DAVID ALTMEJD EXPLORES INFINITY, ETERNITY AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN HAUNTINGLY LIFELIKE YET FANTASTICALLY ABSTRACT SCULPTURES. TAMA LUNG VISITS HIM AT HIS NEW YORK STUDIO AHEAD OF HIS FIRST SOLO SHOW IN ASIA
David Altmejd’s studio lies behind a nondescript grey door next to a car-body shop on a quiet side street in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. The unassuming exterior is in stark contrast to the energy and activity inside the spacious, two-storey loft, a fact that just happens to mirror the sculptor’s approach to his art.
“I think that contrast is absolutely necessary in an object. If you want something to feel alive, for something actually to exist, it needs to contain opposites. It has to have a tension for energy to circulate inside it,” he says. “I like this idea of contrast creating a tension that creates an energy that starts circulating. I just feel like meaning comes with energy, you know? The object has to sort of be alive with energy for meaning to even start existing.”
The 44-year-old French-Canadian is walking me through the art work, a series of heads and plaster panels in various stages of completion, that White Cube is presenting at its Hong Kong gallery as well as at the city’s Art Basel fair. Altmejd has only recently taken on representation by White Cube, and The Vibrating Man is his first solo show in Asia. It also marks the artist’s first visit to the region, apart from a trip to Tokyo.
“My experience is basically North America and a small part of Europe, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how people react,” Altmejd says. “Because I have no idea what the reaction will be, it’s giving me more freedom and then I get really excited. I find myself in a place where I can’t really predict or control reactions, so I might as well be completely experimental.”
Altmejd, who grew up in Montreal and has been based in New York since graduate school, was always interested in art, but initially pursued a career as an evolutionary
biologist. The decade or so of study required, however, clashed with the budding artist’s true calling.
“I had this need to be creative; I couldn’t do anything else,” he says. “The study of sciences, you’re learning a specific language, a specific process, specific codes and it’s not until you finish your studies that you can do whatever you want. So I switched to art. It’s the encouragement of pure creativity. And I didn’t want to learn a language; I wanted to invent my own language.”
Altmejd started art school as a painter but switched to sculpture after a mandatory class in the medium. “I realised at that moment the object that exists in 3D space in the same way that a body does has potentially more power than anything else, than any other form of art, because it exists in the same space as the viewer. It almost breathes the same air,” he recalls.
“It feels like it has an interior, the same way a body has an interior that’s infinite. The layers, the history, the idea of transformation. Maybe that comes from my interest in evolutionary biology, but I have this fascination with the body as being the most extraordinary object in the universe – because of its potential, because of the fact that it’s infinite. Because of the fact that it contains a space that’s larger than its volume.”
It’s this idea that an object – and even a person – doesn’t have its own meaning but rather the potential of generating meaning that led Altmejd to use the human body and eventually the head as the basis for many of his pieces. He walks me over to one corner of the studio where a series of heads sit on individual blocks like guests standing around at a cocktail party. One has a flowing white beard and a column of smoke rising from a hole where its nose and eyes should be; another has two mouths, two noses and five eyes; while others’ features have multiplied even more to match the multitudes of cigarettes in their repeating fingers.
“I don’t know why there are so many smokers,” he says. “I’ve never even tried to smoke. Maybe it’s because I feel like smoking a cigarette in a certain way can symbolise a moment. There’s something in that moment that’s disconnected from time in general.”
Time, eternity and infinity are recurring themes in Altmejd’s work, whether the heads or his other sculptures and installations. “When I make an object, I’m always looking for infinity in a certain way. Infinity can be represented more visually, simply by using mirrors that reflect one another,” he says, pointing to a towering stack of mirrored cubes. “It can sort of be created, for example, through the accumulation of details. Some of the plexiglass box pieces I’ve made contain such a large number of details they feel like they’re never-ending.
“Also, the fact that infinity can be explored or created through the idea of transformation, that’s another thing I like about sculpture. The idea that the object feels or has the presence of something that’s continuously transforming.”
In the case of the panels he’s preparing for Hong Kong, Altmejd has taken this idea even further to the point where the object appears not only to be transforming but actually creating itself. “It contains the material and it contains the tools, which are the hands, so it’s sort reshaping itself. The hands are sort of taking material from one area and bringing it to another,” he explains. “I want it to be very intense here. I like the idea of the object struggling to raise its level of consciousness. As if there was consciousness in material, in matter, and it was actually trying to get out of that.”
In many ways, Altmejd’s work is a direct reflection of his own evolution as an artist and a person. “I used to make work and just wanted it to be me. Now I’m entering the studio and I want to feel like there’s a landscape, like I’m in the world and there’s all different sorts of people around me,” he says.
“I’m fascinated with this whole idea of consciousness right now. If I push it even more, I could say I’m nothing. Internally, I’m nothing. The only thing that I experience is the outside. So in a certain way there’s something to say about the outside being defining in one’s identity. So maybe this diverse landscape is closer to what I am than a basic self-portrait.”
Altmejd describes how his explorations into infinity and consciousness have led him down intriguing paths, whether looking at how ancient Egyptians thought about eternal life or discovering connections between his own understanding of existence and that of Buddhism.
“In the last two years I’ve become exponentially spiritual. I don’t know if it’s the work or the time in my life. Maybe I’ve reached a moment where I can almost feel the other dimensions. Somehow more and more I can understand how reality is just a sort of construction, in that truth is not what we think it is. It’s beyond,” he says. “I’m just opening up spaces in my head. It’s a really, really exciting moment for me.”
“WHEN I MAKE AN OBJECT, I’M ALWAYS LOOKING FOR INFINITY IN A CERTAIN WAY”