WW Focus, Spring, 2010
Daniel Arsham: The Artist
Daniel Arsham has always been interested in architecture, but he didn't go to school for architecture - he went for art. Still, architectural forms continued to appear in his work, and most of his friends at school were architects. In his artwork he manipulates and questions our comfortable relationship with architecture through images of beams and staircases suspended without purpose in nature and installations where seemingly stretched pieces of wall are tied together in a neat bow. That approach has led him to follow in Robert Rauschenberg's footsteps as a set designer for the late choreographer Merce Cunningham and the designer of a fitting room for a Dior boutique in Los Angeles. And those projects inspired Snarkitecture, an architecture firm Arsham founded with Alex Mustonen (an architect friend from school) to help field all his recent incoming design requests. We met with Arsham at his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, studio while his rabbit Oliver (who, we suspect, is the inspiration behind his next show) hopped around ping-pong balls and prototypes.
WHITEWALL: You're an artist who has moved into the worlds of design and architecture, and you recently established the architecture firm Snarkitecture with Alex Mustonen. Where does your interest in architecture come from?
DANIEL ARSHAM: I went to school in New York, and a lot of the drawings and things I was doing were architecturally focused. I didn't study architecture, but it's always something that has informed my practice. In 2005 I did a show in Paris with Emmanuel Perrotin, and Hedi Slimane asked me to do a fitting room in Dior. Although my practice before was involved with the idea of architecture, I'd never had to deal with conditions, like building codes. Alex, who is my partner at Snarkitecture, came in and helped e on the architecture side of the dressing room.
After that, I had other requests by people who were even closer to architecture than they were to my art practice so Alex and I formalized the relationship, and the response has been great.
WW: What are some of the projects you are working on for Snarkitecture?
DA: There is a bar in Miami called Magic City. We came to an already-existing building to manipulate what is already there. In my own work there is a lot of architectural erosion, manipulating surfaces in ways that are somewhat unnerving, or they can be.
WW: Why does that interest you rather than creating a completely new structure?
DA: If you can take something that someone already knows and alter it slightly, it begins this process where they think of almost everything in that way, that these things can be changed and manipulated. It’s about taking something that you’re used to and changing it so that it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It’s an alluring quality. It’s a fantasy of what this architecture is meant to make us feel. Perhaps I have always felt there can be a lightness to architecture that isn’t always present. Not a comedy of it. But it is the most visible thing we make as humans (aside from babies), and it has a huge weight to it because of that and there can be a playful, light quality to it.
WW: Your wash-an-Mylar works are not just about the juxtaposition of architecture and nature. Some of them are almost violent; they are infringing upon each other's space. You grew up in Florida, where there is a lot of development, strip malls everywhere, it seems almost overly planned –
DA: Well, Miami is an invented city.
WW: And it's all swampland that was filled in so you could live there, which is bizarre when you think about it. Is that where this comes from - the conflict between architectural structures and nature?
DA: I was there during this period of a huge amount of building, and I certainly saw that. The thing that would interest me was this idea of demolition and destruction. The city itself is only 110 years old, and yet beyond the Deco buildings on the beach there is no concept of keeping things that were built 50 years ago – they just tear it down. They'll be tearing a building down, and the building next to it goes up and there's a point where they are the same height.
WW: And in the wash-on-Mylar works it’s unclear if these architectural structures are falling into place or moving up and out.
DA: It always fascinated me, all those islands in the bay that started in the twenties or thirties, and now they are doing this in Dubai and it’s this huge, crazy new thing, but it was done in Miami decades ago. It’s a strange idea that you can create a landscape.
WW: You've also done design for the performing arts. In 2007 you premiered a set design for the choreographer Merce Cunningham. How did that come about? Had you worked with dancers or choreographers before?
DA: Merce called me in 2005. That was the most bizarre thing ever, I was sitting in my studio and literally got a phone call from him. I had never met him, and he must have seen my work because he asked me to work on this piece. I had never worked on stage before at all. I had no relationship with dance or stage. I knew who he was, and I told him this on the phone, “I’ve never seen your work live.”
So like the project for Dior, his conditions were very minimal. The entire way he works is by dividing the three elements that happen in dance performance into their own unique elements. Merce creates choreography, asks an artist to make the set, a musician to do the score, but none of us work together. The only time it comes together is for the performance. John Cage was his life partner, and Cage's idea is about chance procedure, and that was the guiding principle of his entire practice, which scared the hell out of me [laughs]. Not only did he not ask about the piece, he didn't know what it would be. His only condition was that the dancers not be injured.
WW: So with that one condition, what did you create? Merce Cunningham had Robert Rauschenberg design sets for him – were those big shoes to fill?
DA: I built a wall at the back of the stage, and I cut holes in it during the performances. They had announced when the curtain opened that what I was doing would in some ways replicate what Merce had done with Robert Rauschenberg in the sixties. Because the theaters were small, and the show was traveling around Europe in the bus, Robert would make stuff on the stage during the performance.
WW: You have an upcoming exhibition at Emmanuel Perrotin in March - what will you show? Will any of these ping-pong balls be involved? [The studio is full of them, and while we speak a studio assistant is dipping dozens in paint.
DA: I'm working with this idea that a single element gets multiplied, like a pixel, and in a lot of ways it's a very sort of architectural idea. The other work I'm thinking about for the show is based on finger puppets, making life-size versions of these. They'll be on motors and will slowly collapse themselves. They have an alluring quality that is also dark - you know, poor Bambi keeling over and dying. It's so sad. I'm thinking this show is going to be called "Animal Architecture." There is a timeless quality to images with animals. I'm imagining all of these structural forms will be in a state of suspension, and I think seeing animals in architecture, because architecture is not built for animals, they have a very strange relationship with it. Animals make their own architecture, like bees that make honeycombs. It's all about scale: Once you have this shift in scale, it changes everything. If you put a rabbit in a Philip Johnson house, what would it do in there? Would it use the couch? What would it use the sink for? It's about how architecture is built for us physically, and you don't notice that until you see something else with it.