Creepshow: The twisted vision of Montreal artist David Altmejd
By Megan Williams
June 13, 2007
It’s rare that a rainy morning can actually enhance an art opening, but when a decaying giant werewolf and life-size men with birds’ heads are on display, rain can only heighten the eerie feel of the exhibit. David Altmejd’s installation at this year’s Venice Biennale is enigmatically called The Index. With its scattering of little stuffed birds, severed limbs, decapitated werewolf heads, plastic flowers and trees and mirrors, crystals and birdmen, it presents a gothic-kitsch mingling of mythological tip-offs.
Altmejd is himself a rare bird. Six years after graduating with a master’s in fine arts from Columbia University, the Montreal artist has soared fast and far in the international art scene. After numerous high-profile shows in New York, he was picked up by the prestigious Andrea Rosen Gallery and has now landed on one of modern art’s highest branches: representing Canada at the top art show in the world.
The Index consists of two separate sculptures. The first looks a bit like two parade floats, decorated with fake squirrels, birds, trees, mushrooms and flowers; gold chains and a mirrored bridge connect the two parts. On both “floats” stand life-size men in suits with haunting grey eyes and birds’ heads, with testicles hanging from their chins. On one float, the birdman stands triumphantly atop, clutching the decapitated head of a werewolf, which could be a reference to biblical tales like David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, St. John the Baptist or nothing — take your pick. Altmejd uses mirrors to amplify and complicate the scattered horror.
The second sculpture is of a reclining giant werewolf in a state of decay — though no ordinary decay. Crystals grow out of hollows in the limbs, mushrooms sprout from the remains of tendons, little birds eggs nestle in crevices and small animals roam the hollows. The groin area, which has a sparkly and flaccid penis and testicles, also features crystals and mirror spikes, creating a sense of energy shooting upward.
What’s most affecting in Altmejd’s work is the childlike aspect of it, which is where the tension lies. The mushrooms and logs and stuffed birds look like props from a grade-school play; yet placed alongside the mirrors and birdmen and body parts, the goofy innocence is both underlined and undermined, creepy and funny.
While his work stubbornly refuses any narrative, Altmejd loads it with what he calls “narrative potential.” His influences, however, do have thematic cohesion. They include French-born American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose giant spider sculpture sits beside the National Gallery in Ottawa, and German-born American Kiki Smith, who uses mythology and symbols relating animals and humans. The show’s commissioner, Louise Dery, jokingly draws a connection with “the other Davids”: namely, directors Cronenberg and Lynch, as well as the marble colossus by the great one himself, Michelangelo.
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