Welcome to the Snark: the subversive world of Daniel Arsham
Daniel Arsham has been in survival mode for the past two years. Unable to create the seismic sculptures that have become his recent signature, he turned his home office into an art studio, returning to the origins of his practice – painting. In between a minutely timed schedule of domestic duties and homeschooling his sons Casper, eight, and Phoenix, five, Arsham embarked on an ambitious new set of canvases. These epic compositions, later rescaled in his studio, have become 19ft tall, and feature archeological wonders submerged in a fictional landscape of ice caves and caverns. At once eerie and sublime, the paintings – created in monochromatic gradients of tone (Arsham is almost completely colour-blind) – currently form the basis of a solo show at the König Galerie in Berlin.
The exhibition marks the start of a particularly prolific period for the New York-based artist. In London this month, he unveils a reimagining of Summer, one of a pair of figurative bronzes created in 1911 by the French sculptor Paul Jean-Baptiste Gasq that once flanked the entrance of the former Whiteleys shopping centre in Bayswater. His futuristic, crystal-clad remake is part of the grand conversion of the Grade II-listed site by Foster + Partners. Across town, at Frieze Sculpture, he’s showing his most ambitious three-dimensional work to date. A mammoth sculptural form, about half the size of a double-decker bus, Unearthed Bronze Eroded Melpomene (2021) is an immense bust of the Greek muse of tragedy. Suspended between deterioration and resurrection, it looks as though it’s being slowly submerged back into the earth.
“The past few months have been intense,” admits Arsham of his packed calendar, which also includes his reinterpretation of Tiffany’s iconic blue box – a piece cast in bronze and studded with jagged gold crystals to present his limited-edition white-gold bracelet, designed in collaboration with the house. Then there’s the display of a new, 10-piece furniture collection at Friedman Benda gallery. The original 3D maquettes were forged from Play-Doh while messing around with his children, then 3D scanned, ergonomically adjusted and milled or cast in stone, laminated plywood and resin. “It’s furniture for the Flintstones,” he says of the Pebbles armchair, Bedrock table and Dino dining chair, which perfectly encapsulate his more cartoonish, childlike style.
It’s a shiny, consumable, pop sensibility that stems from his fascination with street culture, especially via Japan. Arsham has collaborated with everyone from Pokémon to Nigo (the founder of streetwear label A Bathing Ape), and his second home in Long Island – a 1971 wooden wonder by architect Norman Jaffe – is a temple to his collections of countless sneakers (each housed in a Perspex box) and cars (he has a Porsche from almost every decade of the late 20th century). “I tend to be easily distracted,” he admits. “Different mediums, and collecting, are really just a way for me to experience and understand variation.”
So what is the thread that draws these seams together? “All my work is about reevaluating our relationship with time,” he says. It’s a theme rooted in his early collaboration with the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the life-long partner of composer John Cage, who tasked Arsham with creating his company’s stage sets straight after graduation. For Arsham, Cunningham’s genius was being able to manipulate conceptions of time – compressing and expanding it – through performance. “So much of our lives is bound up with how we manage time,” he says. “That’s the answer to it all.”
Arsham, now 41, has experienced several creative flashpoints. In 1992, aged 12, his family home in Miami was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. “It nearly killed us,” he says. “The whole city was flooded, all our possessions were gone and there was no electricity. It was traumatic, but I also remember it being this surreal, magical experience. For the first time we could see the stars in the city.”
Observing, first-hand, his home being razed to the ground, then slowly rebuilt, radically altered Arsham’s understanding of architecture, igniting his pursuit of a career in the arts. He began obsessively capturing details of his suburban housing estate on his Pentax K1000, a gift from his grandfather, and creating architectural drawings and paintings. “I still have dreams about being back in that house,” he says of its huge subliminal impact.
This fascination with the built environment has formed the foundation of a body of work that’s defined by both its depth and diversity. After studying fine art at The Cooper Union School of Art in New York (where he is currently serving as guest professor), Arsham and some friends renovated a 1930s bungalow-style house in Miami, living upstairs and turning the ground floor into a gallery named The House. Arsham’s exhibitions have since been a means to interrogate interiors in increasingly grand and dramatic ways. He began using pure gypsum plaster to quietly disrupt gallery walls, making them amorphously drip, ripple and melt, then magically embedding them with clocks, chairs or figures, even tying together cavernous partition walls with a gigantic suspended bow.
It’s a compulsion he continues to explore through Snarkitecture, the design practice he created with architect Alex Mustonen in 2007, which blurs the boundaries between art and architecture through interactive installations, products and retail spaces. They’ve created giant bouncy ball playgrounds, filled art spaces with large lollipop-like lights and, more recently, designed a new Parisian store, complete with a Nike-trainer chandelier, for the streetwear label Kith. “When it comes to controlling experience, architecture is one of the most influential arts,” he says. “It’s the most lasting human gesture.”
However enduring, a single medium has never been enough to sate Arsham’s creative curiosities. Traversing film, music video, performance, set design and fashion, his career has been demarcated by periods of intense obsession. Following a trip to Easter Island for a Louis Vuitton travel book in 2010, he began casting ordinary objects – anything from eBay-sourced Polaroid cameras to Pharrell Williams’s childhood Casio MT-500 keyboard – in volcanic ash, plaster and resin. Elevating these everyday items to the status of archeological finds or “Future Relics”, he quickly amassed enough crumbling casts to fill a 25ft man-made chasm in the floor of Locust Projects, an art space in Miami. Last year, Arsham collaborated with Kim Jones on the Dior Men’s summer 2020 collection, meticulously orchestrating the scenography, along with a series of his Future Relics inspired by the house.
Arsham’s fictional archeology also mines the ancient past. After accessing the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the centuries-old moulding studio that creates reproductions of classical museum masterpieces, he began forging eroded, crystal-embellished iterations of everything from the Venus de Milo to Michelangelo’s Moses. But while he might dip into the past, he remains future-focused: the theme of reformation and decay that these works explore is being investigated in the non-physical world too, through evolving digital sculptures connected to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the latest of which won’t reach its apex until 2094. This shift into NFTs is kind of a metaphor for Arsham’s output: unique, futuristic, non-fungible.
Unearthed is on until 24 October at König Galerie, St Agnes, Alexandrinenstrasse 118-121, Berlin; koeniggalerie.com. Eroded Summer is on from 16-17 October at The Whiteley Gallery, 31 St Petersburgh Place, London