David Altmejd: The Return of Mnemosyne and Werewolves


David Altmejd: The Return of Mnemosyne and Werewolves




After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

(Third Man,1948)

Film practice influenced the 20th century artmaking in many ways. It’s the youngest and perhaps the most debated art form since its occurrence. Almost all philosophers in the  20th century thought about it in one way or another. No doubt that , the magic lantern mesmerized the visual artists and novelists. Some of them liked it and some of them didn’t… It was the first major step to capture life as it is, in other words the life in motion. Perhaps, Marcel Duchamp’s Bicyle Wheel(1913) was the first attempt to create a cinematic effect on  artworks. Today, many artists use video as their medium in order to make art. Therefore, it is inevitable to being intimate with cinematic practices for these artists. Furthermore, some artists use cinematic practices in their works perhaps without noticing it. David Altmejd  is one of these artisist who use this cinematic practice very carefully in order to eliminate the material aspect of his work. Altmejd’s installations function  like Duchamp’s Bicyle Wheel , when you push the wheel, it is impossible to see wires in it, in other words, we can’t necessarily pick a wire and the movement becomes the primary aspect. Therefore, Altmejd’s over usage of material becomes less relevant than the movement and the idea behind it. I think that’s what makes him an interesting artist. I will examine his works through Aby Warburg’s ideas about memory and movement. Warburg’s Mnemosyne might be the first interaction between cinema and art history but  first, I would like to point out important aspects of Altmejd’s work.

One could argue that Altmejd’ works are too materialistic(especially his large-scaled installations) and emphasize on the  structure but I think the opposite way. As I mentioned earlier, Altmejd’s works are beyond its materials and structure. If one follow the structure and objects , which are kept in plexiglass boxes like treasures, one can easily sink into flux and continuity of this large scale  installations which enable us think beyond materials and eventually we get lost while following the patterns that are provided by the artist himself. Altmejd’s installations are almost like a film and every box comes out form his mind. His works can be related to camera obscura and how it functions. Altmejd’s works eliminate the eye and its narrow perception and put us inside the camera obscura. We don’t perceive the objects through the capacity of whether artists’eye or its forms. He provides us the ultimate point of view and eliminate himself and his perception of objects. One of the important aspect of Altmejd’s installations is the fragmented body parts which are scattered to different parts of the installations. We, as the spectators, feel the urge to connect them somehow and create a whole or a narrative. On the opposite side, camera obscura which leans into its form makes us the aggregate object through only its structure.

Altmejd’s head sculptures are essential to identify his practice. Altmejd creates a monstrous- like, extremely grotesque sculptures. Once again, he places his spectator inside the camera obscura. Altmejd shows us the degenerated head sculptures in reversed positions. As if these heads are the reflection in camera obscura before it transmits to lenses of a camera. Altmejd questions our perception of image.  Scholars and phlisophers like Laura Mulvey and Susan Sontag read photography and cinema as the depiction of death, no doubt that it is a mainstream idea now.The painting was merely based on realistic depictions of the nature until the invention of the camera. The painting had to find different subject matters or content in order to being alive. Sculptures and photographs share some similarities. We all know that sculptures were considered as the carved moment or objects within time. These two mediums capture the time in a sense and make us remember our mortal life. From Altmejd point of view, photography takes the function of “Memento Mori” from both painting and  classical sculpture. If we look at Untitled (2011), it almost makes us dizzy. It is quite complex in terms of usage of material. It might be seen as a requiem for long lost classical sculpture and the loss of one’s direct participation of the object. It is well known that today’s camera is doing so little to capture the so-called reality. Altmejd questions the reality aspect of this technological elements. He asks us “Where is the beauty?” in a way. He shows us the distorted image inside the machine. Altmejd’s sculpture is missing a quasi-skin as Walter Benjamin identifies photography as a surgeon who is able to look close and touch the skin and what’s beneath it. These sculptures can be seen as an allegory of Benjamin’s idea of photography as surgery. Lack of human perception leads to a dull representation of the objects. Altmejd shows us the distorted image which goes through machine’s mechanism. Altmejd suspends this connection inside the machine and helps us question what the beauty is. Is it in the mere mechanic representation of the object or in the one’s perception which really helped us the capture the so- called reality through our understanding of  the world?

Another aspect of Altmejd’works are the mirrors. The most extreme works in term of usage of mirrors, is the work titled The Eye (2008). It is made of completely with mirrors which surround the spectator completely. It consists of horizontal and vertical mirror fragments which generate a camera obscura within its form. The Eye(2008), is almost a companion piece to larger installations of the artist. The Eye(2008), creates multiple layers of the room and what is present in exhibition space. It might be helpful to remember Andy Warhol’s Death in America series. It’s a typical Warhol’s works emphasize on the continuity and the perception of repeated objects or events with same point of view. It shows the process of reproduction and loss of meaning. But Warhol’s practice come from inside that discourse, in other words. Warhol’s works becomes the part of the discourse, despite his critical reading of mass media culture as Foucault would puts it. Altmejd’ works provide the absolute opposite of this repeated objects in order to give us the multiple layers of the single object. Most importantly, he eliminates the subject matter but focuses on the content.

Altmejd in Relation to Aby Warburg and Mnemosyne (Bilderatlas)

Aby Warburg was born into a wealthy family. He studied art history and archeology also he was interested in psychology and history of religion. He continued his education in  Bonn, Munich and Strassbourg. He gave his dissertation on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Warburg’s methodology was accepted as the foundation of the iconographic method later on.His main interest was the  recurrence of antique themes and how those antique practices become an inspiration for succeeding artists. He called this “pathos formula”. Occasionally, these fixed themes(pathos formulas )and objects come to life. According to Warburg, “pathos formula” is the treasurey of unconscious. Furthermore, he mentioned “leidschatz” which is the treasury of basic instincts and behavior. Warburg didn’t only focus on artworks but various objects including coins and medal which we will encounter in Mnemosyne Atlas as well. Warburg began to work on his Atlas in 1924 and he continued to work on it until his death. He placed photographs of various objects including artworks from antiquity to renaissance, newspaper pages, on wooden panels. At the end he did complete 63 panels. Most importantly, Warburg re-organized photographs from the individual panels during his lectures according to a content of his speech (Tekin, 2010 : 25-27 ). It might be a hint to understand how Mnemosyne functions and what was Warburg’s primary  intention.

It can be helpful to consider Richard Semon’s idea of “treasury of engramm “. Semon argues that excitable part of an organism which is affected by stimulating object in a long manner and with the sudden interruption of this process, organism enters into a phase which eventually leads the organism’s fluctuation in a stable way. Semon calls this effect “engrafic” effect because these changes are registered into an organism (as cited in Fleckner, 2005:189). Furthermore, Agamben argues that engrams are the crystallization  of an energetic charge and emotional experience that are transmitted by social memory (as cited in Johnson, 2012: 63). On the other hand, Semon is not the only thinker on this approach. We could argue that Semon’s ideas about engram and engrafic effect is highly related to Freduian idea of deferred action. According to Freud, subjectivity cannot exist on a single event but it is redesigned during the process of repeated interpretation in a cycle. Jephan Laplanche who is also psychoanalyst argues that occurrence of a trauma, acquire not single but multiple repetition of a traumatic event. The incident can only be expressed by another event which interprets the main event in a different manner. We can only identify ourselves with the deferred action (as cited in Foster, 2009: 55). In other words, they both argue that trauma is printed afterward the first encounter with  ‘’traumatic event’’ so to speak

Uwe Fleckner (2005: 190),  argues that Semon’s ideas on memory influenced Warburg and his ideas of memory so to speak. If we look at other head scultures of Altmejd, we can easily argue that Altmejd shows engrafic literally. For instance, Altmejd’s sculpture Sarah Altmejd (2004) which is an early work of artist demonstrates the engrafic effect and changes visually.  One first realizes the big hole right in the middle of the face. We soon realize that there is two side of it. One of the side is rotten and opposite side is slightly normal. David Altmejd often mentions about the flow of energy and how he likes to create tension in his art works. This early works surely an example of this idea..In the interview for Sculpture Magazine(2007) Altmejd says:

