Daniel Arsham’s work, as he told us in his Brooklyn studio, is “hard to define,” but we could think of a few words – beautifully contemporary, deeply historical, wildly cool. When we met him on one steamy day, his studio was in full gear, even though most New York-based artists take the summer off and head to the Hamptons. Arsham wore a monogrammed lab coat – a dapper mad scientist, to be sure.
Arsham is, in many ways, a superstar. He did stage design for and toured with Merce Cunnningham, perhaps the most inventive figure in modern dance. If that’s not intriguing enough, he has also collaborated with the fabulously talented and stylish Pharrell Williams. Public School tapped him to create their runway for Men’s Fashion Week. We’re almost out of breath, but one last thing – his film Future Relic 02 starred James Franco.
Arsham is about to embark on a totally new outlet. After years of working with color-blindness, he has started using corrective lenses that will allow him to see a greater range of colors. Semaine is hosting the world premiere on our website of Arsham’s new film that documents his first experience seeing colour with EnChroma glasses. What will this mean for his work? We’ll have to just wait and see, but Arsham gave us a few clues. We also chatted about the emotional content of his work, his historical precedents, and his shows at Galerie Perrotin and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Arsham says he’s “just chilling,” but we would have to disagree. He seems to be one of the hardest working people in the art world.
Semaine: There’s a lot of talk of the highly conceptual, intellectual, architectural, components of your work, but what is your relationship to the emotional – specifically noir and melodrama?
Daniel: "Film has certainly been something that has been an influence on me. Nothing specific – but more like techno-noir or I’ve been reading this book called Damon which feels like a kind of noir thing. There’s detectives involved, but it all has to do with the internet and the dark net.
So I think if it’s a noir that is present in my work, it’s like a future noir or something like that, like Blade Runner. The melancholy thing people have written about a lot. People ask about when I’m making works that depict objects from our present as if they’re in some sort of apocalyptic future – whether I was thinking about it in a negative way, in an apocalyptic way, and I wasn't. It never occurred to me. For me it was more like archaeology, so I was looking at those things keeping in mind that they will become that one day. There’s no sadness in that. It’s more matter of fact. It’s ordered like an archaeologist would display things."
Semaine: I think that there is this sort of George Segal, Kiki Smith foreboding element, but it seems that there’s also a joyful excess in your work at the same time, which I think is a really interesting tension.
Daniel: "I think part of that is in the selection of the objects. They’re things that most people like – basketball and music. They reference things that are more playful."
Semaine: That might be a good segue into thinking about the issue of broad appeal, of celebrity, of cross-genre collaborations. You’ve navigated multiple spheres of collaboration from Merce Cunningham – a pretty esoteric artist – to Pharrell Williams, who is intensely smart but also has a wide, mass audience.
Daniel: "Even now I don’t feel quite a part of the art world in a way. Or at least the New York art world. It can be difficult to place what I’m doing, because I’m working in scenic design, and I’m working in architecture. My work doesn’t fit into these concise boxes, and it’s a little bit harder to place. But I didn’t do these things because I was trying to be a renegade. I just like them, and they kept things interesting in the studio."
Semaine: Nobody really talks about Matisse’s set design for instance.
Daniel: "Robert Rauschenberg was a scenic designer before he was an artist, and all of the early Combines which are now considered the formative works that defined his career were not made in the studio; they were made as stage designs for Merce Cunningham. which is never discussed. Those pieces never came out of a studio practice; that was because he was on the road with Merce and he was forced to make things out of stuff that he found. So for me, that bringing in these other types of making and types of necessities have kind of come back into my art practice in a way.
I think that it’s been hard for the public, but also for me, to define what I do. If I’m working in architecture is it still art? The work in stage design has been the pieces that I made for Merce and are in the collection of the Walker, so what are they? And when they’re shown in that context, do they mean something else? They were never intended for that really."
Semaine: Do we need to invent a new term for your work, then?
Daniel: "No. I’m just out here making stuff. Just chilling."
Semaine: Could you give us a rundown of your show at Galerie Perrotin?
Daniel: "This show is new for me in a lot of ways; it’s the first sculptural work that I've shown in color – you know I’m color-blind? Last year, EnChroma released lenses that correct the color deficiency that I have, so there’s my regular prescription, and then they’re also color prescription. Color-blindness doesn’t mean that I don’t see color. It means that the range of color is drastically reduced, especially in low lighting scenarios or at times where you might have colors that are close to each other on the color spectrum. I just may not distinguish them. So what these lenses do is refract the light in a different way so it separates the colors further apart on the color spectrum. It’s not actually curing it; what it’s doing is tricking your eye into reading more variation.
So I had never really thought about the idea that being color-blind is part of my work or anything like that, I just selected these things – these works are white because the wall is white. That basketball is that color because it’s made of volcanic ash, it was more about the material quality. But once I was able to really see this broad spectrum of color, I started to look at materials like volcanic ash but that were in color, so all the works in this show are made of this blue calcite crystal, and the color really comes from the crystal itself. So in some ways, I’m not looking at it as an introduction of a kind of new thesis behind the work, it’s more just a shifting in material."
Semaine: Should this physical change factor into the discourse of your work going forward?
Daniel: "I wouldn’t say it’s something that I think about in relation to it, but certainly an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought about it in that way. For me it’s just one other option in this spectrum. Maybe I’ll continue in white, but it may be like a rainbow world in ten years. I have no idea. I think it’s really about paying attention to materials."
Semaine: The other thing that’s coming up is the thing you’re doing with Pharrell at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Daniel: "Well Pharrell made the music for it, but it’s a collaboration with Jonah Bokaer, who’s a choreographer that I’ve worked with. He was a dancer in Merce’s company, I’ve known him since then. And this is the largest of the works that we’ve done together. When Merce died, I started working with Jonah on different things, and it’s the first score that Pharrell has done not only for live dance, but also orchestral. So it was arranged and performed with the Dallas symphony. It’s a unique piece for Pharrell, in that you can definitely hear that it’s him; there’s a kind of cadence, and it sounds like his production work, but it’s an orchestra. So it has this very big quality to it."
If you’re as excited as we are about what’s coming up for Daniel, be sure to grab tickets to Rules of the Game at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November – the New York premiere of Daniel’s work with Jonah Bokaer and Pharrell Williams. When we were all finished in Daniel’s studio for the day, we really knew we had been a part of something very special; it was as if we could see the artistic possibilities of the future unfolding before our eyes, a space where dance, the visual arts, and performance seamlessly meet.
By William J. Simmons for Semaine.