From Issue 3 of 10+: A Deep Dive Into The Futuristic World of Artist Daniel Arsham
Bronze Bunny, 2019. Bronze. Photograph by James Law
To say that Daniel Arsham lives in the future would be putting it mildly. The American artist, 39, positively thrives in it. “Everything that I date, if I’m signing something, is dated a thousand years in the future,” he points out. It’s a futurism that is very now, with fans flocking to enter his universe; he has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram alone. And those fans are very exacting. “It’s gotten to the point where if I do a caption on my Instagram, and I write that I have an exhibition opening in 2019, my audience is like, ‘You’re 1,000 years off!’”
If Arsham’s signed works survive until 3019, as he very much hopes they will, whoever finds them will encounter a wild variety of stuff. The Cleveland-born, Miami-raised creative is one of those for whom the label “artist” doesn’t seem to cut it. Instead, from his studio in New York, where he lives with his wife and two young sons, he churns out a truly Warholian level of art and product and everything in between. It has made him deeply in demand, with impressive commercial clout. He himself identifies a couple of strands to his oeuvre: “architectural intervention pieces” (kind of self-explanatory – playing with spaces, stores, galleries), paintings, and the Fictional Archaeology series, in which everyday objects from Arsham’s past – keyboards, televisions, basketball hoops and cars – are reinvented as “found” objects in a faraway future, made in surprising materials such as volcanic ash and quartz. Oh, and then there are all the collaborations, too, which stretch from Nasa to Dior. The latter is just one of many fashion link-ups – he recently worked with Kim Jones on creating an acclaimed menswear collection. Actually, with all that said, “artist” is still the best label for him, he decides. “Because it’s the only thing that people can understand as a multi-hyphenate kind of person,” he reasons in his soft, measured voice.
Eroded Bulls Jacket, 2015. Quartz, hydrostone
Short-ish, slight-ish, nattily dressed in a big neutral-coloured trench, he wears smart round glasses that give him a professorial air, but there is still something cheeky and boyish about him. It’s no surprise he has a strong following among twentysomething male hypebeasts – he is an ideal mascot. “You know, you look at someone like Virgil [Abloh] and Kim, they’re kind of doing everything, too, but they just live in that universe.”
When we meet, in London, we are very much in “that universe” – the 21st-century space where art, fashion and internet hype meet. Arsham is in town to inaugurate The House, a festive space he has designed in Selfridges. Across four conjoined spaces you get a crash course in some of his favourite things, from T-shirts with sharp graphics, to a Fictional Archaeology version of hip-hop bible The Source, to bonsai trees to customised versions of cans of Heinz tomato soup, which have been turned an Arsham-ish white and turquoise. When I visit, fans are grabbing them off the shelves, and are queuing to get him to sign them. At £1.50 a pop, they are admittedly the cheapest things there.
Signing can after can, Arsham has the look of a little boy whose Christmas has come early. Which, in a way, it has. The House feels like him very much turning all the things he loved as a kid into bespoke pieces. The climax of this is sitting in Selfridge’s front window: a fully customised Porsche 992. Typically, the artist charmed the German carmakers into shipping a model over to his studio, where he promptly pulled it apart and made it very 3019 – a large crack in the bonnet reveals sticks of selenite crystal jutting out, and so on. Two surprising things: first, the Porsche still works as a car – Arsham drove it into its current spot, much to his pleasure (he is a huge car fan, and now has a Porsche of his own, which he is also customising for fun). Second, the company love this high-end vandalism, and there’s no talk of selling it – once it has toured a bit, maybe, it will go straight to the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. As usual, Arsham fast tracks in double-quick time from commercial product to artistic proposition. But when we chat a little later on, he says he doesn’t distinguish between the two poles too much.
Avalanche, 2010, commissioned by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company
“It’s kind of like whatever you want to call it, right?” There is a difference, he admits, between something mass- produced and something handmade in the studio, “but they’re both things that I want,” he shrugs. It’s great, he says, to find ways of allowing younger people to “come at my work from a street-level” – people who often find museums and galleries intimidating. “I mean, this is what Warhol was on about 50 years ago,” he points out. “I think for some people in the art world, that notion is still very kind of controversial and not really accepted. And those are the same people who, you know, go on about Warhol at the same time, which I’ve always felt strange about.” He says this with a small laugh.
“When I first started doing some of the collaborations, like the sneakers I did with Adidas, I can remember some of my collectors being like, ‘Why would you allow your work to be associated in this way?’ And I was like, ‘I’m using them, not the other way around! How do you guys not see that?”
