An Interview with David Altmejd
Photo © David Altmejd, 2014
David Altmejd has said that he is interested in trying to make objects that feel alive. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his sculptures are brimming with energy: heads sprouting crystals, werewolves in metamorphosis, and plaster figures that seem to be shaping themselves.
Long interested in biology and the body, Altmejd has been consistently innovative throughout his career. His impressive range of work includes such majestic installations as The Index — Canada’s entry in the 2007 Venice Biennale — and intricate Plexiglas structures that have been described as reminiscent of “otherworldly terrariums.”
David Altmejd, The Builders (2005). © David Altmejd. Image courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Based in New York, Altmejd was born in Montreal in 1974. He studied visual arts at the Université du Québec à Montréal before obtaining an MFA from Columbia University. Winner of the Sobey Art Award in 2009, Altmejd is both celebrated at home and internationally renowned. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario; Guggenheim New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art; and the National Gallery of Canada, among other prestigious institutions.
Most recently, the first French retrospective of Altmejd’s work — an exhibition called Flux — opened at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. On the occasion of this milestone, NGC Magazine caught up with Altmejd to talk about Flux, his creative process, and what the future might hold.
NGC Magazine: Your exhibition at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris includes The Flux and the Puddle (2014), a work that has been described as your “most ambitious monumental sculpture.” What inspired you to create this sculpture, and to work on such a large scale? What is the significance of the title?
David Altmejd: With The Flux and the Puddle, it’s the second time I’ve made a piece in which I want to revisit everything I’ve ever made as a sculptor (the first time was with The Index). When I started to work on the piece, the idea was to build a gigantic Plexiglas box and use it as a stage for different characters from different periods of my work. I wanted to combine my early werewolves, some birdmen, and some recent bodybuilders, for example, and build a sort of operatic drama. I didn’t know what shape it would take, but I imagined war and sex. As I worked on the sculpture, everything in it became more and more fragmented and abstract. What interested me at this point was movement and flux, hence the title The Flux and the Puddle.
David Altmejd, The Flux and the Puddle (detail) , Plexiglas, quartz, gold, steel, plastic material and textiles, fluorescent lamps, polystyrene, polyurethane foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, resin, synthetic hair, clothing, leather shoes, thread, mirror, plaster, acrylic paint. Photo: James Ewing. © David Altmejd. Photo: courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
NGCM: At the same time, The Flux and The Puddle seems incredibly detailed and intricate. Could you tell us about some of the materials, objects, and figures that you chose to incorporate in the work?
DA: I tried to look back at all the materials, concepts, colors and themes that I have explored in my work since I started making sculpture.
NGCM: How would you characterize your creative process? How did you know when The Flux and The Puddle, for example, was ready to be shown?
DA: “Ready to be shown” is a nice way to talk about this. It’s better than “When do you know the piece is finished?” which I find sad. “Finished” implies the termination of development, death. I like “ready to be shown” because it suggests that the sculpture could keep on growing (even if it doesn’t), and therefore respects it as a living thing. I guess this answers the question?
NGCM: This exhibition is the first French retrospective of your work. Could you give us a sense of the range of work that visitors will encounter at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris?
DA: There are about 55 pieces. The oldest is from 2002. All the different types of works I’ve done are represented (heads, architectural, werewolf/mirror, giants, plaster figures, Plexi-boxes with chain and thread . . .). There are also eight new sculptures.
David Altmejd, Sarah Altmejd (2003), plaster, paint, styrofoam, synthetic hair, wire, chain, jewelry, glitter. Photo: Lance Brewer. © David Altmejd. Photo: courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
NGCM: I’m intrigued by one of the sculptures in the exhibition, called Sarah Altmejd (2003). It seems to have the power to enchant and disturb. Can you tell us a little about this piece?
DA: I made it after I graduated, when all of a sudden I found myself with zero resources (no studio, no fancy tools, no money). I decided to make the most powerful object I could think of. I sculpted a bust of the person I love the most, and dug an infinite-looking black hole where the face should be. It was an intense and profound experience for me. Making it was a little bit like being in front of a mirror and seeing nothing. Weirdly meditative.
Also, I was convinced that the only way of making something new in the world was to offer it a new direction. If I had rendered Sarah as a beautiful sparkly-eyed person, I would have re-created something that already exists, which is a waste. I pushed the object in a new direction so it would become completely new. I see this as completely positive.
I decided to install Sarah Altmejd as the first piece in the show because I wanted to start with something intense, and also because the black hole can be seen as a metaphor for nothingness. It’s like the Universe just before the Big Bang. I thought this was a perfect starting point.
David Altmejd, Untitled 5 (The Watchers) . © David Altmejd. Photo: Farzad Owrang. Image courtesy of The Brant Foundation Art Study Center
NGCM: In an interview you once did with the artist Cynthia Girard, you mentioned that there is so much in your own work that you have never seen, “like accidents and weird surprises.” How does your work continue to surprise you?
DA: My work is never preplanned. It grows organically as an accumulation of improvised gestures, mistakes, solutions to these mistakes . . . When I later look at it, there are a lot of surprises, things I did not expect, new material combinations, new energies. So in all of this I’m bound to find new ideas that excite me. I’ll isolate these ideas in the following piece I’ll work on, and give them the chance to develop.
NGCM: I understand that you recently served as one of the mentors for Les Contemporains, a documentary series focusing on six emerging artists. What was that experience like? What did you share with those emerging artists?
DA: I wanted them to think about intensity, about their power to make objects that exist intensely in the world. I realized that the best thing I could do was to encourage them to push their vision as much as possible.
David Altmejd, The Giant (2006), foam, epoxy clay, paint, fake hair, wood, glass, decorative acorns, taxidermy squirrels (3 fox squirrels and 4 gray squirrels). © David Altmejd. Photo: Andy Keate
NGCM: What are you currently working on or exploring?
DA: I started to hang sculptures upside-down in my studio. It feels like doors are opening to a new space, and I’m excited to see what’s in it.
Flux, the first French retrospective of the work of David Altmejd, is on view at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris until February 1, 2015. The exhibition then travels to Luxembourg’s Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM) from March 7 to May 31, 2015, before making a final stop at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal from June 11 to September 6, 2015.