David Altmejd: Flux

Harpy-like, a pale harbinger of antique malice presides over the entrance to David Altmejd’s retrospective, Flux, at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. A terrible effigy, whose ragged wing-flaps stretch out towards the viewer in a thanatic embrace,The Watcher channels the chthonic spirit of Aeschylus’ Furies, thus forging a circuitous somatic link between the bird-winged deities of ancient Greece and the transgressive morphological proclivities of our own age. Indeed, the visual proximity of this sculpture to the recently re-installed Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre is surely fortuitous for it underlines a certain aesthetic continuity between the corporeal preoccupations of these two worlds.

In the werewolves, giants and zoomorphs which people Altmejd’s imagination we find a contemporary manifestation of that penchant for the monstrous which Georges Canguilhem identified in ‘Monstrosity and the Monstrous’: ‘We would be happy to show the monstrous taking refuge [from the nineteenth century] in poetry and might enjoy following the sulphurous trail that leads from Baudelaire to the Surrealists by way of Rimbaud and Lautréamont’. Indeed, is it not the case that any deviation from the morphological canon – in which classes of beings are held to exist within a sort of taxonomic vacuum – becomes a type of perversion of nature; a classificatory profligate; a monster?

Nonetheless, if it takes only a minor morphological transgression, say a grossly over-sized digit or a disturbingly pendulous member, for a body to stumble blindly into monstrous territory, how much more so for those bodies which wilfully disrupt the inviolable divisions between species, fusing talons to fleshy appendages, wings to unfeathered shoulders and seeming to delight in the imaginative flights of fancy conjured up by the very term ‘hybridity’. As Arie Hartog has elsewhere written: ‘Via the biological connotation of parentage from two different species, the word “hybrid” always indicates twofold origins. The hybrid is always dualistic’. And for Canguilhem, the taxonomic confusion which ensues from the progeny of such genetically mismatched parents is inherently monstrous: ‘The term “hybrid”, in appearance so positive and descriptive, attests to [the monstrous] in its etymology. Interspecies animals’ offspring are the product of crosses that violate the rule of endogamy, of unions in which similitude is not respected. [From] hybridisation to monstrosity is a simple step’.

If the interweaving of anatomical parts that bear little or no genealogical relationship to one another can be considered an attribute of the monstrous then this effect is surely amplified if the classificatory violation traverses kingdoms rather than mere species, crossing the opaque borderlands which separate the animal from the vegetable and the mineral. Genealogical transgression, for this reason, possesses a diabolical form of creative potential – diabolical because it represents an otherness that usurps earthly law – that simultaneously exceeds and denies the hierarchical strictures of zoological classification. Within this framework, we can understand how taxonomic excess, its imaginative potentiality and delirious attentiveness to morphological difference, forms the creative kernel of Altmejd’s vibrantly transgressive oeuvre.

Gene splicing and morphogenetic experimentation have become part-and-parcel of our cultural mindscape in ways which contextualise the violent transmogrifications which Altmejd wreaks upon the flesh of his sculptural corpus. Without this biomedical backdrop, which has introduced us to such wonders as rodents sprouting tumorous human-ears and inter-species transplantation, we would be hard pressed to place these vulture-headed businessmen with testicular wattles if not as phantasmagorical visualisations of our own biogenetic epoch.

Yet beyond these experiments in transgenealogical hybridity it is the geomorphic possibilities of the crystalline which proffer Altmejd the greatest opportunity to disassemble the morphological frontiers between kingdoms and, above all, the spatial barriers between things. Quartz and amethyst crystals bloom across ravaged physiognomies, like bizarre lapidary ciphers of pathological skin conditions where papulous growths uncontrollably erupt in grotesque, dendral configurations.

Inasmuch as these dermatological disorders visually intimate a kind of petrifying metasomatosis, in which flesh acquires an emphatically mineral aspect, so Altmejd fabricates faces which seemingly collapse under the weight of their crystalline buboes, noses metastasising into geometric configurations of spar-stones and decayed, gaping heads which glitter like carneous geodes. Fleshy calcification and physiognomic collapse here appear as delirious echoes of Ariel’s lamentation in TheTempest: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are the pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a seachange / Into something rich and strange’.

That Altmejd presages the passage of the organic to the inorganic as something akin to a morbid keratinisation of the integument is in keeping with his desire to find ways in which to ‘infect’ space. Exhibitory space – when exposed to Altmejd’s suppurating, tumorous physiognomies – is subjected to a kind of spatial entropy in which the hard lines of its architectonic supports are corroded by crystalline, metastasising outpourings which flow, like blood or cerebrospinal fluid, into the alcoves of the exhibitory supports. Plagued by these eroding, coagulating substances, spatial relationships metamorphose and dissolve; amethyst-lined chambers open up within misshapen bodies, penetrating into the deeper recesses of the plinths or architectural edifices which buttress Altmejd’s installations.

In effect, this spatial sleight-of-hand augurs the disbanding of nominal morphological boundaries: all things interpenetrate freely; voids swallow the distance between objects, collapsing the distinction between a body and its environment in the same way as hybridity melts the taxonomic divisions between species and kingdoms.

