That Which Vanishes: Daniel Arsham

by Matthew Bedard

Softly Startling the Senses with the Cross-Disciplinarian
Let’s make for a minute like the butterfly effect might be something more imaginatively nutritious than that dumpy Ashton Kutcher flick. See, moments following New York’s Hurricane Sandy, Daniel Arsham, an artist based there, is a far shot across and over the tropical storm, yet fibrously connected, fanning his own typhoon, as such, at Paris’ Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin. Comprised of, for instance, a clock that’s swallowed by the wall (“Sideways clock”), a sheet blown over a human body (“Hiding Figure”), shattered glass sculptures of contemplative human figures, or photo frames melded into reconfigured art works, Arsham’s “Storm,” extols his own memory of a near-death hurricane experience twenty years prior in his native Miami—and punctuates the inception of his relationship to architecture’s duplicitous ingredients, its potentiality.

“Storm,” with a motif handful of gouache on mylar moon paintings (a nightly fixture during Arsham’s electicity-less month in Florida in 1992, and also the inspiration for this issue’s cover creation) exudes a quiet, but visceral energy—inside a gallery space violently reconfigured, yet peacefully settled. The show opens in tandem with a dance performance project, “Curtains,” with frequent collaborator, Jonah Baerka, at Paris’ Théâtre de la Cité Internationale as part of the New Settings of the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. Thematic energy is shared—figures contained by sheets, yet pronouncedly powerful, for instance—and with this energy continues Arsham’s now ten year journey of repurposing ideological weight within design—much of which, in the case of “Storm,” exists colorless and initially non-invasive, calculatedly receding into Perrotin’s gallery walls, almost invisible despite its uncanny might, its avoidant of the fore, the obvious. Arsham’s character might be paralleled here, as when asked if aspects of his personality are characteristic to that of a tropical storm, if he has thunderous periods, he replies before laughing, “Um, no. I’m pretty… my character is pretty, um, flat in a way.”

Arsham’s young career accelerated with his commissioning by, and subsequent three years in atypical collaboration with, famed dance choreographer, Merce Cunningham who died at age 90 in 2009. Cunningham, whom Arsham has described previously as a definitive artistic force for “embracing chance” while not knowing his eventual, real time stage conspirator’s contributions, and who employed the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and William Anastasi along the stretch of his dynamic career, brought Arsham, at only 25, into the company’s fold for a worldwide tour, wherein the young set designer created gargantuan cloud atmospheres and rendered optical staging illusions.

In addition to regular dance projects and commissions from fashion houses for retail reconfiguration, Arsham has now held solo shows at destinations such as London’s Houldsworth Gallery and Amsterdam’s Galerie Ron Mandos. He’s participated in group shows ranging from the Athens Biennale to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and his architecture practice, Snarkitecture, founded with Alex Mustonen, is currently at play installing the welcome pavilion, “Drift,” for December’s Design Miami / 2012, the fair that proceeds Arsham’s showing at Art Basel, Miami Beach in both the Video installment and as part of Los Angeles’ OHWOW’s “Ain’t it Fair.”

Below, the multi-disciplinarian shares on the language potentiality of architectural innards, the varying nature of stage collaboration, and that which eludes him—of which he’d rather elude.

Let’s look at “Storm.” Tell me about how you feel you wove storm methodology into the actual pieces themselves and how the idea of storms is present in the work?

Daniel Arsham: In general, this being the 20th anniversary of that storm, I started going back to


the thinking of it, and rather than making specific reference to the storm itself, just used it as a kind of basis for considering how architecture can be taken apart in that way and how I might do the same. And there’s pieces in the show, specifically the glassworks, that examine something that could be an obstructive force that would break glass, or disassemble architecture, and reform it back into something with purpose.

Do you think that in the process of creating these works, you revisited a sort of traumatic space within yourself?

I think it was less about trauma and more just about the realization of how architecture is made. You know, this is the first time I experienced the internal places of architecture—I imagined these things to have solidity about them, but in fact there’s drywall and there’s studs inside, there’s electrical conduit and plumbing and insulation and all these sorts of invisible things. If you can think of the storm destroying things in a very sort of quick, violent way, the reformulation of the architecture in my work is done in a slow, sort of soft, almost imperceptible way. And I also explored this bizarre experience of watching a space being reconstructed after it’s been torn apart.

There is consistent restructuring, repurposing, reformation in your work, much of which I might suggest is contingent on your varying collaborations, such as those of fashion retail [between this interview and Issue 125’s printing, Arsham leant his hand to a new Richard Chai venue in NY, for instance.] Can you speak to the unique nature of working with fashion clients or fashion spaces?

