Fetishizing Potential – David Altmejd and the power of materiality


Fetishizing Potential – David Altmejd and the power of materiality

MAGENTA MAGAZINE | By Benjamin Bruneau

Interview between David Altmejd and Benjamin Bruneau

Energy, potential, infinity, evolution: the words David Altmejd uses to describe his work have multiple valences, from the analytic and scientific to the psychedelic or spiritual. The intricacy of the New York-based, Montréalais artist’s practice is evidenced in its expansive production, with layers upon layers of meticulously accumulated objects bewilderingly arrayed. Alternately precious and profane, humble and extravagant, Altmejd’s sculptures contain whole worlds, each with their own peculiar ecologies, philosophies and physical laws. Yet for all their complexity, his works speak directly and profoundly to the senses, rendering them exceptionally legible to audiences of all stripes.

Altmejd has exhibited widely in North America and Europe, and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2007. His first retrospective, Flux, has appeared at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris to the Mudam in Luxembourg City. Montreal-based writer (and Magenta’s Reviews Editor) Benjamin Bruneau interviewed the artist earlier this spring in advance of the retrospective coming to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in June. Here, they talk about how spaces affect art, art affects bodies and the artist’s exploration of Instagram.

Benjamin Bruneau (BB): How do you feel about your how your work has inhabited the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and then Mudam in Luxembourg City? They seem like different shows entirely.

David Altmejd (DA): It’s so interesting how the venue’s architecture determines how the work is presented. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has a very linear space, made of long hallways and narrowish rooms, one after the other. We had no choice but to install the work in a linear way, one sculpture after another, so the installation ended up being a story. It’s an odd space, which I liked. It’s very complicated. I was a little nervous, because France has such a strong intellectual art history. The North American perspective is so different, because it’s obsessed with the present—what’s happening right now. Most of the time, when my sculpture is exhibited here, I want to make sure that it exists intensely in the now. I was concerned that in Paris, in a history-obsessed culture, my work, which is not made from that space, wouldn’t live the same way. But, seeing my work in that context, and seeing that it functions well and speaks well in that context, was very meaningful for me.

At MUDAM, the work is installed either in enormous atrium spaces blasted with natural light, or in super-controlled galleries. The atrium light makes the work look like actors in an overwhelmingly bright landscape, in a good way. The controlled and contained gallery spaces let the viewer relate super-intimately with each sculpture. So, there’s the great outdoors in which you feel very small, and then there’s the intimate bedroom where you focus on every square inch of your lover.

The show in London was a show of just heads, and that required a lot of production, but it’s intimate work, on a small scale. For me, it’s like drawing — I don’t really think of the head in a conceptual way, but more like a frame where I can experiment with different textures and colours.

BB: And now you’ve begun doubling them, making a head and then turning them upside down and rebuilding them. A lot of your work seems to have a significant amount of symmetry.

DA: I have different ideas about it, but symmetry is a simple way of making chaos look ordered. Sampling a bit of chaos and repeating its mirrored image makes it look like an ordered system. But, symmetry also makes reference to the body, and it also makes reference to a kind of sacred, almost Catholic visual system. The cathedral, the crucifix, it’s all symmetrical. It’s a system of imagery that contains a lot of power, and I’m very attracted to that aspect of symmetry, as well.

BB: You’ve worked on very large projects like The Index and The Flux and Puddle, and very small ones. In what ways does scale change your work? How does it affect your concerns, your intent? Is scale important to you?

DA: I don’t really consider scale as being an important characteristic in an object. Objects of any size have the potential of containing infinity, and that’s what I am truly interested in. It’s really important that every time I make a piece, whatever the scale, it has to have a feeling of complexity. It has to contain infinity. So, a head would not just be a small section of a larger piece. In my mind, it functions the same way as a larger piece. The biggest difference between a small sculpture and a large one is that the small sculpture is made from the outside and the larger one is made from the inside. In that way “large” is just “small” turned inside out.

BB: You’ve said that some of the most important work you’ve made, like The Index, The Flux and Puddle or your first werewolf pieces were so big that they took over your studio — that you were working on them but also in them. In taking over the studio and becoming the studio, do the works themselves become centres of production?

DA: I think so. I’ve always thought of them as the producing energy. All the energy that comes from making a work from the inside is recorded, in a certain way, in the object. The object still contains that energy.

BB: I’ve certainly always felt as though they’re producing affect or emotion. It reminds me of Iain Banks’ novel The Wasp Factory, where this boy builds a barbaric machine to predict the future. He feeds wasps into the machine, and the path they take through its innards affects how the future unfolds. The more time I spend with your work, the more I start to feel like those wasps — depending on where I go, I come out feeling completely different ways.

DA: I really like that potential. I’m very interested in seeing the work as a machine that can produce things, but I’m not interested in what it makes. I like knowing that the work will be able to speak, and that it has its own intelligence, but I’m not interested in what it says, or what it generates. I really like the idea of the sculpture not simply being there to communicate something that already exists, but rather producing everything…

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Work: David Almejd: Installation view of the FLUX exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris (2014).
Photo: ©Pierre Antoine