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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 4 December 2009

David Altmejd, Sobey Award Winner: Unnatural Selection

by Crystal Chan / December 1, 2009

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When David Altmejd first arrived at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), he was set on studying Biology. This seemed like a natural path for someone who spent hours as a child lovingly combing the forest for rocks and mushrooms and loved studying the theory of evolution. But as his now internationally acclaimed artwork reveals, Altmejd is about bringing together apparent opposites. His creations, equal parts installation and sculpture, capture forms evolving between two states: man and animal, dead and alive, machine and organism, fantasy and science, myth and fact. For Altmejd, art isn’t as antithetical a choice to science as it might seem: Ditch the left-brain versus right-brain binary, claims the 35-year-old Montreal native. After all, through his art, Altmejd explores Charles Darwin’s theories every day.

From Science to Award-winning Art

In 1998 Altmejd graduated with a BFA from UQAM. There, his work caught the eye of UQAM Gallery’s director, Louise Déry. “It became my goal to promote his work,” says Déry. “When he began to be successful in the US, his works were not yet available in Canada, and he was considered an American by some! I had to do something.” Altmejd started gaining attention in New York while getting his M.F.A. at Columbia University. Vanessa Beecroft started dropping by his studio, and Matthew Barney liked the young artist’s style. Within two years, Altmejd was shown at the 2003 Instanbul Biennial, and the year after he was included in the Whitney Biennial of American Art. Finally, for the 2007 Venice Biennale, Altmejd re-embraced his Canadian roots. Although he eschews the idea that his work is inherently Canadian, Altmejd does see “Canadian connections”: trees, pines, squirrels and Canadian birds figure prominently. With Déry as his curator and Montreal’s DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art as the exclusive sponsor, Altmejd became the youngest Canadian in the history of the award and one of the youngest artists ever to represent their country at the prestigious Biennale. Déry then published two catalogue-books on the sculptor, organized a Canadian show, and this year championed the artist as the panel’s Quebec judge for the 2009 Sobey Art Award, Canada’s premiere contemporary art prize. Altmejd won the $50,000 prize on October 15.

“His work is really eye-catching,” says an enthusiastic Sarah Fillmore, Curator of the Award and Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS). “It’s beautiful and monumental. But it’s also really smart work. The curators were taken with David’s ability to articulate a vision in a succinct way. He’s able to make the viewer feel the energy and the excitement, the hope and the transformative qualities, that he brings to his sculpture.”

Less than 10 years after graduating from Columbia, Altmejd’s is frequently exhibited internationally and he has permanent works at the Guggenheim, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Hessel Museum of Art, and Vanhaerents Art Collection in Brussels, among others.

The Artist as Dr. Frankenstein

Science is a significant inspiration for Altmejd, but so is science fiction. He was absorbed by such films as The Neverending Story, Return from Witch Mountain, and his personal favourite, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. These tales and their weird, kitschy visuals are his “obvious” inspirations. His work, often classified as part of the ‘neo-gothic’ or ‘modern-gothic’ school (most famously by art critic Jerry Saltz), makes frequent reference to Gothic monsters: Altmejd has called Dr. Frankenstein’s cyborg monster the “ultimate sculpture,” and his most famous series features werewolves. Such half-human myths potently embody Das Unheimliche—the Freudian Uncanny—a concept Altmejd finds intriguing. Many of his objects are human and robot or human and animal at the same time; thus viewers are at first invited to relate to the pieces as human figures, but then realize they are also repulsive freaks. If the sculptures had more abstract rather than human-like shapes, Altmejd points out, they would not induce the same reaction. In his works, human forms and paraphenalia like jewelry, hair, clothing, and shoes intermingle with animal and plant parts as well as steel, plastic, and glass.

A good example of this human/non-human hybrid is “The Settler.” From Altmejd’s werewolf series, it was exhibited at the AGNS as part of the Sobey Award process. In the work, an eruption in the figure seems to be a sign of decay and death. Yet Fillmore explains that the crystalline forms taking over the “beautiful, haunting figure actually embody the idea of growth and change. Over a very long period, crystal still continues to grow. So he’s used that as a symbol that change seems to take a long time but it is moving and growing.” This visual metaphor brings evolutionary biology to mind, but also art history. Sculpture has long since been described as the uncanny phenomenon of frozen movement. Altmejd’s sculptures give the sense that although they should be unmoving tableaux, their organic figures and parts are slowly evolving.

Body Artistik

Two of Altmejd’s favourite contemporary artists are Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois. Smith, well known for her reconstructions of the female form, and Bourgeois, whose famous pieces include large-scale spider figures (two of which are in Ottawa and Toronto), share with Altmejd a fascination for the architecture of the body. Altmejd remarks that one of the reasons he loves sculpture is that the medium, unlike painting and photography, takes up space. This fascination for evoking bodies has led to werewolf figures but also business suit-clad mannequins with birds’ heads (“The Index,” 2007), a series of Giants, and a set of statues made from very different media displayed at the Andrea Rosen Gallery. The bodies are often created with materials and shapes associated with buildings, such as a statue made entirely of glass, which is as evocative of a skyscraper as a human body. And the Giants especially allow Altmejd, through their size, to punctuate the work with cavities, tunnels, and rooms that turn them into ‘human’ houses. “His large sculptures,” says Déry, “are like architecture, bodies that welcome us to enter.”

The way Altmejd relates his work to art history tropes—and then subverts them—is one of the most satisfying aspects of his work; his creation of busts, statues, and classic visual motifs such as The Lovers give away his formal training but there’s nothing staid about his style. He is unfailingly creative in presenting these traditional forms. Plaster casts of his hands appear by the dozens in works including The Spiderman, The Center, and YOU, acting as a tongue-in-cheek reminder that he’s fully aware that his postmodern quotations of old forms bring attention back to the intentions of the artist, in contrast to the ‘simpler’ shapes of modernist sculptures, for example, which attempt to remove the presence of the artist from the viewing experience.

His use of unconventional materials is what often puts a spin on more classical interpretations of the human form. Recurring materials include mirrors, chains, fur, hair, and crystal. Interestingly, Altmejd’s first attempt at incorporating these materials was born from something more akin to a science experiment than divine artistic inspiration. “I needed to let the viewer see an object that was hidden inside a box,” explains Altmejd. “I used a mirror as a sort of periscope that would enable the viewer to see it. So in my next pieces, mirrors were used not only for practical reasons, but also for visual effect, their capacity for fragmenting things, like a kaleidoscope, for incorporating the viewer inside the sculpture through reflection.” Other objects such as gold chains entered his visual lexicon in much the same way. As Altmejd plays with them, they become laden with artistic signification. Mirrors, for example, begin to force literal reflection from the audience and also reference the classic signifier of Altmejd’s beloved Freudian ‘uncanny’: the doubled self, the finding of another version of yourself.

Still Life, Nature Morte

Altmejd finds contrast key to expression: Beauty needs the beast, growth needs decay. “I feel like objects really exist when they contain opposing sides,” Altmejd says. “In an electric circuit, there need to be a positive and a negative. I think contrast creates a tension that generates energy, making the object feel like it exists more intensely.”

“When I choose materials,” he continues, “I am really interested in the tension created when they are combined; for example, quartz crystals and a hairy carcass. I like the contrast between the seductive ‘glitteriness’ of mirrors and how dangerously sharp they are. I like the opposition between the real world and the world on the other side of the mirror, the real versus the fake. Same thing for references, like the juxtapositions of life and death, the violent monster depicted in a state of vulnerability, dead and decaying in a delicate effeminate pose. Or how fantasy references such as werewolves, giants, crystals, all contrast with the real physicality of the sculpture—that it’s just a big heavy object that exists in real space.”

Take one of Altmejd’s two Venice Biennale pieces, “The Index,” currently housed at the AGO. The piece challenges the idea of scientific indexing, the act of neat zoological classification, by presenting mystical figures that are jumbles of different animals and humans that defy such classification. Similarly, Altmejd presents birds, crystals and mirrors, typically connected to beauty and femininity, in grotesque and violent formations. The index (with a nod here to Jorge Luis Borges, as revealed by the artist) is certainly severed from what it ‘should’ signify.

“What really inspires me is nature, biology, how living things reproduce, transform, grow,” claims Altmejd. “I like to use nature as a model for making art, because I want my art to exist intensely in this world—in the same space as me, not in a space of representation in which it would only be ‘about’ something. I don’t want my art to be ‘about’ something. I want it to ‘be’ something.”

Altmejd’s taxidermy-like works are certainly similar in many ways to macabre science museum figures. “His vision,” according to Fillmore, “is very timely. He’s really speaking about things and ideas that we’re all struggling with. He shows a chaotic aspect of the world, and his art is a way to bring issues like cloning, gene farming, etc., to the table.”

Ultimately, the connection between nature and his art is most strongly embodied for him by his artistic process. “I like the idea that I could work on a sculpture forever, adding layers, making holes, building little worlds in these holes,” Altmejd says. “So I see the sculpture functioning like nature, which is always in transformation. A piece never feels complete,’ but it never feels incomplete either.”

“I usually start with a vague general idea, but very clear ideas about details,” he continues. “I get very excited about the combination of materials, of colours, a dragonfly wing, orifices, how thread can be used to create three-dimensional patterns... small and delicate things. It’s the need to see these little details exist that drives me to start making a sculpture. The sculpture as a whole is somehow a pretext to explore these little things. The process of building the sculpture is very organic. Every step dictates the next. At the end, the resulting sculpture is very different than what I expected. I like the idea that my art transforms naturally. I like the idea of history, the accumulation of layers. I think history makes objects richer. As my practice gets older, it will accumulate layers, and ideas and materials. It will have more and more baggage and history.”

David Altmejd shows next at:
» Galerie de l’UQAM (Montreal) February
» Xavier Hufkens Gallery (Brussels), April
For more information on the Sobey Award, visit www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca. Next year’s award exhibit will be presented at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal.

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