 “I like that the werewolf look like a human being-you relate to it, which is nice. I like the idea that it has complex symbolic potential –it could be a metaphor double identity. Then there is the idea of transformation, which always features in my work. Things grow: crystals growing on things, plants growing, birds flying, so that you have the impression that the piece is alive and that if you went away and come back a week later. It would look different… I imiddieatly thought of making the werewolf crystallize, so that there is a contrast between its hairiness and the purity of crystals”(Amy, 2007: 24)

 From this perspective, I find Luke Jerram’s glass viruses very similar to Altmejd’s head sculptures. They both share Warburgian ‘’ Pathos Formula’’and engrafic effect. Pathos Formula constitutes two kinds of memory;on the one side, it carries the memory of encounter with disturbing ‘’traumatic event’’ and on the other hand, it recalls conscious maintenance of those who interprets this relation (Tekin, 2010 : 25-27 ). In other words, Altmejd creates his works which evoke the latter and Jerram’s works the former.

Warburg’s Mnemosyne might not be the first study about memory. In her highly popular book,Yates mentions “theater of memory” suggested by Guilio Camillo. He was highly praised for his study of theatre of memory.  The function of theater has been reversed, more clearly the viewer is placed on the stage and he/she is able to look at placed images in the theater. Camillo did build  small version of a theater of memory in wooden. Soon after Camillo was funded by French king Francis the First to built full scale version of theatre but he couldn’t finish his work like Warburg. However, Yates published a two-dimensional diagram in her book (Critchley, 2015: 20). In this sense, it’s very similar to Warburg’s Atlas. Warburg also re-organized individual panel doing so, he also used viewer as the engine who sets images in motion as in the “theater of memory.” I don’t know if Warburg was aware of this theater of memory but it could be certainly an inspration for creating Mnemosyne.

Warburg was very much interested into motion in art works but yet academics argue that Warburg didn’t only mention the physical motion also he referred to psychological more ‘’inner- movement ‘’which is a key to understanding of Mnemosyne Atlas and its relation to Altmejd’s installations.

‘’The introduction of forwardly moving figures forces the viewer: to exchange comparative viewing for anthropomorphistic viewing. The question is no longer: ‘What does this expression mean?’, but rather ‘Where is this directed to?’ The eye performs after-movements in relation to the figures, to maintain the illusion as if the object were moving. The key term here is Nachbewegungen-literally “after-movements”, or, more elegantly put, “succeeding movements”. If the prefix Nach-already suggests a general affinity to processes of Nachahmung (literally after-or post-miming), this suspected proximity is corroborated through a comparison with one of the theoretical source-texts for Warburg’s dissertation, namely Robert Vischer’s 1872 treatise Das optische Formgefühl. …..Warburg assumes that the impression of movement is generated through a kinetic perceptual (re)performance which occurs while viewing the pictorial representation of a moving figure, and he also conceives of these inner-organic movements that occur in the perceiving subject as mimetic in relation to the perceived stimulus.’’ (Ekhardt, 2013)

I believe that Mnemosyne Atlas also a true example of this inner-movement as a whole.The artistic quality of Atlas is questionable but it is a significant work and a passion song to the legacy of humanity and artmaking. Mnemosyne’s each panel is composed of many pictures. It does not solely consist of art works but also many ordinary objects. He gathered artworks or objects on a fixed theme which he had in mind. If one follows the pictures in the individual panels, it almost functions like a scene. As if he was trying to evoke a moving image through one’s wandering between every individual photographs .It is the true example of so- called “inner movement” in this sense. In Warburg’s panels, pictures are not neccassarily connected on the surface level. The last panel’s (79) theme is Eucyharist but there are some unconventional pictures. For example, there is a page from Hamburger Frandemblatt newspaper.It is not related with Eucyharist theme. It seems like Warburg did find a similar pattern in this paper to his Atlas. Warburg’s Atlas, does not provide us the easy way but rather he wanted us to think thorugh this pictures and create an inner movement through this carefully selected pictures. In this sense, we can argue that Warburg did try to create ambigious work which may not be suitable to academic or historical work. In academic world, one must create a strong argument in order to express her/his idea’s validness. In other words, one must be very much direct about her/his arguments.

