Daniel Arsham: Connecting Time
Daniel Arsham has thrived in visual art, architecture, design, film, fashion, and performance by approaching each with creativity, intellect—and science.
Daniel Arsham is a trailblazing visual artist whose work traverses fine art, sculpture, architecture, film, and design.
Born in Cleveland, OH, in 1980, Arsham was raised in Miami, FL and attended Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. He returned to Miami after graduation and displayed his experimental work at The House art collective, where he was discovered by a major Parisian gallery owner. He is known for purposeful weathered sculptures that depict pop culture objects or iconic statues, with fractures full of beautiful crystals.
In 2005, Arsham founded Snarkitecture with architect Alex Mustonen; the firm designed the KITH shops in New York and Los Angeles, the DIG project at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, and elements of the Miami Marlins baseball stadium. He has also contributed set designs for choreographer Merce Cunningham and for Dior’s 2019 fashion week show in Paris and collaborated with brands Adidas and Porsche, musician Pharrell Williams, Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama, and other artists.
As a child, Daniel Arsham liked to draw the objects of his obsessions. Sneakers, cameras, automobiles. Then one day in 1992, the 11 year old sat huddled in a closet as Hurricane Andrew ripped through his family’s Miami home, collapsing walls and shattering windows. In a matter of hours, his most intimate personal landscape had been destroyed.
Daniel Arsham: When we emerged after the storm, the whole house, I mean, all the windows had blown out. There was glass and furniture everywhere. And there was this pink insulation foam from the ceilings that had been blown like over everything. And some of the rooms were like completely covered in it. So like the whole room was pink. I think in, in, in psychoanalysis, they, they, they sort of think of the house or the home as like a representation of the self. And you’re literally like physically dismembering this thing but then it was also put back together.
During reconstruction, Arsham for the first time glimpsed the inside of his house: the underlying structural framing, the plumbing and electrical wiring behind the walls. Thus began an obsession with architecture, decomposition, and the impermanence of physical things.
Arsham: I have this memory of when they gutted the house, they took everything out of it. Even the term ‘gutted’ is like very, you know, much about the self. And I was standing on one end of the house and I could see through my bedroom, the kitchen, my sister’s room, all the way to my parents’ room, like straight through in a line. And I had never, the space of that had never occurred to me. That, just the way that it was laid out that way. So it was a different conception of architecture of space. I mean, certainly the storm itself was pretty scary, but the aftermath of that was more like, you know, this, this kind of incredible sense of all of the normalcy of the everyday had been removed.
Born in 1980, Arsham took to drawing and photography as a kid, after being given a Pentax K1000 camera by his grandfather. He studied architecture in high school, but Cooper Union, a small college in New York City, gave him a full scholarship to study art rather than architecture. Cooper Union encouraged his multidisciplinary interests, especially painting, but architecture was never far from his mind. More recently, Arsham has based much of his work around the concept of fictional archeology, to create what he calls future relics of the present.
Arsham: All of the works tend to have some familiar element within them that I think allows a wide variety of viewer to enter the work. And then once they’re there, there are all of these different ideas present. There’s the, the idea of the materiality or a shift in, in materiality. There’s the idea that, in some cases, with the fictional archeological work, that you might be looking at an object that you know from your own life as if it was this kind of archeological object. It’s not a camera painted to look old, or, it’s actually made from crystal or volcanic ash. These materials that we, as a, you know, almost viscerally we associate with time passing. And so how can you look at an object that you know, from your own life as if you’re viewing it in 10,000 years?
He and his studio have recreated a variety of modern, relatable cultural objects that are, or soon will be obsolete. These objects appear old, to have been found in the distant future.
Arsham: I’m selecting things that I have some personal relationship or that I know inherently. The camera, a basketball, a Pokemon character. But I’m also selecting them with the knowledge that those objects are a sort of universal, you know, accepted language, right? People know, a basketball means the same thing here as it does in Paris and Hong Kong. And so they represent an idea of culture maybe. They also represent an era of time, right? The basketball is not from 500 years ago. So they locate the idea in a particular moment, which by transforming the material of them, by pushing that outside of this time, it creates this gap between them that people have to reconcile.
