Artist David Altmejd and rock group Yeasayer combine their talents for a fantastic collaboration
Rock group Yeasayer invited sculptor David Altmejd to create a visual world for their latest album “Amen and Goodbye”. Numéro met up with the artists to talk about the genesis of this phantasmagorical land.
Numéro: David Altmejd, for Yeasayer’s album cover you’ve created an impressive installation that mixes up legendary characters and surreal creatures, what’s it all about?
David Altmejd: To start with the group got in touch with me to supervise the visual identity of the album. But I’m a sculptor. The only thing I know how to do is create objects and spaces. So I suggested making sculptures that they could then use as they liked.
Yeasayer: And so then one morning a box was delivered. Inside it we found the sculptures and our heads… decapitated. They looked like David’s works that often feature deformed human figures. We carefully put them in our studio and carried on recording with this weird feeling that they were watching us. And almost even judging us...
David Altmejd: And then I had the idea of bringing together all the mythical, religious and imaginary characters that people Yeasayer’s new album, in a life-size installation. I wanted to take them from the musical world of the record into our material world.
Yeasayer: The religious theme lies at the heart of our new album. For Amen & Goodbye, we even wanted to write a real religious manifesto…even though none of us are believers. Our idea was to highlight the continuity between religions, from the Babylonian gods like Ishtar to the Greek and Roman gods, from Judaism to Christianity.
Numéro: It’s not the first time David that mythical figures feature in your work. Your sculptures appear to represent angels sometimes at then werewolves at others…
David Altmejd: I’ve never gone looking for a mythical figure to integrate into my work. They come to the surface during the creative process, without me even noticing. The angel figure for example appeared during my Bodybuilders series. The Bodybuilders are bodies that use their hands to move their own material from one place to another. In a way they reconfigure themselves. One of the fundamental gestures in sculpture, well for me anyway, is taking the materials to a higher place. Now imagine that bodybuilder making the same movement, taking the material of his leg, making a hole, to take his own body higher. Material starts to accumulate behind his shoulders. He grows wings. The figure of an angel appears. I like the idea that such simple gestures can give birth to a figure that’s existed in the history of humanity for thousands of years. I feel like I’m touching something fundamental, that my relationship with the material ends up creating sense.
When we compose, we always hope to create pieces that are so deep they could contain entire worlds. Our music has always had the ambition of telling stories.
You’re currently showing at two exhibitions in Brussels: L’Air, at the Xavier Hufkens Gallery, and Les Géants, at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. What can we see there?
David Altmejd: At Xavier Hufkens, I wanted to create a calm, light and silent ambiance, that adapts perfectly to the gallery space.
I’m showing a head, mirrored structures that seem to disappear into the space, and other sculptures too, notably the Bodybuilders I was talking about earlier. At the Musées Royaux, the exhibition will be noisier with six giants almost five meters tall installed in the middle of the immense forum. These giants are very different from the human-size figures that I’ve been making for a few years. When I was working on them, they were so big I actually forgot they were bodies. All I could see was a space that I had transformed into a laboratory. I’d dig a hole in a leg, and that would become a cave to be explored. So I hid things inside them…
Is the act of artistic creation a way for you to invent worlds?
Yeasayer: When we compose, we always hope to create pieces that are so deep they could contain entire worlds. Our music has always had the ambition of telling stories. And in that sense its closer to a film or a book.
Listening to them, the simplest of stories can take on an infinite scope. If it’s about a grandmother serving soup, you can’t just ‘see’ the scene, but you also have to smell the aroma of the soup and feel the slow and painful movements of this grandmother. Music, like all arts, has this capacity to provide a fully immersive environment and to create complex worlds.
David Altmejd: I started my art studies with painting. But I quickly moved over to the benefits of sculpture. It is the only thing to exist in the same space as the viewer. It lives and breathes the same air. Unlike painting, drawing, photography and cinema that exist only in the space of representation.
I like sculpture because it is a body among other bodies. And the body is the most fascinating object in the world. I’m not talking about the shape or the skin, but this object that’s so complex it can contain a world as infinite as the human being. I want my sculptures to be bodies. I want them to be like human bodies: finite volumes with infinite interior spaces.
I brought together all the mythical, religious and imaginary characters that people Yeasayer’s new album, in a life-size installation.
Every track on Amen & Goodbye appears to have been constructed according to its own biological process, like a living organism that hasn’t stopped growing by aggregating random sonorous textures. How do you bring these pieces to life?
Yeasayer: We start with an idea and we experiment. When the music becomes too obvious we move away from that and add new textures to it. Our work follows a chaotic process of construction. In fact chaos is the very essence of the band. You bring in your ideas and the other members start to modify them. The perfect little world that you’d built at home disappears. Chaos takes its place. And that’s how things move forward.
David Altmejd: My work follows the same process of construction-deconstruction. I never start with sketches or plans. I improvise. I sculpt a body and then realise all of a sudden, that I need to cut off an arm, or add material somewhere else, and in this way the object appears to be in constant motion. This notion of movement is primordial in my eyes.
Sculpture must be living, bursting with energy and tension. To achieve this it must give the impression of being in a constant state of construction, as if caught up in a dynamic. A completed sculpture for me is a dead object of no further interest.
Yeasayer: With Amen & Goodbye, we too strived to move as far as possible from a creation that was too frozen, too perfect. The advantage of working with computers is that we can always improve the sound. But it ends up with a boring perfection, void of the faults that render a piece of music unique. We’re moving away from electro music back towards a production style that’s closer to the rock of the 60s and 70s, holding on to all those accidents that any sound engineer would immediately remove from tracks today. On the album you can hear the hum of an old piano, the sound of a machine that gets turned on in the middle of a take, or the sounds of nature that surrounded us while we were recording in the middle of the countryside.
David Altmejd: It’s interesting that you mention nature because it inspires me a lot too. Not that I’m fascinated by vegetation, trees or animals. It’s the mechanisms that made their creation possible that interests me. For an orchid to come into being, it required a complex process that took place over billions of years. I would love my sculptures to be the result of such a process, a sort of natural mechanics that’s beyond me. It’s very important to me that I lose control. I want the sculpture to make its own decisions, I want it to follow its own logic and for it to show me what I have to do. If I was controlling everything it would only be my equal. Born of my mind, it couldn’t be bigger than me. I want it to go beyond me.
Yeasayer: But in a way your work goes beyond you through our collaboration. We scanned the objects that you’d made to incorporate them into a video that you didn’t make…
David Altmejd: And I love that. I’m like a parent watching from afar the entry into life of one of its children. As an artist I want to create objects that are so complex and intelligent that they generate multiple interpretations. If someone is able to make them say one thing, and someone else something completely different, it means my child is on fine form.
David Altmejd’s exhibitions L’air at the Xavier Hufkens Gallery (Brussels) is on until April 9th www.xavierhufkens.com, and Les Géants, at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Brussels) is on until August 21st, www.fine-arts-museum.be
Amen & Goodbye by Yeasayer (mute), released on April 1st.