“I want to use the body of the giant as a space inside of which I can explore as many layers and tensions as possible.” David Altmejd on his new body of work ‘Giants’.
I can totally relate why David Altmejd called the giant standing in the back of the forum hall of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium: ‘The Grand Theater’. It’s a dramatic, armless figure with multiple ears attached to its torso and heads placed inside its body. The giant is eerie and spellbinding at the same time just like one of the creatures in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy, horror film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.
Another giant made in plaster has a gigantic ear growing on his back like a wing of an angel. In front of this sculpture I meet with Altmejd who has been staying in Brussels for three weeks to supervise the installation of the six colossal giants and his exhibition ‘L’air’ at Xavier Hufkens.
The gallery is showing a captivating series of new sculptures of the artist’s on-going series ‘The Bodybuilders’. These life size bronze figures use their own hands as a way of reshaping their bodies. One figure striking a ballerina pose, drags material upwards to build its head out of hands. The figure has an exhilarating tension between a raw quality and elegance.
Of the six giants in this show, three of them are in plaster and the other three are more multimedia that include a lot of materials, details, drawings and heads. One of them, called ‘The Angle’, has two broken coconuts in his torso placed in each shoulder, a transparent pen holder attached to the back and grapes growing out of his stomach. On its right leg is an arm attached holding a walking stick, on the other, a hand is making a drawing with a pen on the left leg of the giant.
In the empty auditorium of the museum I spoke with Altmejd about his mesmerizing creatures.
200%: The first giant you made was ten years ago of squirrels that ‘inhabited’ the body of the giant. Can you recall how the idea of making a giant came about?
David Altmejd: That giant was made in a period when my work used to develop as architectural structures. Organically, those structures would transform into organisms almost like bodies. At one point I thought it would be very interesting to make a shift and instead of going from the architectural structures that transform into a body, start with the body and make it become an architecture. I wanted to use the giant’s body as a space inside of which I can explore as many layers and tensions as possible.
Another thing that interested me was trying to make sculptures that show that they are making themselves from the inside. This idea comes from a series called ‘The Bodybuilders’ that I started making a few years ago. I like the idea of the sculpture itself has the power to decide and build its own form.David Altmejd: I like the idea of the sculpture itself has the power to decide and build its own form.
200%: What is the difference between working on a giant and one of your Bodybuilders?
DA: The main difference is that I forget I’m working on a body. When you are working on a life size figure, the sculpture is the same size as you. You always see the body even when you are working on a close detail [on the body]. You can not forget that the sculpture has a head, arms, legs, and certain proportions. However, when you are working on a close detail on a giant you forget that it is a body because it is too large. I can see, for instance, the leg as a surface where I can intervene and make holes in it, make things grow out of it and transform it.
200%: How did the idea come about of integrating the heads in the bodies of the giant?
DA: I like the idea that bodies become theaters in which the heads are actors. Also, the heads act a bit like batteries: they transfer energy. It is also a way of integrating different identities in one giant so it has infinite identities. For instance, when I’m placing two heads in the shoulder parts of the giant, it’s like I’m putting two different identities inside the object. The same way that the hands I was using in the bodybuilders are a way of integrating, the hands have a sort of power [to shape the body]. The heads in the giant act like that as well.
200%: The giants are exhibited in the forum hall. What were your initial thoughts about the space and how the sculptures are going to work in the space?
DA: I had this very intuitive idea that I would make six giants as in my mind there is something symmetrical about that number. I came to look at the space and I wanted the giants to be placed from lower to higher – like a progression. I built a model, played with it and decided to mess it up and not make a perfect progression. I placed a medium-size Giant in the back.
200%: You mention there is something symmetrical about the number six. Is that also the reason as to why you placed the giants quite symmetrical in the forum?
DA: Yes, I wanted to respect the symmetry of the architecture of the forum hall. The giant ‘The Moment’ is placed exactly in the axis of the room and then there are two giants [The Secret and The Mass] that are placed symmetrically, standing face to face as if they were guards. There is something gigantic and grand about the Forum Hall and it made me think of a cathedral. I went with the idea of symmetry as everything in a cathedral is symmetrical. On the other hand it is a museum and works can not always be placed symmetrically as the paintings and the sculptures in the forum differ in size and volume. So the symmetry is slightly disrupted which is okay.
200%: The giants are interspersed with work from the museum’s collection such as historical paintings by Gustaf Wappers, Pierre Alechinsky, and sculptures by Egide Rombaux and Victor Rousseau. You didn’t consider to remove all the artworks in the Forum and only show your giants?
DA: No, it was important for me, as much as I can, to give the giants the same kind of presence as the other works in the museum’s collection. I didn’t want to overpower these great historical works of art. I loved the opportunity of my work to exist in the same environment as these other 200-300 year old pieces. I think my work comes from a very contemporary space and it was nice to integrate it in a more historical space, which is exciting as I have never had that opportunity before.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Captions & Courtesy:
David Altmejd, Le grand théâtre, 2016, mixed media, 173 3/4 x 54 x 42 in., 441,3 x 137,2 x 106,7 cm, ALTM-138-2016, Photo credit: HV-studio, Brussels, Courtesy: the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
David Altmejd, L’angle, 2016, mixed media, 173 1/2 x 48 x 96 in., 440,7 x 121,9 x 243,8 cm, ALTM-134-2016, Photo credit: HV-studio, Brussels, Courtesy: the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
David Altmejd, Le cygne, 2016, mixed media, 168 x 39 x 84 in., 426,7 x 99,1 x 213,4 cm, ALTM-133-2016, Photo credit: HV-studio, Brussels, Courtesy: the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
David Altmejd, Le secret, 2016, mixed media, 186 x 40 x 85 in., 472,4 x 101,6 x 215,9 cm, ALTM-136-2016, Photo credit: HV-studio, Brussels, Courtesy: the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
David Altmejd, L’instant, 2016, mixed media, 179 1/4 x 57 x 55 in., 455,3 x 144,8 x 139,7 cm, ALTM-137-2016, Photo credit: HV-studio, Brussels, Courtesy: the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels