Taking in a Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg exhibition feels like touring the psychic netherworld, a place as unsettling for its familiarity as for its strangeness. The artists, born in Sweden and based in Berlin, have collaborated for nearly 20 years, Djurberg making sculptures, installations, and stop-motion animations, and Berg providing soundtracks to the films. In “A Pancake Moon,” at Tanya Bonakdar in Los Angeles, the artists summon visitors through the seductive use of all their chosen media into a darkly fantastical realm webbed with potential interpretive paths.
A 6-minute looped animation that plays in the farthest room anchors the show’s narrative; most of the sculptural pieces derive from or relate to it. Djurberg shaped the figures and scenic elements from clay, silicone, and other materials, pressing, pushing, and pinching their rugged surfaces into being. An exception is the main character, who first appears as an anthropomorphized egg with dabbed-on facial features, spindly arms and legs, and curvaceous buttocks. The egg prances balletically in a clearing in the woods, to the lyrical accompaniment of a solo flute. It seems to be taking private delight in its own purity and perfection, proclaiming, via handwritten speech bubbles affixed provisionally to the side of its face, “I’m a riddle… a promise… an adventure.” Also, a meal. Bass notes signal danger as two creatures emerge from the shadowy trees and eye the egg with hunger and lust. One, boar-like, licks its chops with a long, lascivious tongue; the other, a gator-wolf in a white undershirt, snaps open and shut its razor-toothed jaw.
Djurberg doesn’t assign gender to the characters, but a reflexive read of the egg as a vulnerable young female and the predators as seasoned males held as the story progressed. Evading the threatening beasts, the egg transforms into another traditionally feminine symbol, a moon, round and dimpled with craters, and rises in the air to the strums of a harp. Shortly, however, its surface turns pasty and its form bloats and distends. It sinks to the ground and lands there, a deflated pancake that the boar dismisses. In the span of 6 minutes, the egg zips through its stages, from fresh, delicate, desirable, fertile, and confident to tough-skinned, used-up, and abject—the same sorry arc assigned to females by a consumerist, beauty-obsessed male gaze. The animation closes with a spark of renewal: an egg (this time with no limbs, and perhaps free also of the human baggage they imply) rests in the clearing, gleaming with the prospect of new life. Whether interpreted as a metaphor for a woman’s life or, as the press release suggests, a response to Djurberg’s experience of motherhood, the film touches a raw nerve and invokes a host of primal states: vulnerability, innocence, fear, aggression, pride, shame.
The large adjacent gallery contains six sculpted moons, each several feet in diameter and fashioned of Styrofoam, silicone, wire, polymer clay, glass, resin, epoxy putty, paint, and other materials, and each in a state of distress: crushed by a rock, choking on a candy cane. Also on view is One Lost Egg, a Humpty Dumpty–like character splayed helplessly on its back like an overturned bug. From the surrounding walls, sculpted branches poke into the space, sprouting dazzling mushrooms and a fantasia of floppy-petaled, syrupy-hued “night flowers.” At either end of the gallery, composite figures made from faux branches sit on the floor. Thin Wood Man and Thick Wood Man each sport a daunting woody—a corny visual pun that literalizes the animation’s allusion to the hazards of a vivified forest to a vulnerable wanderer.
Despite all its elements, this installation doesn’t quite muster a convincing sense of immersion or integration. It only hints at an evocative environment, and offers characters more dumbly cartoonish than pathetic. The animated film delivers a more visceral charge, in part because it subverts slicker, commercial applications of Claymation, but neither component of the show does much to overturn or challenge a classic gendered narrative that leaves its feminized protagonists without effective agency. The artists’ ambivalence is, in itself, a provocation. Acceding to the terms of the archetypal tale left me queasy, but navigating toward a different, more encouraging reading felt an untenable stretch.
An additional group of botanical sculptures rounds out the show, some wall-mounted, some resting on the floor. These patches of profuse, colorful growth—lilac fungi!—suggest Dutch floral still lifes gone rogue. A possible moral is nested coyly in their collective title: The Mess I’ve Made. Djurberg’s maximalist hand is wonderfully evident here, and there’s a playful chaos at work, so the words might just be casual self-deprecation. But given the artists’ long-standing exploration of the creepy appetites and violent impulses tainting life on earth, perhaps the title acts as the thought bubble of another, overarching creator.