World of Glass: A Conversation with Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg

The work of Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg is defined by duality. A partnership between artist and musician, their stop-motion animation videos and haunting audio tracks precariously balance horror and humour, immersing child-like puppets in a world where perversion, violence, aggression, and power dominate. In their latest exhibition in London, the artists explore the medium of glass and its materiality – fragility becomes threatening and desires are laid bare, exposing the traits that both define us and may lead to our demise. On the occasion of A World of Glass at Camden Arts Centre, Nathalie Djurberg, Hans Berg, and Michelle Schultz sit down to discuss puppets and process – and the relationship between art and music.

Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, A World of Glass, film still, 2011. Courtesy of the artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan.

Michelle Schultz: Most of the materials you use – clay, fabrics, even the music – have a strong sense of malleability and fluidity to them, but in A World of Glass, the focus is on a very unyielding material that is both fragile and, I find to be, quite threatening – could you speak a bit about the significance of the glass for you?

Nathalie Djurberg: What this entire project is about is fragility – and transparency – and while it can be perceived as threatening in the way that it stands on the table, for me, it is almost like a shipwreck that has been washed up on a beach and reassembled again. It is almost apocalyptic. That is also how I made them, taking things that I could find – glasses, plates, and bowls – assembled them, worked on them with clay, and then had them moulded and casted.

Hans Berg: There were all these ugly parts – some things were just a pile of clay, made with the hands, and then you stuck glass on it, but then, through casting, it is turned into this crystal clear, fragile figure. I think that’s where you will find a connection between the frightening and hard stuff, and how fragile everything looks – when it is transformed.

I think that glass has so many different layers – it is about, like the title suggests, how the world is really fragile, but then the films are also about the fragility of the mind, or the transparency of the mind. At the same time that it is fragile, the large amount of glass almost makes it baroque as well.

Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, A World of Glass, installation view, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Camden Arts Centre. Photograph by Andy Peake.

MS: Much more of your recent work is immersive installations, as opposed to singular videos that stand on their own – was this a purposeful decision that was made?

ND: Yes, I had the idea about three years ago, about the same time as I started working on the piece we showed in Venice at the Biennale, the Experiment (2009). However since it has taken such a long time to realise it, the outcome is very different from the original idea. But we’re planning on making something small and singular after this.

MS: An animation?

ND: Well you have to go where the ideas take you – if I get really excited, and have an urge to see it, it means that I have to make it. What we are going to work on after this is something different – I am making visuals for Hans’ music, which is a mix of club music and the music he makes for my animations. I am excited about that, since it can be shown in a context where there is not just people who are used to looking at art, but also people who don’t usually look at art.

MS: It will be very interesting to see how these videos differ, as right now the visuals comes first and the audio is composed afterwards – but now it will be the music that initiates the work.

ND: It will be possible to work in a different way as well – in a more abstract way, and to really explore that.

HB: I always thought that art and music were really more connected, but they are not. And this is a very unusual occasion I think – that we have a show with Haroon Mirza at the same time at Camden Art Centre, who also works in music that is more towards the pop side, like mine. Usually, no one in the music world knows anything about art, and no one in the art world knows anything about music, so it is nice to try and bridge that gap.

Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, A World of Glass, film still, 2011. Courtesy of the artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan.

Also, the music that I do for the installations and the films, it’s not difficult, it’s not sound art, and I think that’s pretty unusual as well. The sound or music for video art, is often very strange, people make it extra strange, so it’s extra ‘arty’, and I don’t really do that so much.

MS: For this exhibition, did you find it difficult to make one piece of music that fit with all four videos simultaneously?

HB: In the beginning, yes. At first I thought I would make four different tracks – one for each film – that would fit together. But then I started, and I was thinking, and I locked myself in the closet. We both work at home – Nathalie has one and a half rooms for her studio, and I have a corner in the second room. So I locked myself in the closet, with glasses, vases and water, and recorded all the samples for the music.

The music turned out so minimalistic, and when I looked at all four films, it turned out that it fit, so I choose to use it for all four – because, in the end, four different soundtracks would go against the whole idea for the whole installation, which is very minimal itself.

ND: What the music also does is bring the concept of the glass out everywhere. You can stand in the corner and still hear the glass clinging.

MS: It really does serve to immerse you in glass.

Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, A World of Glass, film still, 2011. Courtesy of the artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan.

MS: Now, in your videos, often the distinctions between humans and animals are blurred – I have seen a man turn into a dog, a woman takes a tiger as a lover and a bear become the captor of a child. And in these new videos, the divisions between humans and animals are quite inconsequential as well.

ND: I think we are more similar than we like to think, at least at some level. But using animals is mainly a way to express something – sometimes it is easier to work with a metaphor than to work with an actual person – and sometimes that’s stronger. If you use a puppet that is a human being, there is so much baggage that comes with how it looks and the clothing.

MS: But the animals always have their own traits that accompany them as well.

HB: Yes, if you use a wolf, you get a certain set of ideas coming with that animal.

ND: But it is almost the same as the way that you use clothes on a puppet – if you choose not to clothe a puppet but you use it naked, then you can’t determine what part of society it comes from, or even the country. But with every layer of clothing you put on, you determine how it is seen. So using no clothing on a puppet makes it more open to interpretation. With animals it becomes more of the idea of the trait than the actual trait – if you use an animal, it is more of a symbol.

MS: With your videos, I have always found myself highly attracted to them and disturbed at the same time – and I think what is really engaging, and intriguing, about your work, is that there is a very precarious balance between horror and humour – one never dominates over the other, at least for long.

ND: [laughs] It’s a balance.

It’s also the medium of animation that really invites you to ridicule something. Sometimes that can be scary when I am in the studio – I have to forget that there will be an audience, otherwise I might be too shy to do something that I really want to do. And sometimes I wonder if I am allowed to turn this into humour? But it is almost impossible not to, it is really just there. And I think it is comical – you have to look at things with comical eyes. It’s about making it bearable.

And it’s not always that intentional – it’s where the puppets take you as well. I work with these heavy subjects, but then it is still these tiny little figures, which become caricature as you enhance some things, and disenhance other things. Just in doing that it becomes much more comical.

The good thing that animation can do is it can make you stay – even when you otherwise would have walked away. And it might approach you from a different angle as well.

Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, A World of Glass, film still, 2011. Courtesy of the artists, Zach Feuer Gallery, New York and Galleria Gio Marconi, Milan.

MS: When you are making your films and you are looking at the characters, do you create entire lives for them? I know when I watch the films, such as We Are Not Two, We Are One, with the fusion of the boy and wolf, or in this exhibition with the bull in the shop of glass, I am always curious about how they got there and construct stories in my head about what happened before – do you ever think about this?

ND: [laugh] No, but I like that you think about it.

Sometimes, when I really enjoy working on a film, I think a lot about the persona, but more how it exists right now, and in comparison to myself. One really old film that I made is a charcoal animation of a wolf – in the beginning he is just standing there on the white paper but the more I work on him the more particular he becomes, and I give him more and more personality. While I was making this, during the night when I would go to sleep, I would think a lot about him, and eventually during that animation I started making him talk about me.

MS: Do you think you will ever return to making charcoal animations?

ND: Yes, that is kind of what I am going to do with the videos for Hans. It is going to be in colour, with crayons and paint, but it is still going to be two-dimensional. When I do have an idea that does not fit with clay, an idea that fits only in two dimension, then I make a charcoal animation. But that urge and those ideas do not come so often – there is a bigger urge to do three-dimensional things.