Hollow Figure, 2012 fiberglass and paint, 183 x 173 x 152 cm.

Playing with Perception: A Conversation with Daniel Arsham

Draped Figure Arms Out, 2013. Fiberglass and paint, 185 x 165 x 60 cm.

Daniel Arsham’s work is full of the unexpected: solid surfaces appear to bend and buckle, high-tech equipment looks like it’s existed for thousands of years, and people seem to walk through walls. Unexpected is just how Arsham likes it; he challenges our perceptions of the physical world and what is possible within it—and he does so in witty, playful ways. Arsham’s career trajectory has also been full of unexpected, or more accurately, fantastic twists and turns. Indeed, there is a fairytale quality to his rise within the art world. Ten years ago, when he was only 24, legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham asked him to create stage designs for a new production. Further collaborations with Cunningham led to designs for choreographer Jonah Bokaer. Then, fashion designer Hedi Slimane commissioned Arsham to design the fitting rooms for Dior Homme in Los Angeles. Dior, in turn, requested that he design window installations for stores in New York, Milan, and Paris. Arsham has also created a limited edition travel book focusing on Easter Island for Louis Vuitton and gift boxes and champagne flutes for Perrier-Jouet’s 200th anniversary in 2004. He’s even re-created a Casio MT-500 keyboard to look like an archaeological relic for musician and Academy Award nominee Pharrell Williams. Arsham is the co-founder with Alex Mustonen of Snarkitecture, a conceptual architecture practice, and his artistic work is represented by Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris.

Kim Carpenter: You’ve mentioned that you’re colorblind. Does this influence how you create your sculptures?

Daniel Arsham: My work is not necessarily dependent on or related to my colorblindness. Often when I’m looking at materials, I’m selecting them for properties other than color. For instance, when I’m working on sculptures related to a wall surface, the pieces are white because the wall is white. If the wall is a different color or a different shade of white, then the works become that color. In more recent works that use materials like volcanic ash, crystal, and obsidian, the works are the color of the material, and the color of the material happens to be a gradient of black to white. So, I select the color inadvertently through the selection of the material.

KC: Why do you use unconventional materials such as crushed glass?

DA: Especially in my recent work, which deals with an invented, fictional archaeology, the material is as important as the form. If I’m making a camera that’s supposed to appear as though it’s been uncovered at some future archaeological site, it has to look as if it has age to it, as if it’s been buried; there are erosions in it; there’s a surface condition to it. But the camera is not merely painted to look that way. It’s not a trompe l’oeil effect. The camera is actually made of a geological material like crystal or ash, and in that way, the thing is what it’s saying that it is. The materiality is conveying as much as the form.

KC: How do you decide on your subject matter? It ranges from human figures to recognizable objects.

DA: The sculptures that interact with architectural surfaces are often figures or everyday things—for instance, a clock, which you would expect to find on a wall. I try to create scenarios in which viewers experience something that they know or that they’ve seen before, but that’s acting in a way it’s not supposed to. I try to make the architecture do things that it shouldn’t do. It melts. It ripples. It begins to look like fabric. It takes solid form, this thing that we have certain expectations about, and makes it perform in ways that cause us to question the surfaces. When it comes to the archaeological series, I select iconic things like cameras, payphones, guitars, and other things that we know from our everyday lives—some that we may not use anymore and some that are very much present—and I cause them to have age, an appearance of time. What that does for me and what I hope that can do for viewers is cause confusion about time. You look at something from the present and it appears as if it’s a thousand years old, and suddenly you’ve been transported to a future place where the object could appear this way.

KC: You’ve created some compelling “artifacts,” including reel-to-reel tape recorders, telephones, the Mickey Mouse, the baseball pyramids. What is the inspiration for these pieces?

DA: The whole series of archaeological pieces began after a visit to Easter Island a couple of years ago. I was there to make paintings of the Moai and the landscape, which I then turned into a book, and there were a couple of excavation sites where archaeologists were re-excavating Moai that had previously been excavated about a hundred years ago. They found objects that had been left by earlier archaeologists in conjunction with the Moai statues. It occurred to me that this confusion of time offered an interesting place for work to reside. When I returned to New York, I began making things like cameras and other technological objects that appeared as archaeological relics with a certain age and material transformation to them. No longer made of metal and plastic, they were now composed of crystal and volcanic ash.

KC: Your figurative sculptures meld into the architecture. How important is the surrounding architecture when you’re creating these pieces?