Sure. I mean, all the collaborations that I’ve done with designers were in some way less of a collaboration and more sort of them being interested in my practice, and what I could bring to a practical space, and then letting me sort of go with it. When I did the project for Dior Homme in LA, the directions that I received were: “Here’s the space. Intervene in any way you want as long as there’s no color.” I think the idea of collaboration for me has been much more about the work that I’ve done on stage with different choreographers. That is a place where we’re sort of working together in a way.

How is that different? Can you describe what you take from the collaboration and what is it that you are contributing ?

The first time that I worked on stage was with Merce Cunningham, who had a sort of bizarre way of collaborating. Through collaboration, without working together, he would divide the evening into three different elements, one being his choreography, one being the stage design, and the third being the music, but the way that he worked, all three of those artists would work independently of each other—but he would then bring these three things together, as he said, for the convenience of the audience. So you kind of had this idea of collaborating in a chance sort of way. And that way of working was very interesting, alhough it didn’t allow me to make things that the dancers could directly interact with. I didn’t know what the dancers were doing and he didn’t know what the set was. So after Merce died I began to collaborate with one of his former dancers, who is a choreographer in his own right, named Jonah Bokaer. And Jonah and I work in the opposite way, where we collaborate directly, so I will purpose elements, scenic elements for the stage, which Jonah will directly build choreography off of, and they are materials that have a kind of movement potential in them. So we sort of think of them as movement generators, you know, things that can roll or fold or be manipulated by the dancers and the work sort of derives from what they can do.

If there is a language created in collaborations, do you feel like it’s a language you seek to be accessible or is it a language that seeks a sort of discerning diligence to work through and understand?

Well, there’s a piece that we just played in Paris that was coinciding with my exhibition and it’s a work that uses a single element, which is plaster. But it’s exposed in its three different states—one being the sort of powder, one being the sort of liquid, and then the solid. The entire work is filtered onto those three pieces and Jonah has sort of composed a language—the choreography off of that basic idea, right?—and there is a sort of arc that happens throughout the piece where the three different states of that material are exposed to the audience, but they’re not necessarily done in the order that you would think them to be… and a  kind of magic builds out of that concept.

Our issue title aims to address and refute the plutocratic ideal in playful ways… What about your work is accessible or egalitarian in light of the power struggles that one faces in the contemporary expressive arts space?

I mean, I think a lot of it has to do, for me, with cross-disciplinary practice, right, because I feel like it can speak to different kinds of people.  So, I have my own practice, my own art practice, which involves all of the sculpture and painting, and I also have my architecture practice—Snarkitecture. I think, crossing between these three areas, I fit a lot of different strata within cultural production. Perhaps this year is the most accessible—the entrance fee for the piece we just did in Paris was only 13 euros, for instance, or doing the entrance pavilion for design Miami, which is open during the fair, and is a sort of public outdoor space.

Can you describe the origins of Snarkitecture and what you see on the loom for its aims?

Sure, Snarkitecture came out of a problem, which is that in much of my work that manipulates architecture, I run up against building codes and conventions of making things permanent and safe for the public. There was a project in a public space that I’d been doing in Los Angeles that required building code and it didn’t meet—it didn’t meet anything, really. So I worked with an architect who I had gone to school with named Alex Mustonen, and following that initial project, there seemed to be much more interest in creating things that were a little closer to architecture than they were to my own practice. So we formed this practice called Snarkitecture—the name coming from this Lewis Carroll poem called ‘Hunting of the Snark’ which is a kind of nonsense poem about a group of misfits searching for a beast called the Snark. They don’t know what this beast looks like or where it is and they use a blank white map to try and locate it. So it’s this sort of search for this formless entity, right? I would say there’s a few key things that tend to pop up in our work—one of them is absence of color, which is also present in much of my practice. And the absence comes much less from a desire to restrict color but from a sort of desire to pay attention to materials and not adding anything to them. It’s about reforming things that already exist rather than adding new things. So, for instance, the tent in Miami—this pavilion that we’re creating is white and it’s made out of the same tent material that the existing tent is constructed from, but we’ve taken that material and created inflated tubes out of it that create topographical landscapes, almost based off of, I don’t know if you remember, those toys where you push your hands into a grid of nails or pins and you push your hands rise from the other side of it?

Yes, those things are fabulous. And so in light of this Lewis Caroll poem and its pursuit of the Snark, this elusive creature. what to you, Daniel Arsham, is elusive in life?

That’s a tough question. I do not have an answer to that. I mean, I guess that’s sort of the drive to make objects, right? This thing that doesn’t exist. So if something is sort of missing, then I usually just make it.