I am often told that this blog puts far too much emphasis on the things that I do not like instead of paying attention to the things I do like. My usual answer is that there is not much to love in the contemporary art world so…Helàs! This is the reason why when wonderful artist Emma Biggs brought my attention to David Altmejd’s amazing retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne of Paris, I realised that I had something good to share.
David Altmejd’s work should be placed in that generational continuum that goes from Matthew Barney to Adrian Villar Rojas. These are artists who have transformed the idea of change into something of a cliché that always involves a post-apocalyptic notion of arrested metamorphosis as if change could only be approached in hindsight. Of course, change as a theme has been central to art history from the moment art and religion felt that had something to tell to each other. From Ovid and Pliny to Rubens and Titian, change has been a way to allegorise life and death. We could say, however, that the difference between those Early Modern practitioners and these post-apocalyptic (more commercial) ones lie in the fact that today we seem to put an expiring date to change. Change can only be represented as its opposite. The reason for this might be, on one hand, the secularised belief that, after all, there is no afterlife and, on the other hand, the fears of ecological Armaggedon. These two things are tightly linked to an evident desperation of art to find a function in a time when it is increasingly understood as…entertainment.
From inside art as an institution, both Barney and Villar Rojas find it very difficult to justify their practices. With their post-minimalist installationism they need to challenge the exhibition space in the same way that it was challenged decades ago with the introduction (by Duchamp) of the ready-made. However, to make that post apocalyptic pessimism into something appealing for the masses at a museum level, they need to transform that institution into something that does not look like it and that works in a different way. That is why Adrian Villar Rojas’ installations are theme-park-like environments where the viewer/ visitor suspends his or her belief of having an art experience. They are forced to believe that they are in post apocalyptic times as stupid as this might sound.
This is exactly the kind of contradiction that David Altmejd overcomes in his first French retrospective. Including unshown and older pieces, together with his most recent and certainly most ambitious monumental sculptures, The Flux and The Puddle (2014). I believe that the beauty of this exhibition is that takes the form of a work in its own right that functions at many levels: as a sculpture, as an installation inside an installation and, also, as an installation inside a museum. Thus, the visitor’s experience vibrates between looking at something that is represented for him and also something that is presented to him or her. Combining the anthropomorphic and the animal: half-vegetal, half-mineral hybrids that make play with the architecture of the museum as they spin out their arachnoid labyrinths, David Altmejd displaces change from the vitrine and the plinth into the viewer’s mind. He does this, however, through a series of associations that go from the interdisciplinary (science, psychology, art) to the intra-disciplininary (allusions to classical works of art and ways of manipulating art’s different materials). It is a complex experience to be appreciated in flux and that flux is what is being thematised as something static.
Altmejd works in direct contact with psychic flux. In his “definitive dreamer’s” world action and consciousness merge: he dominates the grotesque and the abject, combines aesthetics and ‘glamour’ and uses his sculptures to explore the worlds of dream and nightmare in a mingled ambience of fascination and terror. The exhibition reveals a group of deliberately contradictory artistic accomplishments – conceptual and processual, virtuoso and readymade – while the flow of light from countless natural and artificial sources is split by the mirrors, shattered or intact according to the sculptor’s whim, that it encounters.
The allusions to Barney, Michelangelo, Hellenistic sculpture, and Archimboldo overlap other series of allusions to the cinema of David Cronenberg and David Lynch. The way glass and light are used refers to early modern preoccupations with mysticism (Saint Theresa of Avila’s crystal palace, for example) and also to its more modernist example (the era of the Universal Exhibitions in Paris and Victorian England). There is something dreamlike in the way this show as an art show folds into itself only to create more and more levels with the sole purpose of staying in flux. Loved it!
IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE VIRTUAL EXHIBITION CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW: