Daniel Arsham
The Time Traveller

Traditionally archeology has only worked in one direction, digging through the past, but what if we were able to dig through the future? What if we could take the world we live in right now and accelerate its age? These are the philosophical fantasies that keep one of the most significant artists of our time Daniel Arsham up at night.

With his pristine white lab coat, Arsham takes an almost clinical approach to his work using visual art, film, painting, and sculpture to unpack the culture we live in.

Initially, it was a disaster that changed the way Arsham views the world, a hurricane called Andrew that swept through his childhood when he was 12 leaving an indelible mark on him. It forced him to think about impermanence, the idea that everything is transient, when an organism, idea or product reaches the end of their shelf life they eventually break down and decay. This remains irreversible; essentially we are all fossils or artifacts in waiting.
With a slight hint of irony, he’s also not afraid of embracing popular culture either, whether it is with a slew of hyper celebrities such as Pharrell Williams or Hedi Slimane or using his experimental outfit Snarkitecture to work with some of the biggest brands in the world.
The thread that inevitably always ties Arsham’s work together is that time in some surreal sense is what binds us together and reality might not always be what it seems. This is where we started our discussion and this is where we end it.

Your pinned tweet says, ‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.’ Can you give us an understanding of what that means?

It’s funny because I’ve never been questioned about my Twitter; it’s usually my Instagram. I just think that we’re in a moment where reality, fact and this whole concept of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ etc. is such a cultural touch point. There has been a lot of conversation around that in terms of it being a negative aspect of society, which I can certainly understand and agree with to a large degree but I also believe that when people in power create scenarios where reality can be questioned, it also opens up an opportunity for those of us who function and work in that space to capitalise on it. If fake news and alternate reality is something that people are thinking about we can engage them further in that discussion through the creation of our own works.

Isn’t that dangerous?

Potentially, but maybe art needs to be a little dangerous. There are certainly a lot of other dangerous things going on in the world right now. I think more than it being dangerous it’s that it has stakes. Art can often be thought of as something unnecessary or lacking a specific purpose, and in this case I believe that as creatives we have an obligation now to address some of these questions.

"Art needs to be a little dangerous. There are certainly a lot of other dangerous things going on in the world right now."

Daniel Arsham

The first time I found out about your work was when I was walking in Dallas. This guy just sort of popped out of the wall, which was amazing. I just thought how did he do that? Is that usually the kind of thing people ask you before you talk about the deeper meaning of the work?

I think certainly that’s a question. Part of the sentiment of that question is can something solid be altered in a way? Architecture shouldn’t be moving, right? I think there’s a kind of subtlety to that, which creates an entry point for people to start thinking about their reality in general. It’s a manipulation of things that they are already familiar with.

Let’s take that one step further: you are aiming to poke and provoke the person interacting with your art about what actually constitutes reality perhaps?

Yes. I don’t think the works have any particular meaning or purpose per se; I tend to think of them more as an introduction to an alternate way of thinking. Sometimes people will come up and say to me, ‘It’s so strange how you are creating this illusion where it looks like the architecture is actually moving.’ My response to that is that it doesn’t look like it’s moving – it is actually moving. Those works are all made with the exact same materials as the architecture, it’s a transformation of something that already exists.

I find it bizarre that you say your work doesn’t have any meaning or purpose considering the provocative nature of it. Is there no subtle intention or angle of the philosophy behind the art you create? Or does it just come from the present moment for you?

I didn’t say that it has no meaning at all I just said that it has no specific meaning. Once I begin to talk about these works as meaning it closes down any other potential meanings. I show my work in many different places in the world so it means something different to everyone depending on where they live and their culture, as well as their age group. Sometime my 4-year-old son will come in and see a piece of my work like a figure wrapped in a wall, which he finds terrifying. For others, there’s an almost comical quality to it.

Tell me about your relationship with science and technology and how deep that relationship goes in your work? 

It’s certainly a point of fascination for me. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] in NASA, thinking about time and how that relates to my work.
There’s this massive project we’ve been trying to get off the ground relating to the Voyager Record.

In terms of the production within my work, many of the materials that I use were not originally intended as ‘art’ materials – things like volcanic ash, crystals, even drywall or the materials of architecture. So there’s a bit of alchemy and science in the transformation of those materials and often times through necessity, I’m forced to actually consult with conservationists and people who understand how materials react and function over time.

Looking at the archaeological element of your work I feel like the Earth has stopped, almost frozen in time like Pompeii.

