The Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal's Zoo exhibition hosts more than its fair share of marvels – golden Chinese animal zodiac heads by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, a live ocean crab wearing a carved Brancusi-esque sculpture as its shell (by the French artist Pierre Huyghe), and Shary Boyle's porcelain evocation of the goddess Ganesh, a bare-breasted elephant woman which Boyle imagines rising from a pool, festooned with skeins of beads and ruffled ears of pale pink and violet lace.
Even in such enchanting company, David Altmejd's new work Le Spectre et la Main pushes wonder to the max. The piece combines many of Altmejd's signature materials – plexiglas, coloured thread, epoxy clay – and displays his penchant for building up and pulling apart form simultaneously. Earlier works of his, including his installation in the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale back in 2007, had featured semi-decomposing werewoves sprouting crystals, or manly giants whose rotting flanks and entrails harbour worlds. All this entropy was set against a hyper-fecundity, the life force asserting itself with sprouting fungi and flowers, glittering golden chains, delicate birds and phalluses that cropped up like mushrooms after rain.
With his new work for Montreal, though, Altmejd creates an elaborate, three-dimensional study of motion that brings to mind Eadweard Muybridge's galloping horses, the freize sculptures from the Parthenon (with their multiplicity of elegantly prancing equine limbs), Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, and the joyous creative flights of Alexander Calder's Circus, which evince the artist's delight in craft, basic materials and simple, creaturely endearments.
A zebra leaps through space, its plasticene flanks opening out and flinging skyward to reveal plexiglass and metal mesh armatures beneath, and a multicoloured pastel fretwork of threads denoting pure velocity. This exuberant movement is contained within a gridded order of plexiglass, yet barely. Coconuts whirl and scatter around and through the cavalcade, adding momentum to the whole.
The concept for the work began with the notion of Noah's Ark, Altmejd says, talking on the phone from his Long Island City, N.Y., studio, "with the idea of animals rushing through. Originally it was a multitude." Next, the idea of a horse emerged, but as he built the rectilinear armature beneath, he started seeing stripes, and a zebra became the natural way to go. "I thought is was interesting that a zebra had appeared from the process itself, that the process of the work was generating its own form from within. That really gets me excited." The coconuts, however, were another matter. "I have always associated coconuts with something slapstick," Altmejd says, "something humorous coming in from outside, something that screws up the system." It's the catalyst from beyond, the unexpected, the element of chance.
The beast is thus revealed as a kind of Frankenstein, underpinned by the machinery of art and science. Like the Bengal tiger in Yann Martel's mystical Life of Pi, Altmejd's zebra emerges from the mind of its maker as both symbol and product of human imagination, airborne between the realms of fact and fiction. We hang on for the ride.