We could argue that David Altmejd works are very much about physical movement than inner movement. I think that artist’s work titled The Flux and the Puddle(2014)  is a great way to confute this idea. First of all, title of the work is  gives away the very much the idea of the artist. Altmejd shows us a great number of objects: heads, multiple hands, mirrors, branches, leaves, arms of werewolves, a woman sculpture with big hole on his face, olives, two seated werewolves, pineapples, and ropes that go through many boxes etc…One must truly shocked by this incredibly complex work. It’s very easy get lost in this large scaled installation. Werewolves is one of the first thing that pop in front of you. As we know, werewolves, witches or other ungodly monsters, are the result of fear for the unkown world. However, today we live in a world which is mostly dominated by man. There is no space for fear from the nature to some point. There are lots of zoos and seaworlds around the world. We have telescopes to investigate night sky and sonars to see deep blue oceans. Altmejd might show us the superiroty of today’s people over nature and captures the fearsome objects and ideas into his plexiglass boxes(engrams).Chierra Lecca who is an Italian artist doing the same thing. I often think that Lecca’s flower almost belongs to Altmejd’s installations. Lecca’s flower might be seen regular from a distance but when you get close, you then have a chance to see what’s really inside this work. We soon realize that these are the body part from the animals, for example, the rabbit ears. Lecca investigates the nature versus man relationship in very minimal but in a very much Warburgian way.In other words, she also tries to evoke the fear in the collective memory of the humankind.

As I mentioned earlier, David Altmejd shows us physical movement in many levels. There are multiple hairy arms around the piece which suggesting the movement of an object. There are also several hand at the very right bottom of the piece which also emphasize on physical movement. On the other hand, the most noticable thing is the plexiglass boxes about this installation. Each of them make us remember the single shot from film reel so to speak. The objects are displayed as if they are in a showcase. Although, Altmejd work’s is so complex and very hard to grasp, he gives us little clues in the piece. Ropes are essential in this work. These ropes make us connect the boxes, in other words, show us the way like a dim torch. This connection creates a tension and a movement, not a physical but psychological movement as Warburg suggests in his writings. In other words, the movement inside the boxes is not the primary aspect but the relation between the boxes and what’s inside them is the most important part of this work. David Altmejd himself often talks about how he like to create a cinematic action in his works. What do we do in cinema? How do we create meaning? Russian film-maker Kuleshov is very important to understand this cinematic effect. In his experiment, he show us a hot boiling soup and in the succeeding scene, we see a man with a blank face. It immediately makes us connect those scenes somehow and most of  the people would claim that man is hungry. In the next scene, what we see is a child tomb and the same blank face in the succeeding scene which makes you think that he is in grief and so on. In other words, although there is nothing moving in the scene, we create an inner movement with help the of the editing in order to create meaning. Altmejd’s Flux and the Puddle(2014) is doing the exact same thing with a difference. He doesn’t gives us an ultimate or one way but yet provide many connection and many movements in this piece. As I mentioned earlier,  when a spectator come across with the Flux and the Puddle(2014), one feel the urge to connect them somehow. In this way, structure and the material aspect of the gets eliminated. Altmejd achieves to force spectators to mesmerize and draws them inside the energy and the flow as the title suggests. However, I can’t help thinking that if Altmejd had myth of Minatour in his mind while creating this piece. One can find many traces in this piece: ropes which remind us the rope that is given to Thesus by Ariadne. There we have werewolves which might be the echo of Minatour.

