'The Parade' at the Walker is an uncomfortably human flock of birds

"The Parade"
Nathalie Djurberg has been working on "The Parade" with composer Hans Berg for almost two years in their Berlin studio before bringing it to the Walker.
Photo courtesy Walker Art Center

Many of us feel compelled to assign human characteristics to the wildlife around us. Now, a Swedish sculptor visiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has taken this almost to extremes, producing a gigantic and uncomfortably human flock of birds.

Nathalie Djurberg has been working on "The Parade" with composer Hans Berg for almost two years in their Berlin studio before bringing it to the Walker. She'll discuss the work at an artist talk tonight as the show opens at the Walker Art Center. She says she and Berg are not sure how Americans will react to the exhibit.

Sitting a few feet from the Walker Art Center Gallery jammed with the 83 bird sculptures in "The Parade," she appears to be more in an environment than a show. Atmospheric music fills the room, interspersed with what might be nature sounds. The birds are so brightly colored, it's overwhelming at first. Each is intricately textured, and ripe for interpretation.

"When I was starting doing the sculptures, the more I looked at birds, and the more I looked at their behavior, some of their behavior so resembled human behavior and emotions," she says.

Some of the birds strut with pride, others bicker and fight. There are so many of them that Walker curator Eric Crosby finds them kind of intimidating.

"I mean the idea of the flock as a social group is that it has its own kind of consciousness, right?" he says. "One that is not about the individuals own ideas but about a collective that may bully and pester individuals, that may do violence to others. I think that's a theme that's running through the whole exhibition."

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But remember these are sculptures, built from scraps of cloth and wire, and splashed with the paint still engrained in Natalie Djurberg's fingernails.

The music by composer Berg that accompanies "The Parade" adds to the disquieting atmosphere.

Berg wrote and performed the sound tracks for five stop-motion animations she created for "The Parade." The films run on the gallery walls above the birds. Berg describes the five musical scores as the glue which holds the show together. "And they are synchronized, so they create like one master sound track for the whole installation," he says.

Even so, the experience will change depending on where a visitor stands in the gallery.

"So when you are coming up to one film you will hear that sound track, but the other one will of course still play, but more in the background," he continues.

The films are quite disturbing. Djurberg says she just started making them and they developed almost like dreams. Animals and humans made of brightly colored modeling clay attack one another, producing huge amounts of gore. But the blood isn't red, it's yellow and blue, more Jackson Pollock than Stephen King. But what does it mean? "There's not a complete story told, and it's more like archetypical situations," says Berg. "So the viewer has to fill so much in by themselves."

Some people may see biblical references in the film as a naked woman wrestles snakes, or maybe eastern European folk tales as a trio of babushkas pluck a chicken. There are even a couple men in bird masks with knives. Comedia del Arte figures perhaps? Or maybe they are colonialists. Whoever they are, they are nasty and cruel. "To show something really beautiful, you have to put it in [contrast] with something not so beautiful," says Djurberg.

However they interpret the work, Djurberg hopes visitors find "The Parade" thought provoking and engaging. "I think if someone really gets something out of it, that is something you are really happy about, or even if someone will get really angry, you can be OK with that too," she says. "If it would leave no trace at all that's a sad thing."

Nearby, the birds wait.