From the Archives
Mixed media—that creative collision of materials rarefied and commonplace, refined and raw—is, one might say, something of a given in the contemporary art world. The Hirshhorn’s Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913-Present is a fascinating and provocative overview of this now-ubiquitous, once-incendiary mode of art making. Such an illuminating look back prompts one to see the present anew, and considered in the light of past work, present art making often acquires still-more intricate, interwoven layers of meaning.
Among the many contemporary artists who embrace a mixed-media approach, David Altmejd produces work of an especially evocative, mesmerizing force. Thus, in the spirit of revisiting the present in light of the past, we delve into the DS archives to bring you Margaret Zuckerman’s David Altmejd: Interior Labyrinth.
This article was first published on June 13, 2012 by Margaret Zuckerman.
An installation of what could be alien specimen in massive and intricately constructed tanks occupies the sun-soaked space in London’s sleek Stuart Shave Modern. The structures are made by Canadian-born sculptor, David Altmejd, (b.1974), an internationally acclaimed artist who is known for his frightening, strange and beautiful works – works that often involve decapitated werewolves, glittered kitsch, crystal caves, decomposed yeti, mirrors, mysticism and supernatural transformation. Being a particularly big fan of monsters – Altmejd’s figurative sculptures have always drawn me in. Mysterious and imbued with a supernatural energy, his past works have always evoked fear of the bodily grotesque paired with the seductive beauty of gruesome glamour. The artist has continued his shamanistic oeuvre and has again presented an exhibition at Stuart Shave that is exquisite, strange and delightfully puzzling. In walking around the large tanks, the perplexity evolves: the works are at once a landscape, a maze, a game and a creature. Those used to confronting half-decayed hairy and fanged monsters at Altmejd’s exhibitions may a bit disappointed in the boo factor. He transforms everyday materials into odd network of sculptures using thread, gold chains, Perspex, and bits of wire, and while there isn’t anything too scary, there is one thing that is hairy – coconuts.
In the first room, La gorge (2012): milky, multi-colored blobs pour out of the puzzling halved coconuts and through canals of a clear, labyrinthine, stepped structure. Set in a massive vitrine, the work looks like a frozen mechanical maze through which mystic substances flow. Like plasma – there is energy impregnated in this gluey waterfall of numinous fluids. The nonsensical coconut contains these colorful potions; the often-farcical object transformed into a mystic egg filled with a witch’s brew. The sprawling Perspex palace of cascading steps leads from an apex down towards low lying pool, then, perhaps suggesting this is an enclosed eco-system, the substance that pours from above is simultaneously pulled up again in cloud-like blobs. Is this work, called ‘the throat’, the mouth of a river, a flowing ravine or funnel of a machine? Walking around this strange space, one feels a sort of energetic succession in motion, one as elaborate, complex and nonsensical as Fischli and Weiss’s Rube Goldberg contraption in The Way Things Go (1987). Gold chains crown this river like chandeliers from above, tracing the flow of energy through the tank while liquids finally disappear through holes in the plinth below. This suggests the landscape is part of never-ending series of compartments beyond, through which fluid will continue on. Moving, seeping, globing these substances pour, some as red as blood.
In the second gallery, another large vitrine encloses a second form: an angelic, swan-like wisp made of a plethora of pulled pink threads. Each thread creates one line and curling striations made by a thousand come together into rounded forms. It is alien, ghost-like, taking over the space like an overgrown spider web. Walking around the enclosure, the threads create a shimmering effect and vibrate like a kinetic artwork. Much more organic in form and motion, the webs radiate from a center tube, and lines of threads seemingly contract and expand like musculature into a multi-layered transparent core. It is delicate, intricate and elegant, albeit a bit ominous in the dramatically lit and darkened room. Although Altmejd’s works seem like landscapes, mazes or machines, the name of the second work Le ventre, (the belly) reveals the underlying theme, that the tanks, in fact, encapsulate depictions of body parts, on display like a scientific specimen. The swan’s neck becomes the arch of the J-shaped stomach organ and the movement is revealed to be through that of a digestive tract. The whole of the exhibition shows parts of the interior labyrinth of an unfamiliar creature, tracing the biological system through various compartments – some machine like, some organic and all bizarre.
Considering the artist’s obsession with transformation and the flow of energies, it is no surprise he has dived into the depths of the bodily interior to investigate the unfathomable exchanges of energy and movements that occur within the corps etranger. Altmejd’s imagination is as inventive as an organic body is intricate. (As children, who of us haven’t pictured our own bodies as a factory assembly line, complete with workers who operate in a maze of organs?) Our interiors are often seemingly autonomous, driven by unseen or uncontrolled forces, daily body functions involuntarily or unconsciously piloted. Exposing the interior labyrinth of an unknown creature, Altmejd turns our gazes to our own viscera, making the viewer bodily aware and literally introspective.
The final room holds a work that, by comparison, seems quite empty. Upon entering the room, the work looks ominously like a vacant tank from which something extraterrestrial has just escaped, leaving only a trail of crushed coconut behind. Called L’Oeil (the eye) the work does hold a center point through which one gazes: a hollowed coconut, of course. The rest of the space is occupied only by a few slats of Perspex – and more coconut bits. As complex as the previous two works are, this final work stands as a bit of a mystery in its minimalism. Reading the title literally, we can assume that the empty space depicts an eye, perhaps the seemingly void clear fluid of an eyeball or the function of sight itself, rearranging broken bits of information into a single seamless form. If anything the final works makes the previous two ever more complex in its contrast and makes the coconut even more interesting in its artful scattering through the clean space.
Altmejd’s latest exhibition reminds me of one important thing about the artist. If he is a conjurer of all things mysterious, dark and supernatural, Altmejd is most certainly another thing: quite funny. In this case, the coconut – inherently as funny as the banana – becomes the continued curious object used throughout the exhibition to add an element of silliness to the elaborate constructions. The object associated with umbrella-topped cocktails, coconut bikinis and the friendly thumping sound when falling from a palm tree has been exalted into a sacred object – some unhatched egg of an unknown hairy creature, and amusingly so.
The artist’s work, as complex as it is, often elicits a laugh in its bizarre humor. Take, for instance, his past work: a naked ten-foot giant, decorated like a sparkling Christmas tree. Seemingly long since petrified after a lifetime of eating small children, The Giant (2006) now serves a much more gentle, charming purpose, to provide a home for a community of busy, bushy-tailed squirrels – nestled within the fuzzy confines of his massive limbs. A number of Altmejd’s famous decapitated monster heads are amusingly reminiscent in their camp 1980’s feel, as if the beautifully coiffed and bejeweled monsters were part of an ill-fated, glam rock band touring fantasia. Twisted and funny, dark and campy, Altmejd continues to source smiles from the utter strangeness of his work. From a chicken in a business suit to random inclusions of everyday objects, like a werewolf wearing a pair of tighty-whities, the frightening oddities are brought back home to a comically awkward banality.
His latest exhibition does showcase what Altmejd does best: seduction. He does it with comic strangeness, he does it with extravagance, he does it with disgust and he does it with complexity. Altmejd is a sci-fi, fairy tale raconteur who has taken his audience out of this world and back – back into the depths of unknown yet familiar bodies. Perhaps this interior journey is the strangest one yet, while certainly one of most alluring and exquisite at which to gaze.