David Altmejd’s magnified Mitosis

by Doron Beuns

Our human imagination has brought forth figures like three headed dragons, two headed gods and four-armed goddesses. These figures are nonetheless no match for the figurative sculptures of Canadian artist David Altmejd. The appearances of his figures are far from wholesome and divine but do accomplish to invoke the supernatural by imagining physical mutations that are out of this world. On Altmejd’s imaginary planet we find that severed body parts and bodies retain a degree of vitality. These conditions subsequently cause bodies and body parts to spontaneously grow and multiply alongside their disintegration. This results in a vibrant, singular yet haunting stew of facial features, body parts, studio materials and various objects. Anything goes and anything grows within the oeuvre of David Altmejd. The artist provides further possibility where normal organic life is supposed to end.

David Altmejd © Spacing Out, 2017 – Polyurethane foam, extruded polystyrene, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, epoxy resin, steel, aqua-resin, fiberglass, cast glass, acrylic paint, glass eyes, fake cigarettes – 33 H x 15 W x 14 D inches, Courtesy the Artist
David Altmejd © Spacing Out, 2017 – Polyurethane foam, extruded polystyrene, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, epoxy resin, steel, aqua-resin, fiberglass, cast glass, acrylic paint, glass eyes, fake cigarettes – 33 H x 15 W x 14 D inches, Courtesy the Artist
David Altmejd © Spacing Out, 2017 – Polyurethane foam, extruded polystyrene, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, epoxy resin, steel, aqua-resin, fiberglass, cast glass, acrylic paint, glass eyes, fake cigarettes – 33 H x 15 W x 14 D inches, Courtesy the Artist

The tension between organic deformations and replication in David Altmejd’s sculptures makes it appear as if things will transform indefinitely. Each multiplied element in the sculpture thereby hints at a supernatural vitality that resides within it. This principle can be traced all the way back to Altmejd’s ‘First Werewolf’ piece from 1999 where enticing crystals grow from the potent corpse of a werewolf. By now, the artist elaborated the above principle through human subject as well. This is was recently demonstrated in his 2019 show titled ‘The vibrant man’ with white Cube Gallery in Hong Kong. The vast amount of fingers, eyes, mouths, crystals, cigarettes appear as if another one could pop up any given time. Here Altmejd accomplished to turn chunks of static material into something that appears to be in motion.

David Altmejd ©, Crystal System, 2019, Expanded polyurethane foam, resin, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, synthetic hair, acrylic paint, quartz, steel, coconut shell, glass eyes, paper, graphite, pearl mica flake and glass gemstone, Courtesy the Artist
David Altmejd ©, Crystal System, 2019, Expanded polyurethane foam, resin, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, synthetic hair, acrylic paint, quartz, steel, coconut shell, glass eyes, paper, graphite, pearl mica flake and glass gemstone, Courtesy the Artist

The surreal appearances of David Altmejd’s sculptures are nonetheless rooted in biological phenomena that are undeniably real. The proliferation, amalgamation and disintegration that we observe when looking at a sculpture by Altmejd does in fact reflect and magnify the mitosis and meiosis that takes place in the depths of our very own bodies. It is also at this molecular level that we as human beings connect to all other matter that exists beyond us. Altmejd’s works are in that sense predicated on a flat ontology, where living and non-living entities become symbiotic and replicate each other’s behaviour. A process in which internal incentive clashes with serendipity and results in singularity. The artist in that sense reconciles our interior and exterior world through his figures. They are hard wired from within to creatively engage with the environment on the outside.

David Altmejd © The Flux and the Puddle, 2014
Plexiglas, quartz, polystyrene, expandable foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, resin, synthetic hair, clothing, leather shoes, thread, mirror, plaster, acrylic paint, latex paint, metal wire, glass eyes, sequin, ceramic, synthetic flowers, synthetic branches, glue, gold, feathers, steel, coconuts, aqua resin, burlap, lighting system including fluorescent lights, Sharpie ink, wood, coffee grounds, polyurethane foam 
129 H x 252 W x 281 D inches
 Courtesy the Artist

Of course, the relations between interior and exterior in David Altmejd’s works are also deeply related to the human subconscious, not unlike Surrealism. One could nonetheless argue that Altmejd’s work is more reflective of thought or human subjectivity in general. Things unfold in a non-linear manner whilst being simultaneously rooted in a symbolic, causal or biological order of some kind. This is perhaps most visible in Altmejd’s larger installations like ‘Flux and the Puddle’ from 2014. This installation consists of a large transparent rectangular structure that facilitates a complex network of causation between a large variety of life-forms and objects. Every element presented within the structure is both a source that generates outcomes but also the outcome of another preceding source. The installation is one large ongoing work in progress that generates within its own confines and is infinite in its further possibility. This is without a doubt analogous to the activity of our brains, in their entirety. The subconscious par is merely the catalyst in this equation.

David Altmejd ©, Les noix, 2014 – steel, polystyrene, expandable foam, epoxy gel, epoxy clay, resin, acrylic paint, synthetic hair, glass eyes, coconut, synthetic flower, steel wire, 22k gold, amethyst, quartz, spray paint – 89 H x 30 W x 42 D inches, Courtesy the Artist

The power of David Altmejd’s works is that they remind us of ourselves in more than one way. The things that unfold in front of our eyes enable us to recognize our own vitality, adaptability and vulnerability. This is of importance because it is through these rudimentary properties that we relate to other forms of being, without looking for exact resemblance on the surface. This for example occurs when we enjoy a beautiful piece of nature or successfully raise a child to be its singular self. On the contrary we find that Altmejd’s works, like nature and children, have the power to unsettle us with their estranged appearance and behaviour. His figures could be considered abject bodies that break down the normative distinction between living subjects and dead objects. However, one might argue that experiencing unsettlement in relation to death and decay is another way of asserting one’s vitality. Altmejd in that sense encourages us to feel alive in front of his work and witness how sublime life itself can be. Every part of the cycle is at our disposal.

Doron Beuns