Daniel Arsham has an interesting way of making us put some real thought into the simplest of our surroundings. Whether relating to nature versus structure or through the manipulation of inanimate objects, the contemporary artist shows us that there’s a story to explore in each piece. And we respond. He’ll tell you he’s “not prescriptive about the type of things he’s trying to convey,” but you’ll surely leave with your own message. Why? Because the Ohio-born, Miami-bred, Brooklyn resident floats across mediums in art, architecture and performance to create things that change people’s expectations about what they already know.
It’s an artful brainwashing we’re dying to sign up for.
Take a wall, for instance: our ideas about its function and purpose are pretty much determined; there are few things about the structure that make us think. But what if said wall seemed as though it was doing something that it shouldn’t be [doing]? What if it appeared to be made of fabric, draping just so and perhaps even creating a kangaroo-like pocket to hold a clock? Or a staircase whose primal function is to lead you to a destination above or below your current altitude—what if it went nowhere? Arsham’s interest in tinkering with perspective has everything to do with a desire to understand things outside of the normal experience; which is why architecture is one of his disciplines of choice, for “it’s nothing without the person who experiences it.”
Early on, his space and experience dialog was brought to the masses through Arsham’s 2004 collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham. The invitation to work on stage design for the dance master opened a door (no room for interpretation or draping surfaces here, we’re referring to a proverbial door and the opportunity that it represents) to work in a medium that he was never formally trained in nor did he really anticipate would play such a role in his work. Arsham’s first stage design for Cunningham was acquired by The Walker Museum for its permanent collection. Today, he continues to work on stage design worldwide, particularly in collaboration with Jonah Bokaer who was a former Cunningham dancer.
Since, collaboration has become a language Arsham speaks fluently. Continuing in the vein of altering common day objects, he has worked with the likes of Pharrell Williams to create a replica of Mr. Williams’s first keyboard, a Casio MT-500. Cast in volcanic ash, crystal and steel, the keyboard is representative of the material manipulation that Arsham uses to urge the shifting of perspective. Again, the “overarching position is the idea of altering things we already know.” The choice of materials also plays a large role, giving the pieces an almost instant relationship with geology. In that sense, we become what he calls “archeologists of the future.”
Studying some of things you might find on your person on any given day, such as a pair of Nike or Adidas sneakers, a mobile phone or a camera, made of ash and crystal and seemingly decaying as if you’d found them buried 1,000 years into the future creates an interesting dialogue about time. And that’s what it’s all about. The blurring of the present and future; the confusing of growing and decaying all through the use of materials that allow one to experience the idea of time passed. There’s nothing forced about it. The oxidation and coloration is actually a natural process that Arsham has little control over.
To better tell this story, Arsham launched a film series known as Future Relic. Thus far three of nine installments have been shown—with its fourth set to air this month. The series chronicles life after humanity’s failed attempt to save the earth from its impending ecological demise. One attempt, in fact, features Lona Rey’s (Juliette Lewis) father excavating the moon to save the earth. The hole left behind glaringly similar to the one portrayed on the face of “The Black Moon” Rolex Milgauss for Bamford Watch Department that Arsham just released. On his Instagram, @DanielArsham, the artist recently described the project as: “solid 904L stainless steel with an internal Faraday cage designed to withstand magnetic fields up to a strength of 1000 Gauss. The face contains a painting I made of the moon with a section missing. It is printed on a unique mother of pearl dial using a secret proprietary emulsion technique. THE BLACK MOON is made in an edition of 13.” But don’t fret, the Bamford project isn’t the only of Arsham’s pieces that you can use daily.
In 2007, Arsham paired up with Alex Mustonen on an experimental and collaborative art and architecture practice dubbed Snarkitecture after Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of Snark. The brand, which offers a line of functional objects aside from a myriad installations and large-scale projects, similarly invites you to see what’s not there. From broken holiday ornaments that are really intact to a cellphone holder molded after a seemingly soft pillow, which is actually cast from cement a Daniel Arsham world is never as it appears.