Daniel Arsham is a time traveller. Traversing the worlds of film, sculpture, installation, fashion, and interior and set design, his practice exists in the past, present and the future, and is anchored to the disciplines of architecture and archaeology.
Fans will recall ghostly figures sinking outwards from gallery walls as if returning from another dimension, antiquated objects cast in materials such as eroded steel and volcanic ash – a varsity jacket, a basketball, and Pharrell’s first-ever keyboard – as well as his short film series Future Relic. An addictive, ongoing project that has starred James Franco and Juliette Lewis, and revealed ‘relics’ including a walkman (excavated in 2079), an SLR camera (2180), a cassette tape (2065). After its screentime, each relic is released as a limited edition and sold in a sealed box with white gloves for added excitement. All these objects are barely in the clutches of the past but that’s the intrigue of a universe where time is malleable.
Arsham’s most recent project is a collaboration with adidas Originals. The first flag that new work was on the way was when a blue payphone turned up in New York with nothing but a number to call. Those dialling in heard a series of voice messages left by Arsham that spoke about a storm and a video shoot. A Tumblr-type website archived clues and what we now know to be BTS footage from a film (co-directed by Ben Nichols) that Arsham releases on Dazed Digital today. Titled Hourglass, it takes us back to Arsham’s childhood in his most autobiographical narrative to date – and includes a first look at his own “New York” trainer. We caught up with the artist to find out more.
Tell us about your new film, Hourglass?
Daniel Arsham: The film is a combination of documentary and fiction that begins in my studio in the lead up to a very large exhibition that I created last year in Atlanta. There's an experience that I had as a child which ties everything together. It was about building both a larger narrative around my own work and the origins of this collaboration with adidas Originals.
How much of it is personal?
Daniel Arsham: All of it is true. As a child in 1992, I experienced a hurricane which forms the basis for the background of the story. Time travel and a fluid idea of time is something that I use heavily in my work, by taking things from the past and causing them to appear as if they've been uncovered on some future archaeological site. The film plays with this idea: hence the hourglass.
The hourglass recently appeared in your show in Atlanta too.
Daniel Arsham: Yeah, so all of these things sort of combine together. The series which was unveiled at the exhibition in Atlanta were very large-scale hourglasses. At either end of the hourglass there was an object – like a phone or a camera – and as the hourglass turns, one object is uncovered and the other one becomes buried. It's this continual process of archaeology and discovery.
The film looks at your past, and in it you say, "I'm reforming elements of my childhood" – what does that mean?
Daniel Arsham: There are things that I experienced in relation to the storm; the house that I was in was completely destroyed and reconstructed and so there was an idea about manipulating architecture, which has been present in my work. The altered architecture, here, was the storm, which was a very violent disruption of the architecture.
“Time travel and a fluid idea of time is something that I use heavily in my work, by taking things from the past and causing them to appear as if they’ve been uncovered on some future archaeological site. The film plays with this idea of time: hence the hourglass” – Daniel Arsham
In the film, you also say, "Sometimes memories don't feel like memories; they feel like predictions" – can you shed some light on that?
Daniel Arsham: As viewers will notice, there is an element of time travel in the film where I play myself in the present, in the documentary. Then I also play myself in the future, as the old man who's interacting with a younger version of myself. There's this flow of movement where time seems fluid in the same way that the materials in my work are malleable and I'm able to manipulate them – the film uses time in that way.
Your work often deals with every day – or readily accessible, for the most part – objects that are cast in precious or semi-precious materials. The tension here is very interesting. Something with little value becomes increasingly valued. Are you nostalgic or precious with anything you own?
Daniel Arsham: I am. I have very few things that I keep and that I like. My wife has a very difficult time buying presents for me because I have everything that I want, so creating something like this (film) is an amazing experience for me. It’s the kind of thing that I want: bespoke and limited, it has a story about it and is considered.
Within your work, you cross so many disciplines that often people don’t know what to call you – what role would you give yourself?
Daniel Arsham: I'm just a human living life in the 21st century. In the art world, people may have seen my films, or they've seen the architectural projects that I've done. In the architectural world, people are very familiar with my art practice. When I presented my film at Cannes and Tribeca, people thought it was visual art, so it's an interesting place to be: on the periphery of all these things. Each time I move on into one of these areas, I find people who already work in it and know how to do it. If I'm gonna make a film, I'm gonna get Jane Rosenthal to executive produce and help me. Jefferson (Hack) was also a big fan, but also a big person who pushed me into some of these other areas and really supported my going into film. Same thing in architecture, I've always found the right collaborators.
Is there a realm that you haven't yet explored that you would like to move into?
