Daniel Arsham on His London Takeover, Miami Excavation, and New Projects with James Franco and Pharrell

Daniel Arsham is a name that’s not new to Artsy, or to the art world at large. The artist-filmmaker has been speckling the globe with exhibitions and multi-disciplinary collaborations that have bewitched culturalists across disciplines—art, design, dance, architecture, film, pop culture. Starting with Snarkitecture, his art-architecture practice with co-founder Alex Mustonen, and his work with the Merce Cunningham dance company, Arsham’s focused but inclusive practice has extended performative installations and choreographic collaborations with dancer Jonah Bokaer, sculptural keyboards with musician and producer (and sometimes designer and curator) Pharrell Williams, and most recently a film series that features actors James Franco and Juliette Lewis. I spoke with Arsham about his new show at beloved London gallery Pippy Houldsworth, where the artist’s ghostly figure makes a stunning appearance within the gallery’s walls, and Arsham’s city-wide takeover, as part of Saatchi Gallery’s “Post Pop: East Meets West” group show and a screening of the first three installments of his “Future Relic” film series at Andre Balazs’s new London enclave, Chiltern Firehouse—as well as his takeover across the ocean in the heart of Miami during Art Basel Miami Week, where he has excavated Miami’s Locust Projects space. 

Artsy: This new project at Pippy Houldsworth is an extension of your “draped figure” series where the bodies appear to be part of the gallery wall, sometimes standing or even levitating. What will be the position of this new figure, and how has the series evolved to this point?  

DA: Oftentimes, the positions that I’m choosing for these figures are quite complex to construct; and as this sort of development in my practice happens, I get better at being able to achieve some of the things that I wasn’t able to make earlier on. And so in this work, it appears as if a figure has sort of walked into the surface of the wall, stands against it, grabs the wall from either side, and pulls the wall over themselves from the left and the right. So there’s a lot of physical tension in the work. And the work itself is seamless with the architecture; in fact the materials of the wall that I’m manipulating are the same materials that the wall is made out of. So it’s a real physical and direct transformation of the existing architecture. 

Artsy: For an exhibition like this, when the physical gallery space is so much a part of the work, how do you prepare? What’s the process in the studio, and then what’s your installation process like once you’re at the gallery?

DA: When I’m creating these pieces, in order to get the image of them, I drape fabric over a mannequin to see what the folds and the gravity will look like. And oftentimes I’m playing with the audience’s perception of what gravity should do. So if you imagine you’re standing [and] a sheet is draped over you, the gravity is going to look a particular way. Oftentimes when I make these, I drape them over mannequins that are facing up, towards the ceiling. So when I place them on the wall, there’s something strange about them, there’s something a little bit uncanny about them. And part of that comes from this shift in gravity that I’m able to achieve through this draping. So 90% of the figures are constructed in the studio, and the only part that’s made on-site in the gallery is the joint between the work and the architecture. And the goal in the end, the thing that is important in order to achieve [this effect], is a seamless transition, so that when you look at this work, you shouldn’t know where the work ends and where the architecture begins.

Artsy: Obviously with Snarkitecture, architecture is a part of your practice as well. How does a piece like this speak to that aspect of your work?

DA: Part of the goal that I have in Snarkitecture is to cause architecture to act in ways that it shouldn’t, and allow materials to surprise us and to perform and do things that we don’t expect. And it’s often a very subtle, quiet alteration. This piece in London will be the only work in the gallery, and when you walk into the gallery you may not notice it immediately because it’s all white—some of it blends into the architecture. But once you notice it, there’s this uncanny shift that happens where this thing that you had expected the wall to be, this very sort of solid, immobile surface, has become malleable, and fluid, and almost like a fabric.

Artsy: You’ve worked in various types of materials and across disciplines—dance, architecture, sculpture, performance, video. What roles do each of these mediums play in your practice as a whole, and how does your role perhaps change when dealing with each respectively?

DA: I mean, it’s always an experiment the first time. I never intended to work in spaces; I sort of fell into that when Merce Cunningham asked me to work with him. And I continued that practice. And in many ways I think that Merce’s introduction to other disciplines for me is something that has led me in many different areas. And film is very similar in that I didn’t study it; I wanted to do it. It’s, for me, sort of the pinnacle of what I can create artistically, because it’s a complete world. You build a complete vision—I can develop everything that happens and the way that everything looks, and the light. I had to learn all of that; I had to learn what that craft means and find the right team in order to build that vision with them. And with “Future Relic,” my team is really growing in an amazing way. I found the right producer, and my director of photography, who I’ve worked with on all three so far, understands exactly what I want and shot everything that I’m looking for in terms of light and movement, almost to the point where he knows what I’m going to say before I say it. 

Artsy: That’s a good segue to your new chapter in your “Future Relic” film series. The first was released in 2013, where you teamed up with Swizz Beatz and Richard Chai; and the second chapter, featuring James Franco, was just released in October and tells the story of your stunning plaster and glass “archetypal camera.” I saw that the next one features Juliette Lewis. They are both experienced big-screen actors; how has the experience been new or different for them?

DA: I think the way that I go about making films is very different from what they’re used to because I don’t come from that background. You know, my primary focus in many ways is on the environment and on the sort of scenario in which I’m placing them as actors and allowing their talent and their crafts to thrive within that environment.

Artsy: The production quality of the film is very high, and the soundscape is stunning, but then, of course, you have James Franco. How did you first meet Franco, and at what point did you think he would be great for the part? Or did you develop the part for him?

