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 and returned to the origins of his practice – painting. Between a precisely timed schedule of household chores and homeschooling his sons Casper, eight, and Phoenix, five, Arsham embarked on an ambitious new series of canvases. These epic compositions, later rescaled in his studio, have grown to 19 feet tall and feature archaeological wonders immersed in a fictional landscape of ice caves and caverns. Both terrifying and sublime, the paintings are made in monochromatic tonal gradients (Arsham is almost completely colorblind) and are currently the basis of a solo exhibition at the König Galerie in Berlin.
The exhibition marks the beginning of a particularly fruitful period for the New York-based artist. In London this month he unveils a new version of Summer, one of a pair of figurative bronzes created in 1911 by French sculptor Paul Jean-Baptiste Gasq that once flanked the entrance to the former Whiteleys shopping center in Bayswater. His futuristic crystal-clad remake is part of Foster + Partners’ major refurbishment of the landmark site. On the other side of town, at Frieze Sculpture, he shows his most ambitious three-dimensional work to date. A gigantic sculptural form, about half the size of a double-decker bus, Excavated bronze eroded Melpomene (2021) is an immense bust of the Greek muse of tragedy. Suspended between decay and resurrection, it appears to be slowly submerged back into the earth.
“The past few months have been intense,” admits Arsham of his overcrowded calendar, which also includes his reinterpretation of Tiffany’s iconic blue box — a piece cast in bronze and studded with jagged gold crystals to showcase his limited-edition white gold bracelet, designed in collaboration with the house. Then there is the exhibition of a new 10-piece furniture collection in the Friedman Benda gallery. The original 3D models were forged from Play-Doh while he was messing around with his kids, 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, the Bedrock table, and the Dino dining chair, which perfectly capture his more cartoonish, childish style.
It’s a shiny, consumable pop sensibility that stems from his fascination with street culture, especially via Japan. Arsham has worked with everyone from Pokémon to Nigo (the founder of streetwear label A Bathing Ape), and his second home in Long Island—a 1971 wooden marvel 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’m easily distracted,” he admits. “Different media and collecting are really just a way for me to experience and understand variation.”
So what is the thread that pulls these seams together? “All my work is about re-evaluating our relationship with time,” he says. It’s a theme rooted in his early collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunningham, the lifelong partner of composer John Cage, who commissioned Arsham to create his company’s sets right after graduation. For Arsham, Cunningham’s genius was able to manipulate – compress and expand – conceptions of time through performance. “So much of our lives are related to how we manage time,” he says. “That’s the answer to everything.”
Arsham, now 41, has gone through several creative flashpoints. In 1992, at the age of 12, his childhood home in Miami was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. “It almost killed us,” he says. “The whole city was flooded, all our belongings were gone and there was no electricity. It was traumatic, but I also remember it being a surreal, magical experience. For the first time we could see the stars in the city.”
Seeing firsthand how his house was razed to the ground and then slowly rebuilt changed Arsham’s understanding of architecture radically, fueling his pursuit of a career in art. He began obsessively capturing details of his suburban neighborhood on his Pentax K1000, a gift from his grandfather, and made architectural drawings and paintings. “I still dream of being in that house again,” he says of the huge subliminal impact.
This fascination with the built environment has formed the basis of a body of work characterized by depth and diversity. After studying fine art at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York (where he currently serves as a visiting professor), Arsham and some friends renovated a 1930s bungalow-style house in Miami, living upstairs and the ground floor. turned into a gallery called The House. Arsham’s exhibitions have since been a means of questioning interiors in ever grander and more dramatic ways. He began using pure gypsum plaster to quietly disrupt gallery walls, dripping, rippling, and melting them amorphously, then magically embedding them into clocks, chairs, or figures, even tying cavernous room dividers together with a giant hanging archery bow.
It is a compulsion that he continues to explore through Snarkitecture, the design practice he created in 2007 with architect Alex Mustonen, which blurs the boundaries between art and architecture through interactive installations, products and retail spaces. They’ve created giant bouncy ball playgrounds, art spaces filled with huge lollipop-like lights and, more recently, designed a new Parisian store, complete with a Nike trainer chandelier, for streetwear label Kith. “When it comes to mastering experience, architecture is one of the most influential arts,” he says. “It’s the most enduring human gesture.”
Durable as it is, a single medium has never been enough to satisfy Arsham’s creative curiosity. His career crosses film, music video, performance, set design and fashion and is marked by periods of intense obsession. After a trip to Easter Island for a Louis Vuitton travel book in 2010, he began casting ordinary objects—from eBay Polaroid cameras to Pharrell Williams’ childhood Casio MT-500 keyboard—in volcanic ash, plaster and resin. Elevating these everyday artifacts to the status of archaeological finds or “Future Relics,” he quickly collected crumbling casts enough to fill a 25-foot man-made gap 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 gaining access to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the centuries-old molding studio that makes reproductions of classic museum masterpieces, he began forging eroded, crystal-embellished iterations of everything from the Venus de Milo to Michelangelo’s Moses. But while he may delve into the past, he remains forward-looking: the theme of reformation and decay that these works explore is also explored in the non-physical world, through evolving digital sculptures connected to non-fungible tokens (NFTs). ), the latter of which will not reach its peak until 2094. This shift to NFTs is sort of a metaphor for Arsham’s output: unique, futuristic, inoperable.
Unearthed can be seen until October 24 at König Galerie, St Agnes, Alexandrinenstrasse 118-121, Berlin; Koeniggalerie.com