I would like to point out some other artists and their works in order to emphasize on movement and David Altmejd. First example might be the Sun Tunnels (1973) by land art artist Nancy Holt. Although, I haven’t been to Lucih Utah where this great work is located, I can understand  the great idea behind it. Holt’s work consisted of two large scaled concrete tunnels. There are four total concrete tunnels. Holts grouped them into two axes.One axes, is directed to winter solstice and the other is to summer solstice. I heard that if you visit the work in perfect time while winter or suumer solstice, you are actually able to see sunlight coming inside the tunnels which is probably an incredible experience. At first glance, one might consider land art and especially this particular work as materialistic which might not the case , in my opinion. Nancy Holt  actually was trying to elimiate these concrete tunnels and address her spectator the watch the great sky and the light. Sun Tunnels are located in the colorless dull desert, so these concrete gray tunnels is great way to blend objects into a site in order to avoiding interruption. David Altmejd often talks about how he would like to make the plexiglass boxes invisible. Holt and Altmejd eliminate the material through creating inner-movement that is to speak. There are also holes which are fixed to show specific stars in the sky which also remind us the Altmejd’s production(ropes in Flux and the Puddle). Holts also tries to create a flow not just solely its structure but also with the spontaneity of nature. She creates a whole though these holes but one must create his/her way alone. Holt’s work bring us the night sky but like Altmejd she gives us the chalk and let us draw our map let’s say. In this sense, we can easily argue that Holt’s works merely based on Warburg’s “inner-movement”.

Luke Jerram’s Aeolus (2011), is another great work for this discussed context. I think that Jerram is heavily influenced by the Holt’s Sun Tunnels. It’s a very spiritual work also. The title of the work “Aeolus” is the ruler of winds ın Greek Mythology. Winds are really important aspect of the natural world in many cultures. Even the symbol of presence of the unseen or the ghosts. Jerram’s works is slightly different from other works discussed in this essay but Jerram also creates many sights in his work which evokes a cinematic affect. Aeolius main idea was the transfer the aerial changes into Aeolus though the strings which are connected to some tubes that generate noise through it structure. Jerram does not just provide the sight but also the noise which is really interesting in my opinion. Aeaolus has many tubes which address the spectator different side of the sight as all the works referred in this article.

David Altmejd is probably the best known Canadian artist in the art world but he is often underappreciated due to their  rather ‘’easy’’ visuality. However, he exhibits regularly around the world. Many critics do not really understand what Altmejd try to achieve in his works. For me, his significance lies on his usage of cinematic effect. Thus he creates interactive works through this intention. For this reason, it was important to point out the relation between Aby Warburg and Mnemosyne Atlas which evokes cinematic effect first time along with Marcel Duchamp’s Bicyle Wheel(1913) in art/art historical standpoint. I believe that David Altmejd’s Flux and the Puddle(2014) is really the successor of Warburg’s Atlas.Some artists also influenced by Mnemosyne but they do not try bringing it into the 21st century on the contrary, they choose to take their material back to 1920s. On the other hand, Altmejd creates the Mnemosyne of 21st century and that’s what makes him really intriguing artist.

Mehmet Berkay Sülek



Amy, M. (2007, December). Sculpture as Living Organism: A Conversation with David Altmejd. Sculpture, 26,  23-27.

Critchley S.(2015). Memory Theatre. Istanbul:Metis.

Ekhardt P.(2011). Sensing-Feeling –Imitating Psycho-Mimeses in Aby Warburg. Ilinix Journal,1. Retrieved from http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/ilinx/2/ekardt-philipp-101/PDF/ekardt.pdf

Fleckner U.(2005).Sarkis, Social Memory of Art and Sarkis. In Uwe Fleckner(ed.) Memory and Infinite(pp. 185-201). Istanbul: Norgunk.

Flux and the Puddle [Online Image].(2014). Retrieved January 31, 2016 from  http://www.davidaltmejd.com/the-flux-and-the-puddle-2014/

Foster H.(2009). The Return of the Real: The Avante-Garde at the End of the Century.Istanbul:Ayrıntı

Johnson D. C. (2012). Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images. Ithaca,NY: Cornell University Press.

Reed, C. (Director). (1948). Third Man[Film]. London: London Films.

Tekin N. (2010). The significance of André Malraux’s imaginary museum in terms of contemporary art politics and present art projects.(Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Council of Higher Education Thesis Center(280174).



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