DA: So, I wrote the entire screenplay with a colleague of mine named Timothy Stanley. And the screenplay involved nine different segments or vignettes that all come together to form a larger story. They were made out of order because they were made according to the time of year where I needed to be outside, or when the talent was available. And most of the actors so far have come through my relationship with OHWOW [gallery] in Los Angeles. And [OHWOW co-founder] Al Moran has worked many times with James. So we were introduced. And I spoke to him about our project, and he was interested. I felt he would be perfect for this role. It’s a challenging role because there’s no dialogue at all. So the entire story and what’s happening in that, or at least the illusion of something, is entirely conveyed by the expressions on his face, and his movement—his craft.

Artsy: But the soundscape is so strong that you almost don’t even realize that there is no dialogue. How will the nine chapters come together into one film? And will we see major changes in the third chapter? 

DA: Yeah. It’s a little bit deceiving to say that there’s nine chapters. It’s more of a practical thing than anything else. And in fact when the film is premiered at the Tribeca [Film Festival] next year, they’re not going to be shown individually; they’ll all be grouped together, and they flow into one another. It’s more of a practical consideration for timing and my ability to shoot them. I would say that the two films that I’ve released so far are very sort of subtle and quiet. When the next two films come out, I think it’s going to surprise people a little bit because they’re part of the same story, but there’s very heavy dialogue and the story, the larger context in which all of these characters are existing, begins to be illuminated in these next two pieces. We just shot Future Relic 03 a couple weeks ago with Juliette Lewis, and in some ways she is kind of the main character in the film, although we see her at different points in her life. But it’s really not a film that I could imagine seeing in a gallery, like I would imagine watching a Barney film. This is for me much more a thing that you watch in a movie theater, and there is a narrative, and it’s very much in that context and not in an art film context.

Artsy: When do you expect the full feature to be completed?

DA: The roll-out that we’re doing for this is a little bit unique. At Tribeca 2015, which is next April, I’m going to show the first four films, or basically the first half of the film. And it’s a kind of teaser in some ways. You start to understand a little bit about the context, where these people are, when these people are living—you know, the entire film takes place in the future. And the full feature-length will come out in the festival circuit in 2016, so it will also be at Tribeca in 2016.

Artsy: Speaking to Miami, which will be the focus of the art world’s attention early December, can you tell me a bit about your exhibition at Locust Projects?

DA: I started discussing it with the director there about a year and a half ago, and I went through a series of different proposals before settling on one that was quite complex to achieve because of engineering and structural questions. The proposal was to cut a 25-foot-diameter hole into the floor of the gallery. And inside of that hole, underneath the slab of concrete, it would appear that there was a sort of archeological site there—an extension of a lot of the work that I’ve been making.

Artsy:  So you’ve actually excavated the floor of the gallery?

DA: Yeah. [Laughs]. We cut these giant sections out of the floor and lifted them out. And once I saw these massive pieces of concrete, I decided to use them as well. So when you enter the gallery, the first thing you see is the rubble of this concrete. And you pass through a curtain into the back space, and you’re presented with this sort of highly realistic-looking archeological site. It appears as if the ground has been cut up and removed, and inside of the hole that you peer down into, there are thousands of objects made out of materials like ash, and obsidian, and crystal—things that make us think about time, or recall, like archaeology.

Artsy: Have you ever been to an archeological site?

DA: Actually, this entire interest that I’ve had kind with archeology came after a trip that I made to Easter Island a couple of years ago when I was working on a series of paintings that eventually were published into a book. And you know, the island is famous for these giant moai statues. There were archeologists there that were excavating a moai that had been previously excavated 100 years prior. And in this site, or truly around this statue, they found things that the archeologists had left 100 years ago. So there’s this very sort of bizarre, magical moment where you have a 1,000-year-old sculpture and next to it you have mirrors, you have other objects, measuring devices that were left 100 years ago. The archeologists there were treating both as important information. 

Artsy: And finally, I can’t help but ask, but what’s it like working with Pharrell? And do you have any upcoming projects together?

DA: We do have an upcoming project together. All I can say is that it’s the largest project that I’ve worked on probably...maybe not more than the films, but on that scale.

Artsy: And by largest, do you mean most rigorous? Or do you mean physically large?

DA:  Both. [Laughs]. But more to come on that; we haven’t announced it yet. But Pharrell is great. I met him when I lived in Miami in 2005 or in 2006 with Emmanuel Perrotin. And we sort of became friends around that point, and he was interested in making a collaboration. But I was traveling, and [when] finally we got together for a project, I think it was in 2012. But he’s great. You know, he’s a very humble, interesting guy, certainly curious about other disciplines, as am I, and I think that’s why he and I get along as well as we do. 

Artsy:  On that note, you’ve been called a “multi-hyphenate.” What is it about that collaborative aspect that really gives you that drive, or that high?

DA: I mean, you know, when I watch Jonah Bokaer work, or when I watched Merce Cunningham work, or when I watch Pharrell work, they seem to be so good at what they do that it seems hard, but it also doesn’t seem that hard. And I’m amazed at what they’re able to create. When you’re so foreign to a discipline, it’s hard to imagine how that can happen with such effortless work. And in some way I imagine that Pharrell looks at me in the same way when he comes to the studio and sees all of these objects that are made out of ash, or crystal. For me, I know how to do that now; it’s something that I’ve perfected over years. But when you look at it, it seems nearly impossible, and that’s sort of how I feel about what they do. It’s baffling in a beautiful way, and it’s challenging.

Marina Cashdan is Artsy’s Head of Editorial and Creative Director.

Daniel Arsham: Special Project” is on view at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, Nov. 22, 2014–Jan. 7, 2015.

Daniel Arsham: Welcome to the Future” is on view at Locust Projects, Miami, Nov. 15, 2014–Jan. 24, 2015.

Image credits: Installation view of “Daniel Arsham: Special Project” at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London; Daniel Arsham, “Welcome to the Future,” 2014. Rights Reserved.