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Meet Daniel Arsham, an Archaeologist from the Future

We talked to the artist putting James Franco in space suits, sculpting broken guitars out of volcanic ash, and making architecture "do things that it is not supposed to do.”
April 9, 2015, 8:20pm
Hooded Figure, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Perrotin, New York/Paris

Whether he's having James Franco in a space suit destroy his sculptures, experimenting as one-half of design duo Snarkitecture (with Alex Mustonen), or being a major topic of conversation at Art Basel Miami, Daniel Arsham's multidisciplinary practice seems to be everywhere, touching each end of the art world spectrum. This month, Arsham only furthers his reach with a new work, Formless Figure, at the Watermill Center in New York, and simultaneous kick-off of solo show, Remember the Future, at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.


Welcome to the Future, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Perrotin, New York/Paris

As the multidisciplinary artist, architect, and filmmaker continues to “make architecture do things that it is not supposed to do,” as stated in his bio, his work quietly dances along the uncanny Remember the Future features the Welcome to the Future piece, for which Arsham sculpted planned obsolescent technologies—think rotary phones and boomboxes—out of volcanic ash. These works juxtapose timeless crushed marble full-figure pieces, like Seated Figure, that appear frozen in time, and invisible gesture works, like Liquid Wall, that appear to transform gallery walls into liquids or fabrics, remnants of effects.

Liquid Wall, 2015 + Seated Figure, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Perrotin, New York/Paris

Formless Figure, Arsham’s new work that recently debuted at the Watermill Center, is part of the latter series, invisible figures that are given life through their gestures. This piece creates a graceful illusion, as the walls become like a fabric that drapes over an invisible presence.

His work is like a distorted time capsule, with thought-provoking and eye-catching pieces that take viewers into the future to give a new perspective on the recent past. The Creators Project got the chance to interview Arsham about his idea of being an “archeologist from the future,” his new work for the Watermill Center, and his new exhibition at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center:

Glacial Rock Eroded American Flag, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Perrotin, New York/Paris

The Creators Project: When did you become interested in the idea of being an “archeologist from the future?"


Daniel Arsham: It was the summer of 2011, I was in Easter Island, this very small island in the South Pacific, and I was there making paintings that were later made into a book that Louis Vuitton published as a travel document of going through this island. There were some archeologists there that were excavating some of these famous statues and in the ground, around this statue, were found objects left by previous archeologists that had excavated it about 100 ago.

Looking at this, I had this idea about the collapse of time within those two separate objects—the sculpture from 1,000 years ago and a more contemporary pool. When I returned from Easter Island, I started making fictional archeology objects from our present that had been reformed with geological material that have been uncovered in the future.

Cool, I assume that informs the materials of crystal, broken glass and volcanic ash, etc.

Yeah, I’m really trying to find materials that allow me to put a real sense of time, rather than trample that effect. These objects are actually made out of those materials and there is a kind of truth to them that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Standing Figure with Hands Up, 2015, Courtesy of the Burger Collection Hong Kong + Standing Figure with Hands Out, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Perrotin, New York/Paris

In your Welcome to the Future piece, there are a lot of large telephones, boomboxes, many devices that have already become obsolete. Are there any plans on taking this process and applying it to contemporary devices such as iPhones, Drones and 3D printers?


Well, most of the objects I’m using are things that don’t exist in our everyday, they are things that are just slightly past, yet they already feel like they are from the past. That bridge in time is important in order to imagine these things as relics.

How long does it take to produce these works?

A very long time. Some of the smaller objects we spend a month on, and then some of the larger pieces can take six to eight months. It really depends on the complexity of them. All of these techniques, I’ve had to invent them with the team.

Could you talk a little bit about your new work, Formless Figure?

This is part of a larger body of work that I’ve been making for the last 10 years or so, that manipulates architectural surfaces, often by causing them to act in ways that they should not. So, they’re dripping or they’re melting or eroding, or they look like they’ve been transformed into fabric. I created a number of works of clothed figures, that appear to be wrapped up in the form of the architecture, sort of moving underneath it. Recently, I’ve been removing the figure, allowing the impression of the figure. Like, what is the most minute gesture I can make to imply a form? The form is of a figure, so we see this ghostly image that is made out of the architecture. It appears that there is almost a figure resting underneath the wall.

I’m curious, who is that figure?

It’s not specifically a figure of someone. Oftentimes when I’m looking for gestures to use, I’m trying to locate gestures that have broad historical relevance, something that we might see in contemporary life, or might be related to religion. That figure with it’s arms out could be a gesture associated with Christianity, or a gesture associated with Buddhism, or just somebody shrugging.


What’s it like having a major show in Ohio, the state you were born in?

Yeah, it was a really nice homecoming for me. Obviously, I was born there but I had not spent a huge amount of time there since then. The contemporary arts center in Cincinnati is kind of like the place in Ohio, and I brought my best work there, so I feel good about it.

Cool, and are you working on any upcoming projects?

In two weeks I have a film showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, Future Relic #3. That’s kind of the next big moment. The architecture practice that I run with Alex Mustonen is premiering a new large scale project in Milan for the design festival there next week. The clothing company COS has commissioned a very large-scale abstract installation.

Daniel Arsham’s Remember the Future exhibition is up until August 30th at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.


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