Interview with artist David Altmejd
photography by Nicolas Wagner
You’re very good at interviews. I was reading your press clippings and I like how you were able to tell people that you disagreed in a way that didn’t sound combative.
When I get into conversations with people generally, and not only in interviews, I love arguing about things. Conversations are always about actually disagreeing in a positive way, because I think that disagreement is dynamic. I always try to set up a dynamic opposing arguments, because that’s how you get to higher levels of thinking and new arguments. That’s my main reason for seeking disagreement in conversation. It doesn’t have to do so much with my real position on topics either, since I usually don’t have one.
I’m sure that you must have some position on your work.
Yeah, but maybe less than what people think.
Right. Well, it’s interesting because in what I’ve read there’s always this opposition between a very analytical approach and your rather emotional content. I saw a lot of critics trying to grapple with that. It reminded me actually of writing about Felix Gonzalez-Torres. There is this activist component—this personal, emotional component—but also a highly rigorous conceptual component. It is interesting to see how all of these factors operate simultaneously in your work.
Yeah, I do build conceptual structures. I like structures in my work but they are completely and easily destructible. The structure itself is just meant to support the act of making new things. It doesn’t hold any truth. Do you see what I mean? Whenever I talk about my work I probably contradict myself constantly, which is completely okay, you know? For me the important thing is to make things exist, to let things exist, to make new things.
The materiality of the work is more of a means to an end, maybe.
I can’t imagine doing anything else besides using super material things. I’m starting to think that I’m becoming more and more dissatisfied with the materiality. I’m trying to figure out how I can actually remove some of that, and still make it feel like there’s something that exists intensely. That’s the goal. I just want to make something that exists intensely in the world. How can I remove some of the material aspect of the final object and still give that feeling?
I’ve always tried to figure out ways of representing or conveying energy through materials in a symbolic way. For example, my use of crystals, thread, or chains to connect objects gives the impression that there’s energy that circulates inside the systems. Suggesting that the things look like they’re transforming is also another way of conveying energy. But it’s always in the symbolic. It’s not happening for real, which is unsatisfying for me at this point. I don’t let myself use real energy, like movement or actors or real people, because in my mind that’s sort of cheating. I consider myself a very classical sculptor, and I only make objects that the viewer can move around, and objects that don’t move. But there’s something unsatisfying about always getting stuck with objects that work symbolically. I’d like to make objects work for real, and give them a real energy.
This seems reflective of when you said at one point how much you like Cindy Sherman’s work. If you think about it, it really seems to me that maybe what you’re describing is melodrama. Melodrama always has some sort of a discursive or narrative structure but it’s always about overpowering those structures with emotionality, with drama, with romance.
I like that.
That’s what it reminds me of and I wonder what your work would look like alongside Cindy’s. But Cindy Sherman is creating the performance, and maybe you are requiring the viewer to enact the performance.
I’ve always felt very uncomfortable using the viewer to do anything. I’m the worst viewer when it comes to interactive stuff. I always refuse to participate. It always makes me very uncomfortable to imagine viewers interacting with my work by pressing buttons or putting on headphones. I always imagine them to be self-conscious as they’re doing it. They become self-conscious, because they look at themselves, and act with the work as if it’s not about the work anymore.
Are you a self-conscious guy?
I guess I am. I don’t like that, so I make sure that I avoid every situation that would make me self-conscious. I imagine also that if ever I become self-conscious, everyone is going to notice, as if I’ve changed colors!
Yeah, are you a Virgo?
No, I’m a Cancer.
Cancer, okay. I’m a Virgo. No, it’s totally funny. I won’t even go into movie rooms in galleries because I feel like everyone is looking at me. I would not go into any video screening at Art Basel. I just walked right by them, so I totally feel that. But that also makes me think of a concluding question. I hope this doesn’t sound reductive. Whenever I am in a studio like this, it’s always a very manly space. It’s very manly. But a lot of the comparisons that came to my mind with your work are women—Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman. And even melodrama is kind of a feminized medium. I just find the oscillation between gender monoliths to be really interesting.