Easter Island Series, 2013. Gouache on paper
Arsham grew up in the suburb of Kendall, Miami, which he describes as “super-way-the-fuck-out-in-nowhere”. He sells it very much as a typical American childhood, with every house looking almost exactly the same, and standard childhood pursuits such as skateboarding or graffiti, or sailing in the Everglades nearby. On another level, though, when he was 12, one of Florida’s notorious hurricanes pretty much destroyed his home, reducing it to its basic shell. It’s a story that’s been repeated in pretty much every recent interview, and today he’s reticent about making it “this whole big thing”. However, yes, “because the house was destroyed and I saw it reconstructed, I got to see inside all of the walls and the plumbing and all the electrics, and I just had a different relationship with architecture after that experience”.
His grandfather had recently given him a camera, and he documented the whole process, too. And there is at least a sense in all this of what was to come. A lot of Arsham’s work is about taking the American dream and making it seem weird and eerie and displaced, both nostalgic and forward-thinking. “It’s dark and light at the same time,” he says. Current concerns about the environment have only heightened an apocalyptic edge. “That was never really part of the work per se, but I can tell that, as the conversation around that is heightening, people are projecting that onto the work, which is interesting.”
Bound Figure, 2014. Fibreglass plaster, paint
Arsham very promptly headed to New York to study architecture. However, being a classic architect wasn’t on the cards: he was just interested in how the discipline worked with space, and materials, and light, all central questions to what he makes today. In 2008 he set up a practice, Snarkitecture, with architect Alex Mustonen. It’s named for Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, which, as Mustonen has put it, “tells the story of these misfits who are on a misguided search for this mythical creature, the Snark”. So far, Snarkitecture has overhauled galleries and shops and streets; it has proposed strange versions of chairs, kitchen islands and playgrounds. For once, Wikipedia puts it best: “The firm makes architecture do things it is not intended to do.”
This is very much Arsham’s MO across the board, though. Like all successful artists he has a stubborn streak – you want to say a singular vision, but that would be too much on the nose. Arsham, after all, is colour-blind. A few years ago, a pair of glasses was developed that would let him see colour more as other people do. The process of him putting them on for the first time was filmed for a short online documentary. It’s quite moving, Arsham preparing to see the trees and grass in their “true” colour for the first time. In the film, he is clearly moved, too. However, today, when I bring it up, it’s another subject he is reticent about.
“I can’t watch the film now.” He winces a little. It sounds like he wasn’t too keen on how it was presented, as a type of huge eureka moment. He doesn’t see it as one. “It’s no issue at all, actually,” he says of his colour-blindness. He will use those glasses in the studio “very rarely”, just to make sure he’s on the same page as his designers, but “otherwise never”. It hasn’t, he insists, changed how he views the world fundamentally.
Dior menswear SS20 show. Photograph by James Law
Indeed, his vision seems to go far, far further. In his studio he has portraits of Yuri Gagarin, Martin Luther King Jr and John F Kennedy. It’s not a trivial line-up: these are, as he puts it lightly, all “people who were daring in a certain respect”. Gagarin was on his mind a lot for one of his most fantastical projects, when he contacted Nasa a few years back. When the agency’s twin Voyager probes were launched in the late 1970s, a “document of humanity” was on board, to share with whoever might come across it out there – but it had no artwork on it. Arsham, naturally, wanted to “rectify that”. So, true to form, he persuaded Nasa to let him come in and visit, and asked friends such as Pharrell (in 2013 they made “eroded” sculptures of the musician’s old Casio keyboard together, one from volcanic ash), Jefferson Hack, and Serpentine gallery supremo Hans Ulrich Obrist to get involved, too. But then: Trump. The new president came in, this kind of project became less of a priority and so it “kind of faltered”, sighs Arsham. “But who knows? It’s still in discussion.”
He is fundamentally optimistic. Perhaps the main takeaway from his Fictional Archaeology series isn’t that the pieces are battered, chipped, transformed, but that they have survived. He does believe human beings will be around in a thousand years. Just to be clear, then, if you could do time travel, would you go forwards or backwards? “Oh, the future,” he replies immediately. And how far would you go – a thousand years, right? “For sure,” he smiles. “To the day and to the minute!” Just to see if your artwork has survived? “Yeah,” he laughs. Would you be like, “So, guys, where are the Arshams?” He smiles a little defensively. “They’re very hard to make!”
Issue 3 of 10+ – ENDURING, MOTION, GRACE – is OUT NOW and available to order here.
Future Archaeological Lab, 2019. Mixed-media installation, HOW Art Museum, Shanghai