Early on, Arsham began his practice of collaborating with others: choreographers, illustrators, engineers, and architects.
Arsham: I think it’s become less difficult now or less egregious, but in the beginning, even the collaboration that I did with Adidas, I think that for a lot of my core collector base, and even like, you know, some of, some of my gallerists, they, they saw that as a way where the company was using my work as this vehicle to sell sneakers.
AJC: Which they were.
Arsham: Which they were.
One of his first major collaborations, was with the legendary choreographer, the late Merce Cunningham. In their first of four projects together, Arsham designed the stage set for eyeSpace, which premiered in 2007. As was his habit, Cunningham gave the artist no input, aside from requiring that Arsham’s designs be safe for his dancers.
Arsham: And that was probably the most informative experience in terms of showing me what collaboration could be.
AJC: And he was a master of it.
Arsham: He was a master of a very particular way of collaborating. So he would create his choreography, a musician would create the score and an artist would make the set, but none of them knew what the other one was doing until the premiere.
That exact way of working didn’t suit Daniel Arsham but the idea of collaborating did. He has since sought partnerships for much of his work.
Arsham: The idea of collaboration and the, the ability to bring other people into the circle. I think certainly started with him.
One such collaboration was with the Pokemon company of Japan after they saw his sculpture of their character, Pikachu, at a gallery in Japan.
Arsham: I saw it as me using this company with enormous reach, with reach to audiences that don’t have anything to do with the art world to show my work in and to create a kind of more egalitarian vehicle for the dissemination of artwork. And that was maybe a radical sort of proposition to them at the time, but I think that thinking has evolved.
A dream come true collaboration for Arsham was with the German auto maker Porsche. He proposed to erode a brand new Porsche 911 to create a totally drivable work of art.
Arsham: I had to work with the engineers there because you know, those cars, the exterior of them is aluminum and it’s actually structural. So once you start cutting holes in it, it affects, you know, the veracity of the car. They were very skeptical in the beginning to the point where they sort of said, you know, “We’re gonna give you the car.” And they sort of said, like, “That’s our contribution to this project and let’s see what happens.” The original idea was that I was gonna keep the car after that. And when this thing was first unveiled, it was at Selfridges in London. We, it was in the front window on the corner and it was just like instant bang, like so many photographs, people taking of that object. And in the end they decided the car is actually gonna go into the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. Once we finished the first project, they sort of saw what I’m doing here, which is really to, to interpret the same way that I might interpret another object in my own work. I’m interpreting this car through a particular lens. I’m making alterations to it. But a lot of those alterations have to do with Porsche history or some sort of racing element, kind of blending these two universes together. So for them, I think it’s, there’s an added, you know, value there.
Arsham’s two sons, aged five and eight, take delight in their dad’s work. They enjoy playing in the studio with the same objects that fascinated their father when he was a boy.
Arsham: They’re very interested in Porsche, in Star Wars, in racing, in photography. When it crosses over into a universe that they know, like Pokemon, they’re obviously enthralled by that. And you know, they come here to the studio and with all of these different potential things around, they always gravitate towards like the miniature car models.
Daniel Arsham continues to follow his passions, the partnerships and projects that mean the most to him. He doesn’t spend a lot of time interpreting his art for others or worry too much about critical reaction.
Arsham: I think I’ve accepted that certain things are kind of inevitable. In being an artist, you know, you’re putting yourself out there, right? For people to understand and interpret and criticize and judge. And that’s just part of the game. It’s not really about me, in so many ways. It’s like the work. So once I’ve created the work, it’s outside me, right? And when people are questioning it, I don’t feel it as a personal attack.
Time is something Daniel Arsham thinks about a lot. He’s compared the present to a knife’s edge, so fleeting as to be non-existent. But during the pandemic, he’s made the most of it. Taking up painting once again and spending time with his family. In a recent book of quotes titled, Arsham-isms, published by Princeton University Press, he says, “Being a dad has brought me back to my own childhood, where everything holds wonders and is new and fresh.”