The work of American artist Daniel Arsham is increasingly difficult to define. The 34-year-old sculptor and painter also co-founded the experimental young architectural practice Snarkitecture. What’s more, aged just 28 he carved out an international reputation in stage design when he became Merce Cunningham’s preferred artist collaborator, joining a line of some of America’s greatest 20th Century artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Despite their 60-year age gap they worked together until Cunningham’s death in 2009.
When I meet Arsham at his London gallery Pippy Houldsworth on the morning his new show opens, he tells me he’s currently thinking of himself as a sort of scientist and pseudo-archeologist. In recent years he’s spent much of his time researching and experimenting with materials for a series of sculptural works that form the basis of an installation designed to look like an archaeological dig. It opens this week at Miami’s Locust Space during Art Basel Miami.
‘My assistants and I even wear lab coats in the studio, and I’ve given them badges borrowed from an archeological dig, such as Field Crew and Crew Chief,’ he explains. The lab has been working on eroding his sculptures of everyday items including an electric guitar, a 16mm film camera and NBA basketballs, which are made out of some of the earth’s most weather-resistant materials including rose quartz, crystal, ash, obsidian and steel. It’s taken him almost a year to come up with a method to make the materials malleable enough to cast them as solid stone, then erode them to they look like they’re falling apart.
‘These works take a commonplace item that has been reformed to make you think about your place in time, the idea of archaeology,’ Arsham says before correcting himself: ‘or the fiction of archaeology.’
All the items cast, he says, will be familiar because they were made in the last 50 years. ‘I selected the objects because they’re like icons — the first Sony Walkman, a Fifties microphone.’ Three pieces from the series are also currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery’s Post-Pop show in London, which opened recently.
Despite Arsham’s signature Sigmund Freud-alike round spectacles, and his cool and slightly distant manner, the line about being a scientist is no confection. In 2012, he won a residency at Philadelphia’s unique Fabric Workshop Museum where artists are facilitated with everything they need in order to experiment with challenging materials.
During his time there he came up with an ingenious technique to reinvent broken glass stolen from New York demolitions as a casting material. (‘They tear down buildings all the time in New York.’) With the remains he creates beautiful, apparently impossible solid figures out of a fragile material already fractured — at once a bleak reflection on human frailty, yet at the same time an optimistic, defiant gesture, expressing the recyclability of human creations.
Last year, Arsham cast celebrity rapper Pharrell Williams in fractured glass for a show at his Paris gallery, adding a sharp comment on the fragility of the celebrity construct to the mix. His celebrity collaborations don’t end there; he’s just premiered a short film starring James Franco in Paris; he’s worked with experimental theatre director Robert Wilson; and he continues to collaborate with choreographer and dancer Jonah Bokaer.
It’s certainly a complex CV. ‘I certainly haven’t limited what I’ve done to one area,’ concedes Arsham. It is typical of his quiet, understated manner. He watches and listens closely and inexpressively, and responds only when he has something to say. Slight in build and dressed all in black, he seems almost content to fade into the background. It comes as no surprise when he tells me that ever since he was a young child he’s always taken photographs.
As we talk he decides to flick through his photos from the previous day’s sightseeing in London. He shows me my home city as I’ve never seen it before: futuristic, claustrophobic black and white shots of escalators in decrepit, almost ruinous underground stations; the Millennium Bridge lit up against a moody sky. He stops to study at a picture of a child in the Tate Modern looking up at a Nam June Paik robot sculpture.
Looking at that photo, I realise there’s a very clear thread that runs through Arsham’s myriad creative projects: he revels in the architecture of the future, the promise and stability that it offers — while at the same exposing its weakness, for it is only as fragile as the human hand that made it.
I think of the paintings that compelled Merce Cunningham to first contact Arsham in 2004, depicting, in a blue and white gouache wash, a Bauhaus-style building floating out to see atop a vast iceberg. I look at the installation he’s currently showing in his London gallery, an ‘architectural disruption’ in which a man is literally wrapped in a wall; it’s either the undoing of the very epitome of stability, or a playful idea that makes you want to lean on a wall just to be reassured of its existence. , I suggest to him it’s as fun or as terrifying as you want it to be.
‘That line is where the uncanny sense of a lot of these things comes about,’ Arsham replies. ‘You have two feelings about it that are conflicting with each other.’
At the age of 12 Arsham witnessed the total destruction of his house during Miami’s cataclysmic Hurricane Andrew. I ask him to tell me about that night, and as he does so his precise, clear prose dissolves into a torrent of vivid impressions.
‘You could see the rain dripping through the walls… the room started filling up… We moved into a closet… there started to be chaotic noise around the house, the sound of architecture… You imagine architecture to be a very solid permanent thing… Then this really bizarre thing happened. The pink fiberglass in the ceiling was torn apart, and it was plastered over every object — but directionally. Very thin fibres placed over everything — and all pink. There was pink insulation everywhere. Glass, water, all the photos… Walking outside, for me, there was something kind of magical about it as well, just to see trees down and cars turned over.
‘There was another uncanny moment,’ he continues. ‘Everything in the house was destroyed except for the concrete skeleton. So they took everything out, including the roof and rebuilt it exactly the same as it had been before. You watch your home being destroyed, then everything gets reconstructed exactly the same… except the odd surface is a little different — you know the floor tiles.’
I suggest the storm can be seen in all his work, so does he think this one event defined the rest of his life?
Daniel Arsham seems genuinely surprised: ‘Definitely not. I don’t even think about the storm any more,’ he says.
Disaster really exposes all our childhood beliefs, I say, quoting child psychologist Jon Shaw. Arsham just nods.
Daniel Arsham is at Locust Projects, Miami, Pippy Houldsworth, London and the Saatchi Gallery, London. He has a major solo show at CAC, Cincinnati opening March 2015
All Welcome to the Future installation photos courtesy of Locust Projects. Photo credit Zach Balber with Ginger Photography.
Daniel Arsham, Crystal Eroded 16mm Film Projector, 2013. Crystal, shattered glass, hydrostone, unique. 25.8 x 30.9 x 7.5 ins. (65.5 x 78.5 x 19 cm.); Daniel Arsham
Bound Figure, 2014 fibreglass, paint, joint compound, fabric and shoes 195.6 x 139.7 x 55.9 cm, 77 x 55 x 22 in; Daniel Arsham, Ash Eroded Toy Phone , 2013. Volcanic ash, shattered glass, hydrostone, unique. 15 x 8.1 x 8.1 ins. (38 x 20.5 x 20.5 cm.). Courtesy of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery