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PERTH — The Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) is nestled in the heart of a pedestrian mall that houses three of the city’s major museums and the state library. Skyscrapers loom overhead. A giant screen outside the museum plays video art amid the majestic gumtrees. Walking into the gallery, then, is all the more impactful for the contrast. It is dark, eerily so. An unknown depth is permeated by the lush tones of Hans Berg’s music and sound pieces, and penetrated by the pulsing light of neon elements scattered throughout the central installation, “Secret Garden” (2015). Then the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the enormous, drug-addled, pill-popping, psychedelic, stop-motion bunny rabbit bouncing on loop at one end of the main exhibition hall. The pastel and metallic acorns, caricatured flowers, and giant pills littering the floor sit perfectly between childhood innocence and dystopian psychopharmacological hallucination. The exhibition, a collaboration between Berg and artist Nathalie Djurberg, has been titled Secret Garden, and naturally, given all of its enchantment and ambience, immediate associations arise to Alice and the gardens of Wonderland. But there’s a lot more going on here.
In an interview with co-curator Louise Neri in the exhibition catalogue, Djurberg speaks about getting into stop-motion animation over a decade ago, as a way to free herself from the constrictions she felt working in painting and sculpture: “When I started animation, it allowed me to be detached from what I thought art should be.” The separation from more traditional modes of art-making allowed her to fight the tendencies towards self-censorship and trend following that are so visible in the art world today. “Although I was quite young at the time, I made a rule for myself that every time I felt like censoring myself, I had to override that feeling and make it, then choose afterwards whether I would show it or not,” says Djurberg. That exploratory spirit, irreverence, and pushing of boundaries — which many might call fearlessness, but in fact represent a conscious acceptance of risk — are all clearly visible in the duo’s earlier stop-motion animations, also on view at PICA.
Works like “The Parade of Rituals and Stereotypes” (2012) are a barrage of assaults on sexism and corruption, those deeply entrenched systematic abuses of power and depravity; in the piece, judges in a gallery salivate and ogle a parade of confused, wretched characters, mostly women in various stages of undress. Other works, like “Once Removed on my Mother’s Side” and “Putting Down the Prey” (both 2008), are even harder to watch. They are crude, sure, and shocking, because, as Djurberg explained, she forces herself not to shy away from any taboos, from the “savage, … Boschian and nightmarish.” They’re also surprisingly, delicately nuanced: the way that the wig-wearing judge — who has just finished anally raping a bikini-clad woman — struts back to his perch on a bench with hands on hips, positioned just so, to convey a sort of perverted satisfaction and fatigue after righteous exertion. These are minutely precise observations that have been translated into a grossly exaggerated and seemingly crude medium, and heightened by Berg’s sensitive and rich scores; the result is a surprisingly intimate confrontation with themes that most visitors would probably rather ignore. PICA Director Amy Barrett-Lennard refers to the “complicity of the spectator” in witnessing the more gruesome aspects of the films, and this is key in that it engenders a personal responsibility of sorts: a burden that the viewer has to carry. PICA is showing two hours’ worth of the duo’s impressive archive, and since entry is free, multiple visits to see the whole back catalogue are highly recommended (although it would have been useful for the gallery to install cinema-style seating, so viewers could watch them all in one sitting).
The recent work shows a visible shift towards a more polished, dreamlike aesthetic. The luscious cast resin tables that comprise the projection surfaces for the Fever Dreams (2014) series would look equally at home in a cutting-edge designer furniture exhibition (I know that might sound like an insult, but it isn’t meant as one — seriously, these pieces are beautiful). For long-time fans of the artists’ grittier aesthetic, this could be a tad disappointing, but the shift feels like part of an inevitable maturation of aesthetic and style, creating a closer marriage between Djurberg’s visual and material world and Berg’s trance-like sounds. Audiences are no longer held apart from the world the artists create for the screen but are instead surrounded by it, immersed within a space that — in the case of Fever Dreams, for example — is activated by a much stronger musical presence and by synchronized lighting that essentially creates two separate installations within the one space. When the light is on, the projections fade into the background and the light reflecting off the two mirrored tables is blinding; when it fades, the projections — composed of thousands of drawings that Djurberg says are an expression of childhood fever dreams, in which she was no longer sure of the dimensions of her own body — dominate.
Upstairs in the West End Gallery, the hypnotic vibes have been dialed all the way up. A 12-meter-long projection features abstract forms and lines that morph and intermingle on a black background — oil-painted frame-by-frame animations of what look like droplets of liquid or cells dividing, amoebas perhaps — and a line of black beanbags laid out for visitors. It’s 12 minutes of free-associative visuals and evocative, enveloping sound, in which the animated lines and colors seem to stand in relief against the all-encompassing darkness of the room and backdrop, creating an impression that the moving forms are actually floating in space. One becomes all eyes and ears as the body dissolves into space.
Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: The Secret Garden continues at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (Perth Cultural Centre, 51 James Street, Northbridge, Perth, Western Australia) through April 24.