DA: The figurative works are actually transforming the surface of the architecture. Seeing them can be an uncanny experience. You walk into a room where three of these works are installed, and you might not notice them immediately, but once you do, the impact is quite strong. They disrupt the familiar and alter your expectations of what architectural form can—and should—do.

KC: Some of your pieces, like the white chair that looks like it’s emerging from a wall, make the architecture look as though it’s melting. There’s a sense of motion.

DA: The movement in the architectural works is definitely important. The clock is falling, the figures appear to be moving out from a wall covered in fabric. For me, it’s mostly about this material transformation. Architecture is meant to be solid, a quality that gives us a sense of stability and permanence. When we think about architecture, it’s the most lasting gesture we can make as human beings—art too, I suppose, although one could argue that architecture is the most visible and present. Therefore its disruption can be very uncanny and powerful, and this is where I’m trying to allow the work to reside, a place where people are a little bit shaken by the disruption of the familiar and the everyday.

KC: Is that why you focus on recognizable objects, to create a sense of disruption?

Snarkitecture, Bend, 2012. Upholstery, foam, and steel, 548.6 cm. diameter.

DA: Everything that I make uses something that people already know, that they already have a reference for, and disrupts it. In paintings, it can be the disruption of the moon or of a typical landscape.

KC: How does working with the human figure differ from creating inanimate objects?

DA: I resisted putting human figures into my work for a very long time, and I don’t think it started until I began working with Merce Cunningham. I started making figurative works that allowed the figures to interact with the surface of the architecture or with the architecture itself. I never put figures in my paintings, because it would tie the works to a specific time period—you see how someone’s dressed or how their hair’s cut, and all of a sudden that work is made at that moment. Without figures, my paintings of floating architectural beams and of landscapes with apparently incongruous architectural structures can float in time. They could be now, they could be a thousand years in the future—or a thousand years in the past.

KC: You blend sculpture, architecture, and performance art. How do they mesh in terms of your artistic practice?

DA: I certainly use performance in my work, although I wouldn’t call it performance art. I’m very much interested in working with the stage. There’s been a big push in the art world to have performances within museums and galleries, but this is not necessarily the area in which I’m interested. I want to make work that exists in a traditional proscenium and uses all of the possibilities and trappings of theater, of stagecraft—all of the things that I’m able to do on stage with lighting and with time. When viewers see a sculpture or a painting in a gallery, there’s no demand on them. They can look at it or not. In a theater, the audience is fixed. They’re not able to walk around something. They’re there for a certain amount of time. It’s a very different way of bringing someone into the work.

KC: You mentioned Merce Cunningham. You worked with him in 2007 to design the costumes, lighting, and sets for “eyeSpace.” You were the youngest artist ever to do so and the last artist to work with him.

Glacial Rock Eroded Hollow Guitar, 2014. Glacial rock dust, fragments of marble, and hydrostone, 106.5 x 38 x 7.5 cm

DA: When Merce called me and asked me to collaborate on a piece, I was terrified. He was a legend. I was 24 years old, and he was 84. He had a very peculiar and particular way of working in which he would do his choreography, an artist would make the stage design, and a composer would make the score, and none of them would know what the others were doing. It was very much based around John Cage’s ideas of chance. The artists would all make their own things, and then the three would be brought together for the performance. So, he asked me to make this work with him and essentially said, “Go off and do whatever it is you’re going to do and then I’ll see you at the premier.” This was challenging in two respects. One was not knowing what he was going to make and not knowing what the music would sound like. The other was that I had never worked with the stage before. I didn’t study stage design. I didn’t know anything about lighting. I had never even been on a stage, so all of this was an education for me. I worked with him on that first piece and continued to work with him for the rest of his life.

KC: Did you use a sculptural approach for the designs?

DA: The stage is a much different way of making things. The fact that the audience is fixed gives a sculptor all kinds of advantages. The audience never sees the back of things. They don’t know where the lighting is coming from. The lighting can change dramatically, and the feeling and the kind of scenario you can present with lighting is much broader than you have in a gallery space or a museum.

KC: You have many different approaches, and they’re constantly changing. Where do you see your practice heading next?

DA: I work in many different mediums because I find opportunities in them to expand how I convey the ideas in my work. This is why I chose to work on the stage and why I chose to work in architecture. The next sort of large gesture for me, I think, is in film. I’ve been working on a series of films called “Future Relic.” I’ve made two of them already, and they come together in a larger story that builds a fiction around my archaeological pieces. I started this project because I noticed that, when people wrote about these fictional objects, they often invented a scenario around them. I thought that I could control and direct that narrative—even make my own story about the future with these objects. Kim Carpenter is a writer and communications manager at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska.