On David Altmejd

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Supernatural figures and mythical structures have come to predominate in many streams of Canadian art. This takes the form of everything from sheer pastiche to a systematized metaphor for the country’s socio-politcal situation. David Altmejd has carved a rather lucrative career out of re-inventing the myth of the werewolf and other hybrid monsters, inflecting it with hints of glamour, queerness and science gone awry. What differentiates Altmejd the most from his compatriots’ frequent interest in creatures is that his eviscerated animals and hybrids are empty of pathos and, often literally, of content. But they are not just meat in opposition to the mind of the scientist/aesthete who they are often found facing, for the latter are themselves just animals and, therefore, just as empty.

Superficially, Altmejd’s sculptures function like totemic poles, lowered to their base and vivisected – opened up for audience projection. But this is only half of what he does. The ‘organisms’, as he insists on calling them, undertake a completely authoritarian programme of design, replete with its own exhaust valves. Loup Garou, who once haunted the folklore of Quebec, can be understood as a symbol of old Canada, suffering from an infested wound that seemed impossible to heal and drifting in the wilderness. The new, technocratic Canada that came to be established through the Depression and the second world war with the rise of urbanity and the steady erosion of the country’s peasant culture, attempted to shield itself from this wound. This version of modern Canada had one eye on the international market and the other searching for a way to deny the finality of death: reproduction and immortality. All of this comes to the fore in a style that mines the baroque and mimes the minimal, re-presenting it all like the decor for a highfalutin restaurant.

Man is a heap, as Samuel Butler would say (and as biology would prove), but to be human is to be an organism, which is not a heap but rather a tangential body. The heap’s nature cannot be reproduced and is that which cannot reproduce. The heap, although life may sprout upon on it, possesses no life. The butchered werewolves of Altmejd become heaps and these heaps serve as the airport for transformations, one of which is the City, embodied in his exotic crystal concoctions.

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In Altmejd the heaps are laid out in mock scientific manner. The scientist figures who populate his tableaux may be animals or birds (or allusions to the mysterious bird’s head Haggadah illustrations of the middle ages and their strange melding of divergent forms of iconicity). Then again, his animals may be little more than fashion victims – conspicuous bling is rarely far away in his little theatre. Allegorically, you could read them this way: in attempting to become a wolf while becoming a human, the creature winds up aborted half way between. Providing a field of material wealth for extraction, they are then striated and cautiously stripped of resources, aspect by aspect, as an aesthetically idealized condominium blooms from their corpse, preserving it in a kind of endless torture. No screams are heard.

The issue of the werewolf was once taken up by Saint Augustine because it posed the problem of metamorphoses, something which has always bothered Christians in particular. Only God can transform matter, all else is devilish trickery. To accept such trickery as truth is to believe that Evil can triumph over God. In order to downplay the possibility of changing one form for another, Augustine put it down to a delusion, that is, to a phantasm. It is this same phantasm that would later be recast by both Lyotard and Klossowski as the flux of capital. Simon Magus becomes a painted whore. Capital, the incorporeal transformer, can turn shit into gold and raise diamonds above the wealth of water. In this respect, the lunacy of seeking riches is equivalent to that of seeking physical transformation, or at least its counterfeit.

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There is little tangible presence of viscera, blood, shit or saliva in Altmejd’s works. All of that would offend the spiritualization that the works suggest. Sometimes there’s a puddle of cum, but it is cum as the pool of Narcissus. Cum is tricky because it is a more glamorous waste than shit, more tied to sex. And, in the case of Altmejd, as producer and product, it is tied to the sanctification of homoerotic expenditure, the commodification of which has become so sacred to the secular state.

As has been the case since Augustine, the urban represents the spiritual. The City simultaneously rises from the repression and exploitation of the animal. Paxton’s famous Crystal Palace of the London Great Exhibition of 1851, its celebration of order, progress and reason was the source of enormous irritation for Dostoevski, Particularly, his man from the mousehole (the underground), who regarded it as a manifestation of the most self-deluding and petulant aspects of modernity. While reminiscent of a green house or the Crystal Palace, just as often Altmejd’s crystal palaces suggest the skeletal structures that the Doozer drones were forever constructing, without much success, on Fraggle Rock.

