We are not Two, We are One

Magic and design, fame and obscurity, technique and fantasy, recounted by Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg.

Stefano Casciani: I see much art by young and not-so-young artists, but I am very impressed with your work, which is why I thought you should be on the cover of Domus. This is the last cover associated with my interviews with artists and I really wanted to have some young people with a different outlook. Tell me about your show at the Giò Marconi gallery, where I first saw a video of yours.
Nathalie Djurberg : That was through Caroline Corbetta, the curator of a show at the Scandinavian Biennale in Norway, at the time my biggest exhibition. She saw my work, liked it and convinced Giò to host my work.

I remember the video with the Tiger and the Wolf, and the two female characters that are attached to them – I was impressed.
ND : Those were the first ones and then I just continued working. We had another show this past summer with Giò. Of course people expect you to do more work of the same kind. Sometimes it irritates me when they want something spectacular. If it is not what you want to do, you have to be strong enough to say that you don't want to do something spectacular.

I think that the Prada exhibition was quite spectacular. It was different; your work was moving to a different dimension, like a three-dimensional DVD. There was a lot of work involved, wasn't there?
ND : Yes, there was. I think if Germano Celant hadn't pushed me so hard and if I hadn't been too shy to know that you are allowed to say no to things, I wouldn't have done it! I was so scared, in a way I didn't want to do it. I like Germano because he doesn't play safe and he wants you to go the extra mile. He taught me to trust what I want to do. That was the step, to go out into the room. I enjoy that, but sometimes I get bored and then I stay in to do all the animations and then I get bored of the animations and I go out into the room again.
Hans Berg : One important thing is that you do all the work yourself, even though you receive so much press and all the shows. It is not like you have started a big production company and you have a lot of people working for you.
ND : But with the Prada show I didn't do everything by myself.
HB : You made all the models.
ND : For Venice, I did everything myself but I was at home almost killing myself!

How long did you work on it?
ND : One year for the films and sculptures, in a tiny apartment, about 70 square metres. We had those flowers everywhere and Hans was really thinking of breaking up with me and moving out. I am sending the sculptures to the US now, but until yesterday he had just a tiny, narrow strip of space to get to his music corner. When you start you don't really know where the work is going to end up. In the beginning you always think that the idea is so clear, but as soon as you start working with it, you stumble on difficult things, you have to change it, plus it changes by itself over time and it is very interesting to have it not so static. If you leave it to someone else, it is just going to be a finished product and you won't have learned anything. What interests me is to follow where the work is going.

Nathalie Djurberg, <i>Untitled</i>, 2010 (clay animation, music by Hans Berg; 6:05 minutes; ed.: 4, II). 
The characters of the video – on view on 2010 at the Galleria Giò Marconi in Milan in conjunction with the exhibition “Snakes knows it’s Yoga” – are a woman and 
a frog. They refer to a shamanic ritual: by licking a poisonous frog, the shaman enters the world of the spirits. 
Untitled will be shown, from 
5 March to 1 May 2011, at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Courtesy of Giò Marconi, Milano
Nathalie Djurberg, Untitled , 2010 (clay animation, music by Hans Berg; 6:05 minutes; ed.: 4, II). The characters of the video – on view on 2010 at the Galleria Giò Marconi in Milan in conjunction with the exhibition “Snakes knows it’s Yoga” – are a woman and a frog. They refer to a shamanic ritual: by licking a poisonous frog, the shaman enters the world of the spirits. Untitled will be shown, from 5 March to 1 May 2011, at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Courtesy of Giò Marconi, Milano
What is the clearest thing you have in mind when you start a new project? Is it the story, the character, the action, the environment?
ND : It depends. Sometimes the character, sometimes the story. I always have to have a little bit of story. It would be very boring if I had everything clear in my head when I start, if I had already seen the animation in my head and known every clip and every angle of the camera. What is interesting is when you know a little bit and then things become different, the characters change a little bit, and there is development. It is like fragment aesthetics, every little choice you make is just a fragment and it can go wherever it wants. So you have to decide all the time where the story or the situation is going and that is really interesting. The more interested I am in the character, the more fun it is to work on it and the better the work becomes.

Which is your favourite character?
ND: The Wolf!

The Wolf in the video We are not Two, We are One? Is it you?
ND : No, it is the last kind of man I would ever want to be with. I like people who are not so tough. I am looking at Hans as I say that!

I looked at your work carefully and I wonder who are stronger, women or men?
ND : In my work or in the world? In the beginning, when I started working, it was all about women. I only did women and all the women had big boobs. They did not look like me at all but were very feminine. After a while they became more fragile and I think they became more fragile as I was getting more secure because then you dare to make them more fragile. I wasn't interested in portraying men at all. I couldn't relate to them. It took me a couple of years before I could portray men and that was the Wolf actually. Then, you find a way to do something else and it unlocks something inside you, in your head. In the beginning, the men were there to be perpetrators, to portray something that can push someone else down or push things down, hurt things. Working on that, they became more interesting, more ambivalent.

