Floating in Time — Daniel Arsham Brings Us Static Mythologies

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Story & Photos by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo

Story & Photos by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo

“Looking back at it, it feels like I’m jumping around a lot, but all of the different types of work, whether it’s an installation or in the architecture studio that I have, they’re all in service of the same goal—which is to take our everyday experience, things that we know, and, sort of, make them do things or make them act in ways we don’t expect. And that subtle shift outside of our everyday experience is a kind of invitation to explore that region outside of our everyday.”

A rack of sixteen Spalding basketballs—except they’re made of pink selenite crystal with gaping erosions in their forms. A Los Angeles Lakers bomber jacket with logo stitching across the front—except it’s unwearable, made of pyrite and ash, the crystals emerging from erosions on the shoulder and sides. What appears to be the hydrostone likenesses of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Big Bird hanging out together, but they’re wrapped in cloth and tied with rope, ready for delivery or perhaps for unwrapping—immediately familiar and uncomfortably unfamiliar at the same time. Issues of National Geographic, Vogue, Life Magazine, and Sports Illustrated from the year 3018—the year that, apparently, the Cleveland Browns win the Super Bowl.

These are some of the new works on view at Daniel Arsham’s show Static Mythologies in Amsterdam at the Galerie Ron Mandos which I visited when it opened in mid-January.

Arsham, as he told me, does work that manipulates our everyday expectations. He deals with proper nouns and twists our common vocabulary of brands, entities, and characters that we’re so steeped in, their meanings become assumed. “So the selection of the objects for me, are always about distilling down to something that’s iconic, right. Something that’s recognizable and across a wide group of people.”

The group of people who recognize Arsham’s work is definitely wide. Arsham has a dedicated social media following, gets coverage throughout the year, is represented by reputable galleries globally—but Arsham’s creative decisions are not to court an art audience or please his Instagram followers, they’re to reach across the breadth of human experience. There is global recognition of the shape and heft of a magazine, a basketball, a boombox, but while one of his goals is to evoke a sense of icons, it’s not his goal to point people towards one definite understanding of those icons. Meanings of even the most common objects vary across cultural backgrounds and personal histories. Arsham welcomes those interpretations, whatever they might be.

They’re all in service of the same goal—which is to take our everyday experience, things that we know, and, sort of, make them do things or make them act in ways we don’t expect. And that subtle shift outside of our everyday experience is a kind of invitation to explore that region outside of our everyday.

“There are artists who make things reacting specifically to a particular cultural moment or taking a stance, you know, on an idea or something in particular but I’ve never been prescriptive in that way about the work. It’s not commentary on something specific, but I’m aware that it contains all of these possibilities for opening discussions around those things.”

While Arsham doesn’t mean to provide a view on any singular natural disaster or political situation or make an argument for or against something that’s currently up to debate, his work, which references both the past and the future simultaneously, is intended exactly for the present. The bronze boombox on view is a cast of an already outdated item from our recent history, probably no longer recognizable to young children. Arsham posits what that boombox looks like 1000 years from now as an artifact and then places the imagined artifact before a contemporary audience.

“Engage things that have happened in the past, both in my own experience as well as historically. The impression of these works, what would they convey, right, a hundred years from now, that particular idea hasn’t occurred to me, it’s more about bringing something from the future into this moment in time and trying to take that perspective. Different audiences react differently to some of the works. I’ve done these sculptures of payphones. I have a five-year-old boy and he doesn’t know what that is. But I think that’s kind of part of the idea of the work, is questioning the origin of some of these things. I mean, there’s a tape cassette radio over there which is already a kind of relic, even though our childhood contained those objects. I mean certainly the pace at which things are discarded and even the pace at which technology advances is something that the work inadvertently conveys.”

There’s a wider audience now for exhibitions and galleries because younger people... they feel those places are open to them, right. They’re less intimidating. And I’m of the opinion that the more art that’s in our experience, the better.

Arsham’s consideration of time in his art is not limited to relics and artifacts of the past brought forwards to the future. When I first turned the corner onto the street Galerie Ron Mandos sits at facing one of Amsterdam’s many canals, the bright pink sand of the Lunar Garden installation visible through the front window is unmissable. This bright pink and a similarly bright blue are recurring colors in Arsham’s work since they are hues he has assurance he can see relatively objectively—Arsham is color blind.

Throughout the duration of my time in the gallery, casual passerby’s would stop in their tracks and look through the window. That’s understandable, because beyond the pink sand carefully raked in straight lines and a circle around a white tree sculpture is a pink wooden pathway that leads to the back of the gallery where a large, perfectly round illuminated white moon sits above white sand. It’s everything the eye finds pleasing—tidy geometric lines, fine soft particles, gradation from a bright color to pure white. Lunar Garden is a visual encapsulation of time passing—without ever appearing to pass at all.

The Lunar Garden is modeled on Zen rock gardens in Kyoto that Arsham visited frequently. He became interested in how those spaces seem static and unchanging, but the reality is that in order to seem constant, daily maintenance is required to erase the natural erosions that occur with time passing. The Zen garden becomes a place outside of time—the same today as it was ten years ago and the same as it will be ten years in the future.

Arsham himself is trying to take on the same characteristics of a Zen garden. In answer to my question as to whether he finds himself thinking in the past, present, or future he gave this answer. “I travel so much for work and exhibitions that I always feel like I’m living in whatever project I’m working on that’s coming up. And sometimes I have to kind of stop myself and be in the moment, right. But through all the work I’m trying to take a position of where I’m able to float around in time.”

It’s a difficult task: reviewing the past, peering into the future, and then determining what that means for the present. What shape does the outcome of surveying behind and ahead of us look like?

Perhaps it’s the universality of this ethos that has helped give Arsham the popularity he enjoys. That and his belief that the art world improves when more and more people can partake in it. “I mean certainly social media in general has brought, not only my work, but the work of many artists to regions and people that might not have otherwise been aware of it or they live in places where there aren’t museums or galleries. And I think it’s kind of democratizing in that sort of way, right. It’s easier to access. There’s a wider audience now for exhibitions and galleries because younger people don’t feel, they feel those places are open to them. They’re less intimidating. And I’m of the opinion that the more art that’s in our experience, the better.”

Arsham is equally optimistic about the future as he is about art. “People have always predicted the end of time and so far it hasn’t come. I think that the only thing that we can expect is a change from the current status quo. And I think people have the ability to adapt to a lot of different scenarios and that will be forced upon us and them.”

With this in mind, I view Static Mythologies with the perspective of hopefulness. The materiality of the art seems hard and cold—selenite, steel, hydrostone, pyrite, ash, bronze, quartz—but the product of these materials, cultural artifacts from our collective past seen from the future and considered in the present, is one hypothetical future. Stasis is inactivity, but as Lunar Garden demonstrates, what appears unmoving isn’t necessarily static. Stasis is actually to let time pass unthinking, doing the damage it will. Change that we make can be restorative, doing the upkeep necessary to preserve our future, our culture, and ourselves.

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