Biology, nature and evolution turned on their head

On the eve of two exhibitions in England, the Canadian artist David Altmejd discusses his fantastical creations

Montreal born, New York-based David Altmejd’s opulent, and highly disquieting sculpture has been attracting attention since the 2004 Whitney Biennial with his display of two bejewelled werewolf heads, installed in Perspex boxes in Central Park. But it was Altmejd’s labyrinthine installation in the Canadian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale with its kaleidoscopic fantasy of taxidermied beasts and a colossal fragmented figure of a crouching giant, all reflected and refracted in a maze of mirrors, that confirmed his international status. This month the UK is embracing Altmejd’s bizarre vision with two shows of his most recent work, one at Tate Liverpool as part of the Liverpool Biennial and the other in London at Stuart Shave/Modern Art.

The Art Newspaper: Your two huge giants (The Holes) fill the ground floor of Tate Liverpool. You’ve also shown a particular fondness for making werewolves. What draws you to these fairytale subjects?

David Altmejd: I always try to choose the most potentially symbolically interesting reference, but it’s very intuitive. I didn’t have any specific reasons to choose the werewolf, it just felt much more interesting than the human body or any other creature. It had more symbolic potential, it could open doors and start conversations.

TAN:?Your earlier werewolf heads were enclosed within mirrored boxes which both concealed and revealed them.

DA: I see the combination of display structure and the object that was displayed on it and in it, as a sort of organism. It was as if the werewolf heads were energy-generating objects, a bit like organs in a body, and these were hidden inside a bigger structure which acts like connecting elements in a nervous system. I liked the idea that the display could transform itself into a body.

TAN:?But with your giants it seems to be completely the opposite, it’s their bodies that have become the means of display, with all their shelves, nooks and niches.

DA: Yes, it’s just the reverse. When I got the idea it gave me a totally new perspective to my work. The giants in Liverpool are lying on platforms and the bodies are almost unidentifiable as they are transforming into trees, wire structures and crystal structures and plaster hands. So the bodies themselves end up creating a mini-environment.

TAN:?What are you showing at Stuart Shave/Modern Art?

DA: Instead of giants I have decided to show life-size figures. The giants were so big and architectural that they gave me the chance to lose myself inside of them; I could work on a little part of the thigh and forget that it was a body. But this time I thought it would be interesting to work on bodies that you could actually identify with, which would let me relate to them in a more intimate way. You can more easily imagine inhabiting a giant than you can imagine being it .

TAN: What kind of figures are they?

DA: I’ve brought back the werewolf which has been breaking up within my work. In Venice it was still there but it had almost totally disintegrated: the birds were actually using it as food, now it’s presented as a body which contains everything.

TAN: How will they look?

DA: Very hairy! They have holes and crystals that seem to be growing inside and wire structures are coming out and transforming themselves; the body is sort of morphing in a certain way.

TAN: In your work it is often unclear whether the structures are growing or decaying.

DA: I would say the decay becomes a sort of positive thing because it’s also a form of regeneration. I’ve been told that my work is really morbid but it’s not so much about death as life.

TAN: And also about exploring the boundaries between seduction and repulsion?

DA: I’m really interested in beauty, and to really experience beauty it has to be contrasted with something that is in opposition to it.

TAN: Your use of mirrors helps to highlight this tension between culture and nature.

DA: In the beginning I used mirrors because I was interested in displaying an object in such a way that the viewer wouldn’t be able to see it directly. But what I didn’t expect was that the periscope could also have a sort of kaleidoscope effect.

TAN: It also makes it difficult to see where reflection ends and reality begins.

DA: I really like the idea that the work is infinitely complex, that you always notice something that you didn’t the first time you saw it, that it feels like it’s growing and transforming as you walk around.

TAN: I read somewhere that you felt your sculptures should be approached with a mindset akin to watching a film.

DA: Or even like walking in nature and being able to see the landscape as a whole and then zooming in on a mushroom and being fascinated by the fact that things are infinitely complex. I started studying biology when I went to college and I’ve always been fascinated by it. I guess I tried to find a way in art to recreate the same fascination I have for biology, nature and evolution.

TAN:?Then there’s also the sense of high-end retail conjured up by the sparkly mirrored elements that often resemble display units.

DA: Yes I am also seduced by very specific things: the glittery stuff, the mirrors and the display and even fashion, just a little bit.

TAN: Is the installation of your work part of the creative process?

DA: Absolutely! I never finish a piece in the studio because the studio is messy. I love having the work unfinished in this clean gallery space and having a few days to work on a few details, it’s almost a luxury to be able to do this.

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