What makes you happy, satisfied or enthusiastic about a project?
ND : When you don't play it safe; when you do something that you are a bit scared about, when I feel I am on thin ice and I don't know exactly what I am doing but am looking for something that really, really interests me. You have to find it, try to dig it out. I feel that if I do the safe thing and stay with what I know, then there is no interest for me. When I do something that I am not really sure about it, I become super excited about it. I think that this is the most joyous thing and during that part, you start to like other artists you didn't like before. You maybe do some research because you need to see something that is close to what you are doing. Sometimes it is very frustrating because someone hasn't done what you would like to see.

How did you two meet?
ND : Through a friend.
HB : Yes, I moved to Berlin and was studying German and making music. At the language school I met this crazy Swedish girl, Nathalie's friend, and we decided to share an apartment. Then Nathalie also moved to Berlin and I met her through the friend. So we met just randomly. Natalie moved here because she didn't like the city in Sweden much.

Nathalie, where did you live in Sweden?
ND : Before I moved, I lived in Malmö but I was brought up in a tiny village by the sea. Hans was brought up in an even tinier place in the forest with ten houses.

Do you have other people working on your projects?
ND : No, I think has to do with being a little bit cheap... in the sense of sharing. I have trouble with collaborations. I don't speak up, I don't express my opinion, even though it may seem that I do, I don't. With Hans I don't need, he thinks exactly the way I do and we have been working together for so many years that we hardly speak about the collaboration. He knows the right music for the work. The few times he understands something the wrong way I get upset because I feel like he should understand without words.

How does the music relate to the artwork?
HB : We work very closely, everything is in the same room, so there is always a discussion about the work and what is going to happen in the films, what they are about, but we don't really say exactly what is going to happen or else we speak around it in bigger themes.
ND : It is very vague because, in a way, I ask for reassurance in the work. Maybe I am looking for something and Hans asks what I am looking for. Maybe I am looking for a colour but I am not really sure and the discussion goes on like that, but in an abstract way.
HB : Yes, then she makes the films and I see her doing it and when it is finished I take the film and do the music; I interpret it and we talk about the colour. I try to work with the music on a level where if it is more comical or more about abuse I interpret it differently, so it is like the final layer of the whole work. It directs the viewer.
ND : It does more to the viewer than the viewer realises. Sometimes people don't realise how important it is, they look at the images and then...
HB : It is almost the best thing when, as in a normal film, people don't think about the music but it sets the mood and the minds of the people without them knowing it.
ND : If you look at the work with music and then you turn it off, you understand how much it helps.
HB : When you see something and you filter it with your eyes, you try to interpret it, but when the music works the way it is supposed to, it bypasses this filter and goes straight to your mind. It influences you and you are already in the ideal state of mind to interpret the images you see, in an ideal world.

Did you already know what you wanted to do when you were at school?
ND : Not at all. I started with sculpture, then I wanted to paint, but I was very bad at it. I go back to painting over and over again.

Do you have other artists in your family?
ND : No, two of my brothers are in India on their spiritual quest. My father is a doctor and I don't have any contact with him. My mother is creative but she is not an artist. She used to be a teacher, but now she is retired.

Do you still talk to her?
ND : Yes a lot. We didn't have much when I was little, we didn't have a TV, so she used to draw and paint with us instead and read us books and stories, fairy tales. The creative side of that was that if you got bored, you made a drawing or a paper sculpture. We were alone much of the time.
HB : It doesn't always happen like that; many children didn't have TV and they didn't become creative. You stayed on this creative path.
ND : Yes, because I was always encouraged. Hans was never encouraged to do music.
HB : I just did it anyway!

What did your parents want you to do, Hans?
HB : They didn't say anything really. My father worked in the forest and my mother stayed at home; they didn't say anything special, actually.

Music wasn't there?
HB: No, my mother played the violin a little bit but not really. My father doesn't like music at all.

The only one in the world!
ND : He really hates it, but Hans's brother is a concert pianist. Hans's first experience with music was to have two recorders close to each other and record from one to the other, mixing music from one tape to the other.

Hans's family name, Berg, is in your family name, Djur-berg. What does that mean?
ND : It is very incestuous because my father's name is Hans Djurberg and he is Hans Berg. At the beginning my mother didn't want to call him by his name. In fact, I look more like my father, my mother is more beautiful.