Daniel Arsham: Film is an area that for me is the most holistic. Every single thing is considered. In the gallery, I can control certain things, the temperature, the smell, but I can’t control how people experience things in such a direct way as I can with a film. It's definitely a challenge but I love it, so I'm hoping that I’ll broaden my reach within that.
Your work deals with permanence but you also share a lot on your Instagram – which is quite impermanent in that it can likely be deleted. What's your relationship to social media?
Daniel Arsham: Social media has been a way to reach audiences that don't necessarily go to museums or galleries, or wouldn't have found my work in another way. It's a more egalitarian medium – like film is – where everyone feels that they can access that. These ways of communicating broaden out people's experience of your work – they can see me in the studio and see what I'm thinking about, or how things are made. I travel a lot and that’s had a big influence on my work. There are things that I pick up from other places and, certainly, for me, part of the fascinating thing about other artists, designers, filmmakers, or other people, is seeing what they're looking at outside of their own work.
Totally – something that's not so polished.
Daniel Arsham: Yeah, and you see the journey of how they've arrived at these things. It's not just, "See that in the gallery? That just landed there" you know?
You said just a moment ago that people can get a sense of you in your studio and I heard that somebody leaked one of the relics because they saw it in like, a corner of the studio on your Instagram post and they pieced it together.
Daniel Arsham: My Instagram fans were totally crazy with the Future Relics stuff. They basically figured out what the future relic was because I had released the weight and size of it and then they inferred from that and a bunch of different objects that were in the studio that it had to be the Polaroid camera.
Do fans inform your work in any way?
Daniel Arsham: It's certainly interesting to see people respond and what their interpretation of things might be, because sometimes it's different than what I think. Often when I'm showing work, it’s done, so there's nothing to alter. But I do think it's changed the way that I interpret how people see the work. I'm also a fan of other people and I'm as obsessive about other people's work as I think some people are about my practice.
With the reveal that comes with most of your work, do you get more out of it or do you reckon your fans get more out of it?
Daniel Arsham: It's really fun for me to see how people interpret certain things that I’m putting out. I have thought about it much like I think about creating an exhibition, where different works are keys to creating overall stories. In my exhibitions, the work is never about something specific, it's always an invitation to think about things. The messages hint at something larger and there are ways that people can interpret it into a larger story.
“The work is never about something specific, it’s always an invitation to think about things” – Daniel Arsham
That said, this is also the first reveal of a trainer collaboration. You’ve created your version of the New York. How did you start the relationship with adidas Originals?
Daniel Arsham: My friend Ronnie Fieg (shoe designer) introduced me. I've always liked sneakers but I wouldn't have called myself a “sneaker-head” before I met Ronnie. Watching his universe is very interesting for me. He was the one that originally suggested that I do a project with adidas Originals and we were talking about it for a couple of years, but it wasn't really until the right sort of scenario presented itself and I was able to go back and really spend some time in the archive and think of what would be the most relevant sneaker for me to work on. I'm not a sneaker designer – I didn't know how that process worked – so they would send me drawings of the original New York shoe and I would mark them up, draw and staple things on to it, working through the process like that.
What was your starting point?
Daniel Arsham: I picked the New York which, when that shoe came out, felt so futuristic to me. I wanted it to be white from the get-go and knew that I wanted it to feel like the material was “in process” – so it’s this very rough canvas that has torn edges. We did a special UV printing on its mid-sole which is part of the larger thing that we're going to be rolling out. People who buy them will be given a flashlight and they’ll need to keep them for something else coming in the future.
I approached this in the same way that I would when making a sculpture and I worked through it with a design team in Germany. I approached it with an end-goal in mind. I knew where I wanted to get to and I knew where I wanted audiences to get to and so I worked back from there.
Amazing – another reveal.
Daniel Arsham: The shoeboxes design was a journey for me in thinking how I can link this back to my own work. All of the Future Relic boxes are sealed, like an archaeological find that you would seal in a time capsule. So, there’s a whole experience (throughout the project) from the phone booth, to the site, to the film, and then, to the shoe – there are so many layers to it.
Do you see art and fashion as a coexistence or a collision?
Daniel Arsham: I think of everyone as the same. I'm friends with a lot of people who didn't study anything related to fashion and now, that's all they do. Or they started in fashion and are now working in art. That’s our generation – things are just much more fluid.
Because of your ability to time travel, what’s your prediction for us, the world?
Daniel Arsham: I don't know. I would say that I'm optimistic. I will always stay optimistic.
For more details on the full project, click here
Follow Ashleigh Kane on Twitter here @ashleighkane