artists & participants
Using lo-fi hand-made techniques, the artists in this Hammer Project experiment with various materials to create animated shorts about bizarre and enchanting characters. Swedish-born Nathalie Djurberg moulds clay figures and places them in charged and surreal scenarios; Brent Green, a self-taught animator from Pennsylvania, tells old imaginary tales using ink, transparency films, and live music tracks; and David Shrigley and Chris Shepherd explore the darker recesses of the human psyche using simple pen lines to illustrate a sordid and hilarious tale of a lost soul in search of his identity. Animations: Nathalie Djurberg, Brent Green, and David Shrigley & Chris Shepherd By Regine Basha
We seem to be living through a luscious blossoming of new animation. From the heights of international mainstream culture to the margins of a regional underground, animation practices and techniques have exploded and proliferated, appearing in such varied forms as Hollywood feature films, short independent films, TV sitcoms, music videos, contemporary artworks, and Internet Quicktimes. By and large, the term no longer carries specific meaning beyond describing a process—that is, to animate is to present or record something in the form of a sequence of moving still images. Thanks to relatively easy access to equipment and a prevailing do-it-yourself culture, animation makers are coming into the field from backgrounds in film, art, architecture, literature, music, and graphic design, and some are completely self-taught.
So why has animation become so popular? What does it do that's so special and appealing? In other words, what are its special powers? Certainly the comic potential is a given. The free license to transgress, transform, and transmogrify any person, place, or thing without any explanation has by now allowed for increasingly sophisticated levels of absurdity. Beyond the physical comedy of animation, narrative structure and character development can go in any direction or in all directions at once, piling reference upon reference, meaning over meaning. We've arrived at a point when a mass public has come to accept the validity of a good-natured talking sponge, a bath towel that gets stoned, and an evil dictator reincarnated as a baby, for instance. These may become the allegories, parables, subversive characters, or Greek tragedies of our time. Beneath what used to be recognized as a "dumbing down of our culture" could lie an elaborate narrative strategy that demands a sharpness of mind and eye and a newfound level of comprehension. Or it could just be a dumbing down of our culture.
The prevalence of absurdist and Dadaistic tendencies in the arts is usually proportionate to the level of cultural and political conservatism and religious fervor in the society at large. No doubt one needs the other for social relevance. Some animation practices take a punk-rock attitude, exhibiting disturbing, shocking, or anarchic images to subvert or mock conformism. Yet paradoxically, since animation is traditionally a non-arty medium, it has also been at the helm of a drive to return the artistic value and richness of handmade media such as collage, assemblage, clay sculpture, and charcoal drawing to art's discussion table. Alongside the quick advancement of slick digital animation techniques used by companies such as Pixar comes an insistence on the rough, quirky, and purposefully flawed image—a determination to leave the hand's trace in view. Perhaps it's a mode of pushing subjectivity and eccentricity through the homogenizing digital screen, or a desire to break the illusion—as when Bugs Bunny spoke back to his "maker" as he was being erased, revealing the hand of the animator (albeit in animation). Tactics such as artist William Kentridge's use of charcoal drawing and erasures to reflect on heroism and failure through both the medium and the narrative allow animation to comment on the limits and currency of sincerity and authenticity in art making.
Many new animation narratives—like the three works by Nathalie Djurberg, Brent Green, and David Shrigley & Chris Shepherd in the present exhibition—make use of these techniques to expose subconscious desire, anarchistic tendencies, entropic thoughts, and the grotesque to ultimately get closer to the rawness of being human.
Nathalie Djurberg works with the craft of claymation and brings her characters into new and provocative territories. Like their better-known mainstream counterparts Gumby and Pokey or Wallace and Gromit, Djurberg's figures are made from plasticine(1) and are shot with a stop-action technique, referencing the look of early "after-school special" programming. Like other popular animated or puppet shows of late—such as Wonder Showzen, for instance—Djurberg's work ridicules the shortcomings and deception implicit in the early children’s educational television programming that her generation consumed. Yet her work also relates to traditional adult theatrical acts like Punch and Judy, marionette plays, or even sock puppet acts, which often played out subversive dramas and confronted private fantasies in the safe territory of "play-acting."
Djurberg's films are set to the upbeat tone of Hans Berg's synth-pop musical accompaniments. She punctuates each scene with childishly drawn narration cards, yet the figurines and interiors are crafted with extreme care and attentiveness to costume and style, with elaborate period sets that appear to invoke midcentury European bourgeois life. Her figures flagrantly dramatize and overplay their emotions and actions so as to captivate us with the sheer physicality of the medium and the magic that it can do. Claymation, it turns out, is quite effective for flesh, blood, and sexual appeal.
