Daniel Arsham has a Mickey Mouse phone in his studio. It’s the first thing I notice when I walk in. He looks around at the broken cameras and Felix the Cat clock on a work table and says, “I bring all these things into the studio and stare at them for a really long time, and sort of see where they take me.” Refreshing to hear from a contemporary artist, when it seems like everyone else is trying to figure out how to push the idea of edginess, not recognizing that beyond the edge is a very big drop.
The 32 year old was born in Cleveland, raised in Miami, and moved to NYC to attend prestigious art and design school, Cooper Union. After Cooper, where he graduated in 2003, he headed back to Miami and cofounded the artist space “The House.” Timing was good, as the Art Fair began the same year, and an influx of art aficionados made it the new cultural hub. Since then Arsham has straddled a number of different genres through his art. He’s done set design and choreography for Merce Cunningham and Jonah Bokaer. He’s reimagined architecture through his design of Dior’s LA Store dressing rooms and as the one of the heads of Snarkitecture, which he cofounded with partner Alex Mustonen in 2008. He’s represented by Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, RonMandos Gallery in Amsterdam, and OHWOW in LA. In the next year he’ll be showing a new collection in Amsterdam that “works through all the devices of communication: cameras, telephones, guns.”
Where do you get the vision for you art installations?
A lot of times I’m trying to take something that already exists, that we know and we have an expectation about, and alter it. Because I’m manipulating something that we know, it has a very strong visceral experiential quality about it. In some ways architecture is like the largest gesture we can make as entities and also the most permanent. So to alter that and to make it do things that it shouldn’t be doing can be a very transformative or disruptive experience.
Is that how your work with choreography came about? I know you had originally been contacted to do set design, but it seems like with the human body and our natural setting, it’s relational.
I came to theater and dance by accident, through Merce Cunningham. He asked me to work on some pieces for him, and through that I met a younger choreographer named Jonah Bokaer. Jonah was a dancer for Merce. When I was working with Merce, Jonah was still there. And a lot of the works that have figures in them, came after that period. In a gallery, or in a museum, or any other context people are able to walk around things, experience them from many different places. They have to be permanent in a different kind of way. And in stage, you have this unique case where the audience is sitting in one place and then, whatever you make is in another. They can’t walk around it. They usually can’t get up and touch it, so there are all of these things that we can play with—perspective, scale. The lighting possibilities on stage are way better than any other context that I’ve ever been in.
What are some of the tricks of the trade for set work as opposed to art work?
Specifically with Jonah, I’m trying to find things that have a kind of potential for movement, so there are things that we can do with them. In one of the works we use thousands of ping pong balls which can fall and roll around the space. The dances can manipulate them. They can become these points in space, and in some way, the objects that I present to Jonah becomes the foundation of how he’s going to build the choreography, based on–the dancers can move this way, and it will push the balls across the floor. So the material informs the choreography in a way.
When I worked with Cunningham, it was completely different because he worked entirely through chance. Each part of the process is separate from the other. So he would make the choreography, a composer would make the score, and an artist would make all the visual things. Those entities worked independently of one another. I didn’t know what Merce was doing. He didn’t know what the composer was making. I hadn’t seen any of it, so he was like just make your set and bring it onto the stage and that’ll be it, which meant that there could be no direct interaction between the set and the dancers or the music for that matter. The choreography and the design share a space and the choreography and music share a time, so they’re both the same length.
What are your art exhibitions like with the choreography included compared to without?
In the last four or five shows, Jonah has performed in the openings of my shows. There’s been a massive resurgence in the art world with performance; people like Marina and Terence Koh, but that sort of performance is informed by the history of performance in museums and galleries. What we’re looking to is people like Merce or Bob Wilson. It’s a different sort of track.
With your work I’m interested to know how balance has affected your life, because you’ve got all these pieces where they seem like they should just fall over. They look weighted. Off kilter.
I just opened a gallery in Philadelphia which is called Reach Ruin at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, which is a project that I worked on for a very long time and it’s largely based on the experience that I had as a child of a hurricane in Miami, in which I was nearly killed. And it was kind of the first experience in seeing how architecture’s made and watching it come apart. The house was destroyed. There are holes in walls. There are windows missing. The roof trusses are torn apart. The pink insulation that’s in the walls is all over everything. So the house is torn apart, and then they built it exactly back, so I watched that whole process and the pieces like this, and there was a number of other works that were in the exhibition that take these materials—so this one is shattered glass—materials that are broken or have no purpose and reform them back into these things that have an intention behind them. After the storm, all the frames of family photos or paintings or whatever else, the wind had blown all the things that in them out, so it was just these empty frames everywhere. So I recast all of these empty frames back in shattered glass, which was also all over the place.
How do you restructure something from broken pieces? You use shattered glass to make full human figures.
Yeah. The figures are cast from me. So there’s a plaster mold of me standing in that position, and then, we cast it in two parts, put the whole thing back together, fill it with glass. Slowly take off the mold. And then, he’s cleaning the tiny bits of plaster that still remain.
What about your use of color? Your palette has lots of lights, grays, blues, it’s very sterile.
Well I’m totally color-blind. It’s not that I don’t see color, but the palette is limited. Most of the work that I do, because it’s tied directly with architecture or it’s using architectural materials, the color is the color of whatever the wall is, or the color is the color of the glass. It’s these things that already have a tone about them.
What do you feel about the contemporary world of art right now? Your work is very subtle, but it’s impactful because of its subtlety, whereas I feel like everyone is feeling that they need to go so far out there right now, because everything has been pushed to the limit. Everyone’s putting a dick on or in their art.
I had a professor in school, and I always remember this quote that she said which was, “If you run out of ideas,” she was being sarcastic but, “Make it big, and if that doesn’t work, make it red, and if that doesn’t work make it shiny and if that doesn’t work then make it spin.” Part of what we try to do in Snarkitecture and what I try to do myself is to pay attention to materials and sort of do what they want. Obey the logic behind them. I feel like when you pay attention to that and obey the logic of the material that you’re working with or the concept that you’re working with, it tends to fit in the right place somehow, and not be too big or ostentatious. So it’s creating very large gestures in the most economical hand.
When you work on a collaboration, or are assigned a project like the dressing rooms in Dior’s LA store, do you feel stymied?
In 98% of the cases that I collaborate with other designers, or other musicians or whatever it is, they approach me. So they already know what they’re going to get. So with the case with Dior, he just said, make whatever you want. There needs to be a seat, a hook, and a mirror, and there can be no color, and that was it. So those directions have allowed me to, in a sense, make what I’m already making but fit it into their world.
How long did the LA store take?
About a year. Recently, I did a project with Margiela where they essentially asked me to come in and propose whatever I wanted, as long as it could be included in their idea to take pieces from the collection and integrate them. A lot of the figures already are wearing pared down simple clothing. So I just took my work and integrated some of the Margiela pieces into that.
What’s a dream project for you with Snarkitecture or in your own work?
We like to work in a range of scales, so we’ve made everything from a Christmas ornament to very large-scale permanent work. We can work on a project that may take us two days, and then other projects that take us two years and allow us to float around in those places. For me, there’s a lot of new projects coming up all the time, really interesting people that I get to work and collaborate with, and I think the studio’s unique in how much it floats around in terms of discipline. It’s not really an architecture studio. We don’t even really make architecture. It’s kind of a practice. And my studio’s the same. I’m working in such a wide variety of contexts: from theater to collaborating with people in fashion, other architects, choreographers, keeps things fresh.