How Daniel Arsham Is Rewriting the Future of Art
‘Back to the Future’s’ DeLorean car and Looney Tunes backpack patches are among the objects reimagined in Arsham’s show ‘3018,’ which projects familiar items into the future.
Daniel Arsham’s new show, called 3018, is what you might call anti-subtle. On the top floor of the exhibit, giant letters protrude from a smooth white wall, tugging and stretching the hard surface as if it were fabric. The bulging word is FUTURE.
Currently at the Perrotin gallery in New York’s Chinatown, 3018 showcases Arsham’s singular fusion of architecture, sculpture, pop culture, and commerce.
The objects on display—including a ‘60s Ferrari (from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), an ‘80s DeLorean (from Back to the Future), a towering pile of tech products, and an array of giant cartoon character-shaped backpack patches—are all cast and constructed out of volcanic ash, crystal, and quartz.
The items are uniformly white or grey and crumbling, like the petrified belongings of some 22nd century scion of Medusa.
Yet the petrifier here is not a behemoth of Greek mythos but a petite guy in steel-rimmed glasses, a white lab coat, and pastel green Adidas.
Arsham is cool in every sense of the word, and as he drifts around the gallery, speaking with practiced fluency about his work’s engagement with time (dislocation from it) and beauty (in imperfection), his face often remains as stony as the famous movie cars frozen behind him.
“We associate crystal with a geological time frame, but also as a medium of growth, something that we imagine is continuing in its cycle,” explains Arsham, pointing to the hunks of pyrite meticulously exposed in gouged-out sections of the DeLorean’s hood. “Are they falling apart, or are they actually growing to some kind of completion of the object?”
Interrogating, disrupting, and transcending time was key to Arsham’s mission with 3018. The show’s items, each selected for its tie to a particular era or moment, have been dislodged from the past and projected into an imagined future.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in Miami, Arsham became interested in architecture through a serendipitous act of weather during his childhood: a Floridian hurricane that left his home completely destroyed.
The house was subsequently rebuilt in full exactly as it had looked, but with entirely different materials. “I have a reoccurring dream, often, of the house,” Arsham says. “I could probably draw a floorplan of it still.”
Now in his mid-thirties, Arsham lives in Brooklyn with his wife and young son, and his varied resumé of projects includes collaborations with artists of all mediums, from the late dance choreographer Merce Cunningham to the rapper Pharrell, whom Arsham continues to keep in touch with as friends.
Arsham is perhaps best known as one half of Snarkitecture, a design practice he created with a friend that constructs interactive art installations. The team drew their name, Arsham says, from the Lewis Carroll book The Hunting of the Snark, “about a group of idiots who are searching for a beast called the Snark, and all they have to go off is a blank white map. It’s a formless entity that they’re searching for.”
Though Arsham’s work is far from snarky—on the contrary, everything he creates feels intensely earnest—there’s a playful quality to it.
3018, which marks Arsham’s 15th exhibit with Galerie Perrotin, spans two large, sparse floors. On ground level, between the Delorean and Ferrari lies a massive heap of technological devices: phones, cameras, VHS tapes, steering wheels, gameboys, stereos.
There’s also a football, a gun, and a box of crayons; but for the most part, the pile comprises gadgets of documentation and communication.
It’s fitting, therefore, that Arsham ordered each of the pieces on eBay—which is, for Arsham, “a library of human production” where he could get lost for hours perusing, say, varieties of microphone or vintage phonographs.
“The further you get from a moment in time, the more closely things connect. So 500 years from now, an iPhone and a phonograph [will seem] much closer together and relate more,” says Arsham. “I try to think about all the objects in the show as if I could forget what they were, what they were used for, and try to imagine approaching them like an archaeologist would.”
A wall facing the pile is lined with geological casts of magazine and book covers—some real, like New York magazine, and others fictitious, like a dictionary repurposed with the title, “Setting the Scene for California Modernism,” followed by the names John Lautner, Snoop Dogg, and Joan Didion.
These figures might seem uncorrelated, but, like the iPhone and the phonograph, may feel more linked with the progress of time.
On the second floor of 3018, perfectly lit wallpaper makes it appear as though sections of the gallery wall have been scooped out (as in the Delorean and Ferrari) to reveal fragments of sparkling crystal.
A perpendicular wall holds enlarged replications of fabric patches, including ones of Marvin the Martian and Bugs Bunny, that Arsham found on his high school Jansport backpack.
“Some artists just make work for themselves. And I’m just not that kind of artist,” Arsham says, reflecting on the pop familiarity of his Looney Tunes pieces. “I see the reaction to works that are posted on Instagram and what people are commenting back, how they interpret them, and they’re often not the way that I think they will be. And I can either tailor it to that to push that interpretation or lean against it. That kind of pushing and pulling of things is where the work really lies.”
Over time, there has been a tendency to classify art on a spectrum of low to high brow. The categorization could be based on the sophistication level of the creator or of the consumer, or some subjective take on the intellectual depth of the work itself.
But these boundaries seem to be collapsing, making way for artists like Arsham who take pride in creating populist work that pleases or pushes the masses.
And clearly, it’s working: Arsham boasts an appeal that transcends presumed cultural echelons, reaching everyone from the Harvard architecture student to the fashion “hypebeast” (trend seeker) to the ordinary Instagram user.
For Arsham, who frequently collaborates with fashion labels (the pastel green Adidas he’s wearing are of his own design and are set to be released this fall), distinctions between art and consumerism are similarly dissolving.
Designing a pair of tennis sneakers, he says, doesn’t require putting on a different hat (or a different custom-made high fashion lab coat); to him, it feels “exactly the same” as creating a sculpture or gallery piece.
Of course, probing the intersection of art and the mass market isn’t unique to our era. It’s been quite a while since Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into an exalted art piece or Andy Warhol mass-produced a Campbell’s soup can.
But Arsham isn’t just probing these distinctions, he’s personally collapsing them. Arsham designing Adidas sneakers is more akin to Warhol putting on a chef’s hat and cooking the Campbell’s slop himself.
With nearly 400 thousand Instagram followers, Arsham believes that social media has expedited the breakdown of these boundaries. “As you’re watching these things flow down your timeline, how do you even distinguish what’s what, or what’s coming from who?” Arsham says. If you’re following the right artists, fashion designers, filmmakers, and musicians—in other words, if you have taste—then, he says, “I think it kind of feels all the same.”
On Friday, Arsham released a line of 500 “Cracked Bear” sculptures for purchase: teddy bears with pristine blue shells that are meant to be chipped and broken by future owners.
It’s the paragon of an interactive, consumer-based art piece in a body of work designed for public engagement—whether that be through feasting your eyes on cult movie cars and Looney Tunes patches or donning a pair of pastel green Adidas.
If art and consumer products are one and the same, why shouldn’t the consumer be able to put the finishing touches on a limited edition teddy bear sculpture?
Back downstairs, in front of the pile of obsolete devices, Arsham reaches down to respond to a silent buzz in his pocket: an iPhone 8 that unlocks upon face recognition. When I ask about what he thinks of the new technology, Arsham arches a brow. “I don’t know. Welcome to the future.”
Daniel Arsham's 3018 is at Perrotin, 130 Orchard Street, NYC, until October 21.