The carnivalesque marshals the body at its “absolute lower stratum.”2 Against the order and symmetry of the classical (male) body, Russo writes, “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official ‘low’ culture or the carnivalesque, and with social transformation.”3
For Bakhtin, the social upheavals of the carnival find particular expression in the disgustingly fertile bodies of “senile, pregnant hags.” As Bakhtin puts it:
It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth. There is nothing completed, nothing calm in the bodies of these old hags. They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed. Life is shown in its two-fold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is precisely the grotesque concept of the body.4
The jowly babushkas in Bad eggs are reminiscent of these hags; while they do not exactly give birth, they are fixated on the eggs dropped by their captive bird. These eggs—like those in Story of the Eye—confound, satiate, entice, and ooze. They are powerfully reminiscent of the precarious slide from birth into death.
Djurberg’s videos run with rainbow- bright effluvium, reminiscent of the viscera that flow from the cavernous female body. Djurberg marshals the grotesque female body and its disconcerting affiliation with blood, pus, excrement, saliva, and other abject substances. In her influential text The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva charts the kinship of terror with bodily indeterminacy. According to Kristeva, abjection is “what disturbs identity, systems, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”5 This breakdown of comforting boundaries— between inside and outside, body and world, you and I—is materially located in the body’s own expulsions.
Insofar as Djurberg’s work is political, its politics lie in its impolite ambivalence, its refusal to stay firmly put. Just as Bataille’s eroticism reminds us that desire and death are inextricable (perhaps even indistinguishable), and just as Bakhtin’s carnivalesque upends cultural divisions between high and low, Djurberg’s work traffics across the precarious and politically sensitive boundary between pleasure and pain. Like my friend Ida slipping on a fat suit, Djurberg offers the viewer an opportunity to witness the disconcerting power of carnivalesque indulgence. Such are the grotesque pleasures of The Parade.
Cecilia Aldarondo is a PhD candidate in the department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. She also holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her writing has appeared in Performance Research, Art Papers, Quodlibetica, and other publications.
- Lord Auch [Georges Bataille], Story of the Eye, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001).↵
- Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 403.↵
- Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1994), 8.↵
- Bakhtin, 26–27. 5. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.↵