With a playful style and innocent traditional technique, Djurberg is able to dig deep into the dark side of humanity and taboo subjects such as cruel familial power struggles, perverted impulses, and children's evil fantasies. Children appear especially precocious and unruly, while adults are often deviant and deceiving. Many of her narratives foreground animals: either they are savvy sexual beings or subjects of romantic and sexual fantasies, or they take on more nuanced human emotional states such as humility or possessiveness. In Selfloathing and humiliation, a man displays such disturbing submissiveness that he literally transforms himself into a dog. In There ain’t no pill, a romantic fox beckons a young wild-child girl to join him in the garden, but in the meantime a manipulative domestic cat usurps the scene. In Djurberg's hands, claymation becomes an expressionistic medium that is sinfully pleasurable to watch.
Hadacol Christmas begins with the words: "There's some people who think that Santa Claus cranks together Christmas with a gigantic golden wrench...that’s not altogether true." And so begins the loopy story of Brent Green's Santa Claus.
A short, dystopic tale, narrated by Green himself alongside live instrumentals by the band Califone, Hadacol Christmas depicts Mr. Claus as a poor, sickly Giacometti-like figure addicted to an over-the-counter cough syrup called Hadacol.(2) Hadacol, we are told, "sponsored a lot of Hank Williams radio shows" and renders Santa Claus in a perpetual state of malaise. In a desperate, tremulous but urgent voice, Green recounts Santa's everyday existence, telling of his ailments, his trials, and the suite of come-to-life hallucinations that inhabit his ramshackle world. Despite his melancholy, Claus is still an industrious and productive man, tinkering away with "outlandish machinery, little trinkets, and baubles." In Green's rendition, Claus is not a hero or a Grinch, but more of an existential outsider artist gearing up for his raucous sleigh ride. Created with rough sketches, torn kraft paper, bits of transparencies, masking tape, and fluffy cotton balls, the scenes move nervously, from cel to cel, with brilliant material ebb and flow. One may conclude that Green probably cut this epic tale on his kitchen table, allowing lint, dust, sticks, and even a dental X-ray to sift into the piece. To break the illusion, cel numbers appear scribbled at the edges of the sheets of glass, which are sometimes layered to create blurriness or the fog of snow and murky weather. We are aware of how this entire world could just blow away. Califone's Appalachian-infused music sets the tone for Hadacol Christmas as if it hails from a bygone era—a deeply remote America with roots in beguiling oral histories and tall tales. This world—though more poetic and tentative than, say, Tim Burton's (it's closest aesthetic kin)—twinkles with frail hope and the strange sweetness of human pathos.
David Shrigley & Chris Shepherd
David Shrigley & Chris Shepherd's Who I Am and What I Want brings us the daily life of the character Pete, who has chosen to leave "polite society" and live in the woods. Pete is determinedly antisocial—in the sense that his goal seems to be to decivilize himself completely and live a life of total freedom (to do whatever he wants). He is a walking untamed ego but still somewhat self-aware. He relishes introducing himself as part of the wilderness, as a purely natural being—"My name is mushroom, my name is toadstool, my name is muck"—and it helps that he, like the mushrooms around him, is just a line drawing. He admits to doing terrible things to small children, eating live animals, and abandoning all responsibility, though without guilt or shame.
Narrated in the first person with droll humor by Kevin Eldon, Pete comes across as naughty and amoral but never terribly demonic. He is, for us, an impish proxy exploring the dangerous edges of being human. Somehow we want him to continue on, to see what else he can do. In a lyrical spoken-word rant that ends the piece, Pete hurriedly lists and acts out all the things he desires to experience before he dies, including glorious transmutations and entropic flow: "I want to be fried in a pan with some butter and some garlic!" and "I want to come back as a ghost and dig up my own corpse!" Shrigley's signature doodles and line drawings animate Pete's most gruesome and blasphemous fantasies with the lightest, unchanged touch.(3) Pete's wanting it all in every shape or form brings our own unbridled wants and desires into sharper focus. Make no mistake though: this is no morality tale. Pete's character is as much about self-mockery as anything else. When describing his own work, Shrigley has said, "I would define it as amateurish and oddball, like the doodles of an autistic pre-pubescent."(4)
Notes (1) Plasticine is a claylike substance invented in 1897 and used for the first clay-animated film, A Sculptor's Rare Welsh Rarebit Nightmare, in 1908. It remained an obscure medium until the 1980s with Art Pokey’s Gumby. See "Claymation at PWC: History of Claymation," Prince of Wales College (2) Hadacol was an elixir with 12 percent alcohol content introduced in the 1940s, which claimed to cure a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, asthma, stomach ulcers, and impotence. See Taylor Jessen, "Fresh from the Festivals: January 2006's Reviews," Animation World Magazine, (3) Who I Am and What I Want is also a book of drawings by Shrigley. The film contains only some of the drawings from the book. (4) David Shrigley, in an interview from Argentinian Magazine, 2004,
Regine Basha is a curator and writer currently based in Austin, Texas, where she consults for Arthouse and Fluent~Collaborative.
mit Nathalie Djurberg, Brent Green, Chris Shepherd, David Shrigley