Daniel Arsham

Interview with Daniel Arsham

Daniel Arsham engineers the impossible: he is a poet of the surreal, an architect of the strange. He moves easily between painting, drawing and sculpture, practicing each with a critical edge, informed by the other disciplines. This protean artist graduated from Cooper Union in New York City, and has emerged since as a major figure in contemporary art, and he's not even forty. Arsham has collaborated with such noted figures as the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, fashion designer Heidi Silmane, and musician Pharrell Williams. Arsham also collaborated in founding the Brooklyn based, interactiveSnarkitecture, an offshoot of situationist psycho-geography. He is currently working on Future Relic 02, a short film/apocalyptic vision series, in collaboration with actor and writer James Franco.

Daniel Arsham

Translation: Leah Light

Frederic-Charles Baitinger: What inspired the new collection at the Perrotin's Gallery in Paris? What made you look at music, when your work has generally been concerned with architecture? How do these pieces fit into the trajectory of your previous works?

Daniel Arsham:The Paris show is based on a notion of fictional, archeological objects – objects more or less directly related to music. These are familiar objects from our daily lives (here, a record player, a radio, a battery, speakers…), presented as though they’ve come from another era, in the past. Although they would normally pass by unnoticed, they take on a new consistency. It’s the idea of the flow of time that is being called into question. The way I’m questioning time, here, it’s true, is structurally similar to the ways I’ve challenged space in the past.

Inlet - Daniel Arsham

In the same way that I’ve tried to alter ideas of space by playing with architecture, in this show I’m trying to alter ideas of time. In this sense, the new series can be connected to my previous work insofar as it also obeys this logic, a logic which I call my “fictional archeology.” This archeology is based on a simple principle: take a familiar object and make it undergo a treatment, finishing it so that the object appears as something strange, something surprising.

FCB:Can you tell us a little more concretely what the idea of “fictional archeology” means, for you?

DA:Of course. When I take a simple object – a Walkman, for example – something we all have (or used to have), and make it look like a fossil, or an artifact, this makes us rethink our inscription in time. It makes us ask, what kinds of ideas have we constructed about time? To what extent do we believe, unconsciously, in progress, and linear development? It’s towards these kinds of questions that I want to lead my viewers. In placing them in the future, where the familiar objects of their everyday lives appear to them as though from an ancient moment, I want them to experience what Freud called the Uncanny.

Altered Reel to Reel - Daniel Arsham

FCB:Would you agree that the theme of music, in your recent work, is a metaphor for all the so called performance arts, that is, the group of arts whose essence resides in time, and that you are trying to question their evanescence by putting them in conversation with their opposite, the most materially enduring art form, architecture?

DA:I haven’t thought about the relationship between music and architecture this way before, but it’s true that music, like dance, is a performance art, an ephemeral art – an art that exists only during the time of its execution – while architecture is an art that only comes to exist once its execution is over. So, the only archeological artifacts which could represent an ephemeral art like music would be objects used in producing or playing it. In other words, an artifact of a musical performance cannot exist. There are only artifacts from those who were permitted to enter into the ephemeral duration of a musical performance.

The future is always now - Daniel Arsham

That’s why the materials I use are so important. I use volcanic ash and natural crystals – materials that evoke geology. I don’t want my works to betrompes l’oiel: I wouldn’t, for example, take a Fender guitar and paint it in such a way so as to make it look old. I want the guitar itself to be forged from material that suggests, because of its actual properties, the passage of time. My works are what they seem to be. Theycould in realitybe fossils, although they’re not.

FCB:In blurring the boundaries between architecture and music (or as in your past work, between architecture and drawing and painting), what effects are you seeking to provoke in viewers? Would you agree in saying that you’re striving to integrate the accidental, evanescent characteristics of music into the mathematical stability of architecture, or even, inversely, that you’re seeking to give to all the performance arts the atemporal and stable character of architecture?

DA: I wouldn’t say that my work derives from a conscious desire to blur the lines of demarcation between architecture and music, or even between architecture and drawing. Painting, drawing, architecture – these are the domains that make up my practice. But what makes them work together is always an act of thought. It is this act of thought which determines the direction that my work takes, permitting it to evolve across several disciplines like architecture, dance, theatre, cinema; then the rest happens organically.

Fungi - Daniel Arsham

The more I work in a discipline, the more that discipline will influence, in a roughly conscious way, how I practice the others. What I learn in one discipline often resurfaces later in another. Architecture and drawing, for example, influence how I do video or cinema. It’s a mutual and reciprocal exchange of ideas and techniques. It remains essential, for me, to be able to create in the spectator’s mind a certain alteration of his thought or perception.

Regardless which medium I’m working with, my approach is always about the same. I take a common object (whose meaning in a given context will be completely self-evident), and then insidiously subvert its meaning. When I work with architecture, for example, I try to make it so a wall takes on the appearance of a sheet, or a piece of cloth; or even make the wall appear to be melting, becoming liquid, or fluttering as though wind could blow through it. When I sculpt, on the other hand, I like taking an ordinary object, and then remodeling it from a material that makes us rethink our anchorage in reality.

The Return - Daniel Arsham

When I distort the elements of architecture, the distortions I produce generally aren’t visible at first glance. However, from the moment they’re perceived, they’re revealed as disturbing, and sometimes can incite a certain uneasiness in the spectator’s mind. That’s the direction my work seems to keep wanting to go.

Frédéric-Charles Baitinger


Daniel Arsham is an american artist.