This winter CCC Strozzina in Florence, Italy, inaugurated an exhibition that aimed at investigating the existential condition in contemporary art starting from the controversial work of internationally renown Francis Bacon. The artist line-up also included Arcangelo Sassolino, Nathalie Djurberg Adrian Ghenie, Chiharn Shiota, and Annegret Soltau. The first time I watched one of Nathalie Djurberg’s films¾featured in the group exhibition Zoo at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal last summer¾I was captivated and hypnotized. There is no other way to describe my reaction to her work. I was amazed by the power of her visual language and the rawness of the emotional impact on the viewers. With a disarming honesty Djurberg investigates the dark recesses of the human mind. She doesn’t intend to provoke or shock with her work but she candidly confesses her own fears and fantasies. “It’s the clash of the desire to do bad things, and at the same time terrified by being evil”, she admits in an interview with curator Ali Subotnick. It’s not by chance that her practice requires long periods of solitude in the studio where she processes and assembles her stories.

The viewer inevitably connects and is drawn into her dark fairy tales about human nature. Her stories project our secrets onto the screen making them visible to everyone, and therefore a liberating experience. It initiates a process of acceptance of what are usually considered by society as dark and un-confessed truths. Djurberg dramatises our most primal urges using the pliability of clay and a technique known as “stop-motion”. The subsequent moves of the dolls are photographed in order to achieve a sequence of frames that will give the ultimate effect of movement on video. Integral to her work is the long-time collaboration with Hans Berg who has been writing wildly inventive musical compositions to suit Djurberg’s moving images since 2001.

The exhibition at CCC Strozzina includes four complete projects: Once Removed on My Mother’s Side, Of Course I am Working With Magic, Turn into Me, and Das Waldhäuschen (Small Hut in the Forest).

The underground and secluded setting of the museum perfectly suits the mood of Djurberg’s work and makes it an even more singular experience. Moreover, the metallic, creepy and sudden noises produced by Arcangelo Sassolino’s installation resonates throughout the whole exhibition space creating an unnerving atmosphere.

The main, central room hosts two works by Djurberg: Once Removed on My Mother’s Side, and Of Course I am Working With Magic (2008). Observing the uneasiness of the audience sitting embarrassed on a bench placed in front of the screen, I wondered if the location was intentional. The room wasn’t crowded—individual visitors were visible and under scrutiny to the others. I realised that some people stood up the moment new visitors approached the bench to watch the video.

 Once Removed on My Mother’s Side (2008) tells the story of a young girl who is condemned to look after her sick mother who is forced to bed. The difference between the slender and fragile figure of the daughter and the obese and grotesque mother embodies the drama that they are playing. It’s a suffocated cry for help that shows through their caricatural corporality. The daughter will end up being crushed by the overblown corpulence of the mother in a symbolic representation of the conflicting relationship between mothers and daughters.

The exhibition space is haunted by the presence of a hut resembling to an archaic construction that hide the film Of Course I am Working With Magic which marks the beginning of a new phase in Djurberg’s career where she started to produce both installations and videos. The narrow space within the hut and the intimacy of the experience contrasts with the previous one. The audience cannot tell from the outside that a small format screen is placed in the inside of the construction. The video shows the distortion and disintegration of the female body. Anthropomorphic nature comes alive and aggresses the seemingly defenceless protagonist who in turn is transformed into a self-destructive monster.

The last two works by Djurberg presented in this exhibition are located in a smaller and more private room. Das Waldhäuschen (Small Hut in the Forest) is a surprising and confusing installation for the audience. It’s a child-size house with a chair placed in front of a screen from which it is possible to watch the video. It’s a cozy and protected structure that isolates the viewer from the rest. In Turn into Me a woman dies in a forest and her naked body starts to decompose as it is eaten away by worms that consume her flesh and her internal organs causing the body to lose its shape and exposing its innards which are transformed into organic matter and humus that the Earth can re-absorb. In an advanced stage of the decaying process, a raccoon and a mole appear, and their energy breathes new life into the figure. Here Djurberg creates an allegorical fable on the cyclical nature of life. She prompts us to reflect on nature’s life-giving, yet at the same time disturbing energy, using a depiction of the crude decaying process and the almost magical re-birth of a body as an image of nature’s ineluctable power.

CCC Strozzina presented a demanding path articulated into three different experiences of Djurberg’s art and vision. I’m surprised every time by her work. Djurberg, as artist, is like one of those first explorers who ventured the American West in the 19th century. She crawls into the crevasses of human existence, and fighting the darkness and light, she opens a passage for us to follow. Her work is alive and powerful, conceptually and visually striking, daring, extreme, and complex but able to speak to the core of us all in a completely personal and private way.

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Text Courtesy of Elisa Badii

Images Courtesy of the Zach Feuer Gallery 

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