David Alt­mejd


Prestige Hong Kong - - CONTENTS -

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.”


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