What is it like to be very young artists and already be on the big art scene thanks to the Venice Biennale Prize, the huge Prada show and your next show at the Walker Art Center?
ND : When we don't have a show to go to, we are in the studio. One of my New Year's resolutions is to be more social and not stay in the studio all the time. What it means in a practical way is that people buy your things and that gives you money to continue doing what you are doing. The last apartment we had, one and a half year ago, was half the size of this one and I was still doing all the work from home and it made the flat very, very tiny. From that point of view things have changed. But I think you have to forget about where you have arrived on the art scene, because a time will come when people don't like your work. If you are really attached to success, it will destroy you. I think you have to see that the work is more important. Let's say that in a couple of years nobody likes our work (hopefully not!) but if it happens, than we have to see to it that it doesn't matter because it is the studio work that is the most important.

You mentioned earlier that sometimes you look at other artists' work. Is there an artist who inspires you in a special way?
ND : Yes, there is one in particular who I have liked since I was very young, that artist who had himself shot in the arm, Chris Burden. I go back to his work all the time. A new artist I am looking at is Morris Louis, an American abstract painter. There is a show at the Deutsche Guggenheim right now, with only one painting of his. I have been there three times and I don't look at the other paintings, only at his. It is like being on acid or something similar. Sometimes I worry that art is not the right way to go, that art can't do anything, that it is only self-indulgence, but when I go there and look at his painting I feel like it is worth it. Louis painted for all his life, probably it was the only thing he did. He probably didn't do anything else for humanity, but it was worth it, even if I were the only one to like his work. Of course, many, many people like his work so I am not special in that way. What I mean is that it can be worth working a lifetime on something, even if only one person benefits from it.

For your work as you design it, it looks like you really have to be very concentrated because it is not an easy job. One thing I don't like about contemporary art is when artists are just public-relations butterflies in the evening and somebody else does everything for them.
ND : It is very, very sad!

It is sad but there is a meaning in that. I think your work has entertaining content and people can enjoy this kind of portrayal accompanied by music.
ND : But couldn't you do something better with your life than art?

Then you have to do something for a social cause or give your work away for free, I don't know. There are artists who work in that way. Sometimes it is interesting, sometimes not.
ND : I feel that art is worth it for me, but I can't see it for others. I give art. This is where Hans comes into the picture, because he can see art for the world, while I cannot.
HB : What do you mean? Whether art should exist at all?
ND : Yes.
HB : We have had this discussion so many times. You can just go on and on. It is the thing you do best and you touch other people with it so you shouldn't worry so much.

I wanted to ask you a very mundane question: what do you do with the artwork for your movies? Do you keep it?
ND : Do you mean the puppets? Before, I just threw it away, and I still throw away all the sets, but a German collector was in my studio once and I had 3 puppets that she really liked, so I put them in a glass case and she bought them. Since I did that, there are some puppets that work as sculptures. Celant has one that is from an animation that is called Putting down the Prey . It is a woman who kills a walrus and opens him up and goes inside. He still has that walrus and she is still inside its stomach, which is sewn together. Then it got wet, so maybe everything has gotten mouldy but I like the concept that she is still inside and that it is on his desk and it doesn't have to be more important than that. So, sometimes I do save them but most of the time I throw them away or reuse something if I can. Sometimes it loses its purpose after the animation and it can't survive afterwards, once you have used the idea.

Is this not going against the idea of collecting? Art implies collection.
ND : No, I don't like collecting, I don't collect anything myself. Well I have books and sometimes that freaks me out too. I have too many, I give them away, but I would never buy an art piece. I don't like expensive things that don't amuse me. But I am very happy that it amuses other people because if they buy it then I can continue working.

If you put together all the props from your videos you could make a small museum.
ND : I would probably love to go to a museum like that. Sometimes you see your work in a collector's home and you are blown away by the work and then you are really happy that they did buy it and you had the opportunity to see it. But it has to be clean where I work, I can't collect things. It is a process and you need to throw things away to follow the process otherwise you get stuck with old things and you do the same things over and over again. I dislike doing the same thing over and over again.

Is the construction of your puppets very complicated?
ND : Sometimes it gets more complicated. Do you want me to show you? I'll go and get something.
HB : Now you can even buy stuff online for the skeleton for animation but you only get one size and they are very expensive and they won't work with your puppets.
ND : This is the skeleton and these are the fingers.

Did you make this big black puppet, Nathalie?
ND : Yes. this is a really big one: usually they are not so big. She doesn't have a mouth but she can move her eyes. She can move everything, she is not broken yet and I am saving her to use for something else. And I did all these different mouths that I can put on.

Are they for different scenes and different expressions?
ND : Yes, I have teeth and stuff like that. If I need her to smile, I change the mouth and take the picture and then I change it again.

What's the material?
ND : First it is this wire thing and then clay and ones like this one have some silicone too, silicone skin...but they do break and they are not so perfect. They would be perfect if someone were to make them for me, but I don't like that idea. HB : But they are perfect for you and in that sense they are perfect!