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Eviscerated and encased within this crystal structure, his werewolves ultimately cease to be werewolves. The werewolf has no present. It is always in the past and future simultaneously but not synthetically. This is what separates it from both brute humanity and animality. There is no space for becoming in Altmejd’s sculptures, nor even the time for vivisection. Trapped without the power of oscillation and frozen in space, these creatures are striated and used as an excavation space, their energy and assets being stripped out of them from within as the bones of an urban society rise out of them. This new space, which explicitly functions as a scaffolding for the voyeurism of the viewer, makes explicit the function of the viewer as parasite in the deadness of the present.

As Mark Cheetham, following Deleuze and Guattari, states, the crystal can “offer the idea of all existence as a continuum rather than divided strictly between organic and inorganic matter…”ii However, Cheetham’s article, a brief survey of the crystal in certain art works, doesn’t tease open the problems festering here, even though they seem to be quite evident to Altmejd. For his part, Altmejd doesn’t get beyond the life and death divide, in fact, he insists on it, even if his work doesn’t entirely co-operate with his intentions. Unlike crystals, which flatten the interior and exterior on a single expanding plane, Altmejd’s work always capitalizes on an ornamented containment that purchases the illusion of expansion. There is little of the schizophrenic and a great deal of paranoid mania in his work, which perpetually invents an illusory outside to itself in order to further refine the skin. When he claims that his works do not contain ‘rotting’ but rather ‘crystallizing’ he is saying that they become indigestible, but assimilated into the circuit of signification: gallstones as jewels. “Instead of rotting,” Altmejd asserts, “the characters in my work are crystallizing. This makes the narratives of the pieces move towards life rather than death.”iii

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Not content with animal to animal, organism to organism transmutations, however, Altmejd makes corporeal the fundamental creative energies that cross borders between animate and inanimate matter. “What I am interested in making are sculptures not installations,” he has claimed. “I like it when my sculptures are like self-contained organisms.” While his crystals are dynamic, they are also, to recall Schopenhauer’s phrase, “the corpse of that momentary life” that they seem to have both created and terminated.iv Cheetham never thinks through this abortion, the same abortion that offers Louise Dery the chance to insist on the present-groundedness of Altmejd’s work. But it seems to me that it is the attempt to think through the abortion that gives the work its merit, as far as it goes, and which solidifies the union of glamour and parasitism. It also goes someway to explain the other figure to come to dominance in his iconography: the angel. His angelic creatures, half-way between human and bird, are explicitly cast as a heaped up amalgam. The hands that heap their clay together are literally presented, cut off from any body that would create them, and embalmed within their fractured moment.

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The bodies of his creatures are usually not viewed through the transparency of glass but upon mirrors. They rarely seem to have entrails, just a rough architecture of flesh. They’ve been doubly voided. Thanks to the mirrors, they’ve been multiplied and debased to shatter their solidity, sometimes blooming in different shapes that echo across each other like the spread of a disease. His sculptures recall the puritanical cleanliness of minimalism and the schematics for utopian architectural dreams. They are clear, delineated in silvery lines and occasionally embroidered with doily-like letters to spell out words to the viewer as if they were watching an episode of a children’s TV show. The bijou aesthetics that these conjure up are echoed in the more ‘organic’ aspects of his pieces, those lumps of hairy flesh baring obnoxious jewels and watches. All of the bells and whistles of the predatory class. The watch is particularly of interest: this arbitrator of time and master of organization. Here again, the spiritual aspect of his work comes into play. It is something which Dery harps on in her monograph on him.

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Civilization breaks from brute animality by performing an autopsy on the meal it makes of its casualties in a strangely sterilized form of gourmandisme. Not only that, it dresses it up in the process. Altmejd’s hybrid doctors are critics and connoisseurs in drag. But this mild satire ultimately transforms the monstrous into an object of delectation. Littered with what appear to be the abominable snowman’s teeth, curly wigs and pineapples, his work is too campy to be truly grotesque. It comes closest to the cheap horror films shown on public broadcasting in the 80s.

i None of his ‘characters’ as he calls them are very meaty at all.

iii Ibid.

iv Ibid., p. 254

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