For years werewolves were a particular obsession of Altmejd’s. “It is really powerful to see a human body part on a table, but by now it’s become commonplace,” he explains, mentioning the work of Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgoise as the most obvious examples. “I thought using a monster would be just as powerful, but weird instead of familiar. I chose the werewolf kind of intuitively but also because there’s a kind of symbolic potential there. You think about double identity and transformation.”
Altmejd’s fascination with monsters dates back to his youth. “It’s almost too obvious when you look at my work, but there was this Jim Henson movie called The Dark Crystal that was like, ‘Wow!’ for me,” he admits, with a touch of good-humored embarrassment. “I loved all that fantasy stuff, like The Neverending Story and Return From Witch Mountain.” On trips outside the city (his mom is an administrator at Université du Québec à Montréal; his dad is an importer-exporter in the fish and steel industries), he would spend hours in the forest foraging for mushrooms and collecting precious-looking rocks. “I would build boxes for the rocks and sort of fetishize them,” he recalls. “Like I was finding little treasures.” When he entered Université du Québec à Montréal, he originally thought he would be a biologist; after a year he switched to art. “I’ve always been interested in science and evolution,” he says. “I still am.”
Back in his studio, in an industrial building overlooking the elevated 7 train, Altmejd’s team of five assistants is busy sawing wood and cutting hundreds of pieces of mirror to the strains of classical music. Working with so many assistants is new for Altmejd; he had to hire extra help in order to produce the Denver project in time. The site-specific installation, which will be on view starting October 28, centers on his new favorite fantastical creature, the giant. This time he is building a veritable army of mirror-encrusted colossi between 12 and 15 feet high, their bodies in various stages of decay. Altmejd points out the labyrinthine staircases built into the giants’ body parts—one running down a thigh, another around a torso.
“For years I was making those sort of presentation structures, and using those spaces to hide weird objects inside,” he says, referring to pieces like The University 2. “Now I’m really into the reverse, the idea of the giant transforming into architecture. I hate to get into specifics of symbolic meaning, but I think the giant can be seen as a metaphor for nature or the environment. And it’s interesting for me to see that body as a little world, a total universe inside of which I can lose myself for days.”