Where do all your characters come from?
ND : Usually they are stereotypes or an idea of something that I like or dislike. Before, I thought that I would do these characters and animations as a way to cope with reality, to make it clear to myself. It is still like that, but in a more aware sense maybe. Help me out here! (she smiles at Hans)
HB : They come from everything you have experienced. I think the characters are your interpretations of different things, like their experience and the character gets to play it out for you. It's your way of interpreting what you experience or what you think that you are concerned about. This is your way of experimenting with different versions of this.

My impression is that your characters are not so common, they have a high degree of fantasy which is rare to find now in art. Leaving abstract art aside, 80% of art now is figurative, even if it is very conceptual, but your work is figurative because it tells a story and the only difference is that the characters are imaginary. That's why I was asking where the characters come from, because they are a big part of the work.
ND : If I like a character, I will become obsessed with it. And when you do the animation, you have to play all the parts, which means that first you need to know how to move your body, so you have to have body control and know how it feels to move the body. Sometimes, when I animate the puppets I do the facial expressions, which also means that Hans teases me, that is why he is not allowed in when I do the animation. If you know which muscles in the face are stretched or bent, then you can do that to the puppet. If I do a dance, then I need to know what the dance is like. It also means that things happen emotionally since you are playing that part while you are animating it. I feel like I am that person, and the person does horrible things and nice things and it is sexual and you have to dare to plunge yourself in there.

There is a degree of monstrosity in your work, some characters are very scary.
ND : If there is a character who is a bit monstrous or horrible, you learn to find a kind of compassion for them because you are playing that character. There is, for instance, something really beautiful about clumsiness. Sometimes I fantasize about my characters, I dream about them, but I don't like that because I like the work to stay in the studio. It's nice to dream about something else, otherwise it becomes incestuous: dream about it at night and work with it during the day. And you never get out of that. It would be almost like a psychosis, so I try to stay away from that.
HB : It is difficult to keep them apart. After a while, maybe the idea, the character and the dream become the same thing.
ND : No, I don't have trouble keeping that apart. I like organisation and order. I have to be very organised with my work. It may seem chaotic but it is not.

Is it a limitation that your videos and your compositions have to be so short?
ND : No, probably because I lose interest after a while or there is no need to go further. Also, if you did something really long, let's say a movie lasting one hour, you would need a beginning, a middle and an end. Otherwise it would get very boring. This spring (I have been promising Hans this for 6 years now) I am going to make visuals for his music, which he could use wherever he wants to, they would be his. I can use his music wherever I want to, but he can't use my films like he wants to, so I am going to make visuals for him. They are going to be 2D. I am not going to do them with clay, it is going to be more abstract and I am really excited about it. It will actually take longer because there is no story. I see it as painting. I like the fact that it can be shown somewhere else to people who are not especially interested in art.

Are you thinking of a live show with the music?
ND : Yes, that is the idea. I am excited about it but I have other work to finish before I can start.
HB : Yes, it is going to take a while and it is a lot of work.
ND : It will be a lot of fun because the people won't come to that show for the art or for visuals, but for the music. They get the visuals as a bonus and maybe they will become more interested.

Will that mean having more people working with you?
ND : We have someone who helps us to cut the visuals after the music, because when Hans makes music for me he decides if it is going to be in rhythm or not, but here it has to be in rhythm and I don't know how to do that, so after someone will help us with that.

Do you like seeing your own work in shows?
ND : No, but I am interested in the reactions to my work. If people like what we do, it makes me very happy, but of course I am scared that someone doesn't like it and I prefer not to go there. I get very embarrassed when someone is looking at my work when I am in the room. I always try to leave.

How do you keep contact with your work after it is done?
ND : Sometimes we use old work and put it together in a new way but otherwise I don't look at it. Hans listens to the music though, and I like the music too, but I can't watch the work unless I really need to.
HB : I reuse the music. For the live concerts I take the music, remix it and put the songs together, so I do listen to my music.

You haven't many interiors in your work recently, but you used to show domestic interiors in your first videos. Are you not interested in the interiors' intimacy any more?
ND : My last films are very abstract in this respect, with the characters in a plain colour field. I like working with interiors, it is the same as working with characters. If the puppets are naked, they are not put in a category, but if you dress them they immediately become aristocrats or bourgeois. When you clothe someone it is difficult not to label them. I think the same about interiors. When I will find the right room I will go back to that intimacy, but only after I have investigated the colour field enough.
HB : An abstract background or colour field is more for an inner story. With interiors, the whole thing becomes more social. And if you place them in a really specific environment, like the kitchen with the Wolf...
ND : Everything becomes very confined. But everything goes back and forth in my work, it will go away, come back and go away again. For a while I was really interested in those heavy rooms that are dark with heavy furniture, like a hole attracting you or like going into a cave.

All of us, men and women, come from caves...

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