The twisted vision of Montreal artist David Altmejd
Itâs rare that a rainy morning can actually enhance an art opening, but when a decaying giant werewolf and life-size men with birdsâ heads
are on display, rain can only heighten the eerie feel of the exhibit.
David Altmejdâs installation at this yearâs 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
masterâs 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 artâs highest
branches: representing Canada at the top art show in the world.
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 âfloatsâ stand life-size men in suits with haunting
grey eyes and birdsâ 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 â take your pick. Altmejd uses mirrors to amplify and complicate the scattered horror.
second sculpture is of a reclining giant werewolf in a state of decay â
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.
most affecting in Altmejdâs 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.
his work stubbornly refuses any narrative, Altmejd loads it with what
he calls ânarrative potential.â 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 showâs
commissioner, Louise Dery, jokingly draws a connection with âthe other
Davidsâ: namely, directors Cronenberg and Lynch, as well as the marble
colossus by the great one himself, Michelangelo.