Since the late 1990s David Altmejd has been confounding audiences with studio-sized installations and sculptures that dominate the rooms that they are put in (or in some cases, created in) due to their immensity. His works never fail to carry his artistic hallmarks that include broken mirrors, fleshy remains and mutilated fruit, all of which operate without a protagonist or narrative to bind them. The sheer variety of his sculptures can make them hard to take in and his predilection for anatomy can give them an uncanny revulsion, too, with their dislocative suggestions of the human body. Pieces such as La Palette and Les Noix are reminiscent of the plasticated bodies of Gunther Von Hagens, only in this case they swap innards for coconut shells and crystal fragments. With these characteristics in mind, it is no surprise that first impressions of Altmejd’s work gravitate toward confusion and a sense of being overwhelmed as a reaction to complexity. This is perhaps the most honest reaction one can have, especially seeing as Altmejd seems to have set out to dissolve meaning and definition across his entire corpus. The variety and complexity of his sculptures are part of a larger whole; a field of play that enables seemingly mismatched objects to enter into dialogue with one another and thereby forbid any single element to form a locus.
Altmejd’s shape-shifting vignettes are fuelled by opposites and the instatement of contrary forms, a tension that exists in works like The Flux and the Puddle, La Desert et la Semence and The University (2), but it is not just the objects he uses that are discordant, but also their constituent elements. The half-finished materials that seem to be in mid-evolution, or some sickly becoming, are put before us with the normality of the museum display case creating a false sense of structure that lures viewers closer. This makes the chaos seem controlled, that we are protected from it and the threat that it embodies, but the orderly ambience is quickly overturned by the melting scalps and broken mirrors that populate the insides of the containers. The evocation of the cataloguing drive of the museum or the impersonal atmosphere of the laboratory establishes a foundation that can be fought against by the artworks contained within, and is the preliminary step towards forming a microclimate that harbours change so abundantly.
Yet this constant flux is not necessarily a threatening one.The kinds of transformations and
changes that objects undergo are as many as there are elements but they all hold the same sense of reciprocal merging that is sustained in the majority of Altmejd’s works. Take the menagerie in his piece for the 2014 exhibition ‘Misled By Nature’, in which meaty blobs and plant forms meet to exchange parts of one another to make way for new combinations and forms that unfold all across the sculpture. Although it is visually disconcerting, no piece ever strays far from its neighbour and their exchanges tell us that they are complicit in their movements: no object will border another without some partial assimilation or sharing of parts. This open field is far from anarchic when we look at them in a cooperative light or focus on their freedom of movement, the two essential elements of his work that seem contrary to the disjunctive first impressions that they make.
The same can be applied to his mammoth work The Flux and the Puddle, that was constructed in situ due to the space that it eats up. Working from inside the vitrine, Altmejd brought objects together on an even larger scale to create the effect of looking at bustling city from afar. The overpopulated microcosm encourages the same morphing and fluidity of his past works and as this pattern emerges it seems more obvious that Altmejd aims to quash any inclinations toward definite knowledge that the viewer might have via the rapid changes and ambiguous ontological status of his objects. The things we might recognise like fruit, thread, sequins and so on, all refuse to be understood by their traditional functions, as this would render them static. Instead they defy popular semantics in favour of free rein in their liberated playground.
There is a feeling of emancipation in seeing bananas become writing tools and coconuts become mouthpieces that recalls the Surrealist project of making the quotidian object once again unfamiliar, but this time the feeling is animated by an understanding of the autonomy of these objects. The joys of transformation and open potential are suggested by the liveliness of the sculptures and emphasised in turn by our inability to experience them all at once. In these environments, not being able to see the beginnings of each movement or the end of each transformation is a virtue that embraces an unknowing world. What we are however left with is an image of coherence that is outside of aesthetic or categorical organisation, that instead bases itself on patterns of mutual exchange and consented merging. In this new definition of the term the meanings of objects are perpetually contested and their functions doubly so, as they are recycled and reinterpreted by different bodies during their travels. Altmejd succeeds in creating whole habitats that explore the possible meanings of objects autonomously, leaving us to witness the process rather than undertake it ourselves, denying us the usual pleasure of interpretation or comfortable alignment of what we see to prior knowledge.