Transformation comprises a central aspect of this process. Associating infection with a kind of ‘positive’, vital energy – be it in terms of the transference of ideas or germinal elements – Altmejd endeavours to unshackle the possibilities of form, metamorphosing objects through capricious morphological interminglings, interactions and transferences. This pooling and clotting of crystalline arrangements is meant to appear as an optimistic representation of vital forces apprehended in dynamic states of transmutation. While the cadaverous imagery of gaping lacerations and ulcerous headwounds which preponderates is undoubtedly suggestive of a blood-spattered horror-show, Altmejd sublimates this impression by using inorganic, mineral growths to supplant blood and gore. Visions of bleeding, raggedy flesh are allegedly dispelled by the crystalline, by something that, in Altmejd’s words, ‘becomes positive and living, and not simply rotten and dead’.

Perhaps. I think it is still true to say that there is a shadowy, charnel-house aesthetic to Altmejd’s work which is not entirely dissipated by the substitution of vital fluids for quartz crystals. It is the same dark, flickering sense of macabre fascination with the body’s liquescent interior which beguiles the viewer of David Cronenberg’s The Fly or thrills to the sight of traumatised, seeping flesh-wounds in medical TV shows.

Nowhere is the theme of transmutation more eloquently conveyed than in the vast, multi-chambered installation, The Flux and the Puddle. A true, contemporary embodiment of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a room-sized, multipart construction of Plexiglas, polystyrene, leather, ceramic, plasticine, synthetic resins, fake flowers, mirrors, hair, string and more – the sculpture appears as a perversely intricate re-imagining of evolutionary theory; an unravelling of phylogeny and ontogeny through strangely interconnected morphological successions: transhumans with feline ears who evolve, stage-by-stage, from balls of blackened playdough while atop simian figures are split asunder by crystalline cysts. This sequencing of forms resembles something akin to a physical chronophotograph: hybrids which develop bit-by-bit, metamorphosing into space itself.

Crystallization once again animates this chaotic, fluxional field of morphogenetic energies. The clumping of resinous substances and quartzes – which spill and drip and pool within the labyrinthine chambers of the vitrine – emphasises the sense of life-forces freeze-dried and interrupted halfway between the living and the inorganic. Together, these excessive transmutations – baroquely envisaged by Altmejd in various states of suspended animation – emphasise the overwhelming allure that nomenclature holds for the artist. Luminous Plexiglas caverns of hybridised experimentation, these pseudo-biotech laboratories act as stages upon which Altmejd’s creative agency – its playful disregard for taxonomic convention, wild inventiveness and ludic sense of aesthetic superfluity – is allowed to run riot. To be sure, the hand of the artist weighs heavily upon the exhibition as a whole, as both a symbolic and indexical token.

Cast roughly in plaster, synthetic resin, plasticine and latex, nimble-fingered appendages – ostensibly moulded from Altmejd’s own extremities – dangle and claw at the viewer from all angles. Certain sculptures – most especially the series of Watchers and Bodybuilders – display the entire figure as a disorderly assemblage of hand-casts and handprints. 

Ghostly symbols of a now-absent agency, these mute demigods mimic the poses and pallor of classical statuary even as they appear trapped in a never-ending process of making and unmaking. Plastery hands emerge out of torsos to scoop great clods of material only to deposit it once more as wings, legs or phallic members, playing and replaying a strange, elusive game of sculptural fabrication. In Untitled 9 (Bodybuilders) the figure is seen to literary drag himself – body and soul – out of the stairs: the great scalloped furrows on the steps attesting to his Promethean act of self-making. The reference in these figures – especially those whose physiognomies are completely composed from interwoven hand-casts – to Jim Henson’s wildly inventive puppetry will be clear to any child of the 1980s. Are these figures thus simultaneously self-made and self-willed; parodic embodiments of the Nietzschean superman who shapes his own destiny from the raw matter of existence? Above all, however, these handmade golems appear to testify to an artistic potency undimmed by the earthly exigencies of matter.

In our age of chromosomal tinkering and bodily enhancement we have perhaps lost track of the tenebrous, morphological reconfigurations that disease, dermatological disorder and genetic mutation once inflicted on the calm, somatic waters of the human body. Society’s quest for corporeal perfection alongside the ongoing neutralisation of bodily discrimination has meant that monstrosity – a term once so potent and pervasive – has gradually slipped its socio-cultural moorings; it largely exists now as a dark glimmer on a cinema screen or a distant historical memory. It is Altmejd who plunges us headfirst back into the phantasmagorical fairyland of the monstrous – its elaborate somatic alignments, its delight in prodigious excess, its disregard of taxonomic limits. As we enter a new era of biotechnological adaptation and morphological possibility, it is surely important that an artist such as Altmejd draws our attention to transhumanism’s promises and excess. For here the wonder and horror of the transmuted body is pushed to its profligate extreme.

Main image: David Altmejd, The Flux and The Puddle, 2014, Plexiglas, quartz, polystyrene, polyurethane 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, domestic goose feathers (anser anser domesticus), steel, coconuts, aqua resin, burlap, lighting system including fluorescent lights, Sharpie ink, wood, coffee grounds, 327.7×640.1×713.7cm. (photo: James Ewing, courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, ©David Altmejd)

David Altmejd:Flux, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 10th October 2014 – 1st February 2015

Aurora Corio