I can totally see the masculine aspect of this new studio in its structure. The space; the sound; the echo; the tools. You can hear the tools; both loud and exaggerated. *points at small room in the studio* But this is my area where I make heads, and this is me. I like this idea that the studio becomes like a brain or something that has different types of identities, and different hidden spaces. It’s like there could be a little room hidden in the back, and there’s a box underneath a table at the end of that room that holds a very special tool. I like that it acts as a brain. You were asking about gender identity.
Whenever I look at your work, I don’t see it in that masculinist, surrealist legacy or the masculinist post-Minimalist legacy. I see it really in communion with feminist artists. Kiki Smith, for example, has a simultaneous interest in the mythical and the architectural, and the body and nature, but it is also very rational. It is interesting how your work seems to point toward what people would stereotypically label as a more feminine lineage of sculpture.
I think it’s very much about both aspects, which are really connected to how I focus on things. I think that the feminine or feminist aspect comes out of the work when I’m focused on the small aspects of the work. Whenever I start focusing on larger structure then there’s a masculine aspect. I think that Kiki Smith or Cindy Sherman are not at all preoccupied with the larger structure. Everything happens in a space, like their whole process almost happens in a room that’s big enough for one body. Their process is very intimate. It just feels like they’re not preoccupied with the bigger structure. I admire that.
How do you navigate that between zooming in to the detail and then also keeping in mind the larger structures? How do you move between the detail-oriented, intimate space toward the more lofty, the conceptual, and high modernist part of your brain?
I like to approach those highly conceptual modernist structures in the same way that I approach details—in an intimate kind of way. I see those larger structures as very fragile things, conceptually fragile. I also see them as organic. I like the idea that even structure is something that’s completely porous, and can change and can fall apart and can be transformed. I think that aspect is just as porous and manipulatable as the details in my work. I don’t know if it’s always obvious, but I think that there is always a movement between large and small inside my work, and inside my process. I really like to focus on small things that make me completely forget about everything, and then take distance, move out, and just take care of larger structures. This back and forth between the microscopic and the cosmic is very important for me.
In many ways, that’s the essence of where we are in terms of thinking about postmodern art, which is sort of always an oscillation between the particular of the individual and generalizations about a group. You need to have a show with Cindy Sherman, because that’s exactly what she is doing too. She’s taking the particularities of her body and her performative act but speaking to these larger questions of melodrama, of photography, of women in film.
I’m curious when you talk about melodrama, what do you mean exactly? Can you give me examples of other artists that are melodramatic?
I think I am talking about is David Lynch and Lars von Trier.
Yeah that, I was going to ask you that. Lars von Trier, really?
I think its goes back to what you’re talking about in terms of a combination of emotional structures. That’s the basis of drama. There’s stock stories like “The Hero’s Quest,” but there’s also this subversive element to melodrama where you’re going so beyond that you’re almost altering those confines. There’s also a combination of the fantastic and the pedestrian. I don’t think that’s camp. I don’t think it is Goth either. It’s Philip-Lorca diCorcia. It’s Felix Gonzales Torres—the sincere but emotionally volatile investment in the formal elements of a particular genre or medium. I think that’s what I was trying to get at.
There’s an over-the-top emotionality that is stronger than the structure. I see that in Cindy Sherman, and I see that in David Lynch—that structural aspect of the work that’s used to set up the whole drama. Whenever the drama, that energy, that special energy, is conveyed or communicated, it overpowers the whole structural aspect of the work. It dissolves. I don’t necessarily see it as such a clear thing, as clear difference between structure and emotionality. I imagine Cindy Sherman as she’s trying to put on her make up. David Lynch probably thinks it’s really exciting, for example, to make a reference to the structure of the film itself, and turn the camera on the camera.
See more on David, and the other men we are featuring in issue, “Men At Work”, here