That was certainly an inspiration and something that I looked at, but as the works have developed I’ve considered other possibilities. When I first began thinking about this project I was actually on a trip to Easter Island. As history progresses, all objects become antiquated and in some way, they all become ruins or relics, disused or buried. In 1000 years everything that we own will inevitably become one of those things. I don’t particularly see that as having an apocalyptic quality – it’s sort of just the march of time and moving on.

This series of works, which is fictional archaeology for me, is really about either moving forward in time, bringing objects back from the future, things that you could instantaneously decay and age or the viewer has been transported to a future where they can look at the objects with their own experience and perspective of time. In that way, there’s a collapse of time or a compression that exists.

"As history progresses, all objects become antiquated and in some way, they all become ruins or relics, disused or buried. In 1000 years everything that we own will inevitably become one of those things."

I guess what I’m trying to get to is that I find some of your work quite disturbing as well, which is a good thing because it’s provocative and emotional.  For instance I saw an image of Bugs Bunny on your Instagram where he is decaying. That makes me think that some elements of popular culture disturb you?

That’s certainly one potential read on it and an interesting one that I haven’t really heard before. More than that the selection, going all the way back to the beginning of these fictional archaeological objects, necessitated an object with a wide enough quality of recognition. The objects were almost icons in themselves – it wasn’t just a camera, it was a particular Pentax K1000 that a lot of people know. They are things that cross culture so I should show them pretty much anywhere in the world and they would be recognisable and sort of mean the same thing.


%reverse engineered archeology%

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I do find there to be a sort of violence in their deconstruction though. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, which can go both ways. When I made these pieces that were figures they were actual casts of deconstructed bodies, those were obviously particularly disturbing. The first one was based on this famous Roman statue called The Dying Gaul. In the deconstruction of this stat, there were pieces of it actually missing at a certain moment and they reconstructed it as it was originally. Sometimes if you go to the Met or the Louvre you will see the sculpture and below there will be a rendering where they black out the pieces that were put back in, but when you look at the actual sculpture you don’t see that so it feels complete.

You embrace popular culture immensely and popular culture has embraced you. There’s a real filmic quality to your work – you’ve made a couple of short films with James Franco and Juliette Lewis but also the Hourglass film is very interesting. It feels like a riff on Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis and these other hyper-Hollywood dreamers. What kind of films did you love growing up that inspired you?

Both of those directors you mentioned have had an influence on my childhood and particularly thinking about image making through photography and film. Originally the Hourglass film was meant to be a documentary with fiction blended through it so you don’t really know where the documentary begins and the fiction ends. I think films that deal with time travel and these questions of how things are altered through time, putting in a kind of riddle in the story. Because of the way the Hourglass film has rolled out it’s in 3 different sections, which has allowed me to tease out ideas that are revealed in the following section.

If you could time travel would you go to the future or the past?

I’d go to the future, for sure.

10 years, 100 years from now?

Even more. I think 10 years from now would feel almost exactly like today but further into the future would probably feel considerably different.

How do you think humanity will be seen centuries from now? Do you spend time thinking about those larger concepts of life and where we are heading?

I definitely have a fascination with artificial intelligence and stuff like that. I pay a lot of attention to what Elon Musk is doing and all these notions like singularity play into my worldview.

I go both ways – one part of me thinks that we will figure that element of it out but the other part thinks that whatever entity comes out of it, if it’s a sentient being it’s sort of the next step of evolution, for better or for worse. It could become a dominant force.

Just on the topic of popular culture – when you are working with hyper-creatives like Hedi Slimane or Pharrell in different disciplines, how have those projects influenced your work? Has it brought new perspective to the parameters of your work or do you always have a very clear definition of what you want to contribute to a project?

I think I’ve been fortunate; just those collaborations that you’ve mentioned, usually people come to me because they already know what I do. In the case of Pharrell, the first things were elements that I made related to his practice. The first piece was a relic of the original machine he made music on, this Casio NT500 keyboard. Then I was fortunate enough to bring him into my world to create music for Rules of the Game.

My early career began in theatre and dance with Merce Cunningham and I learned a lot from him in using techniques where you could generate a scenario in which different people would work together but all of them were just implementing the best things that they could do. He took that to the most extreme degree where the three artists – the cinematographer, the musician and the choreographer – didn’t even know what the other one was doing. I didn’t take it that far but I certainly allowed Pharrell to do whatever he wanted to do, knowing the visual direction I was taking and the movement direction that the choreographer was taking.

It seems like you have really created your own universe. This might be contentious but do you need other creative to collaborate with in order to make your work?

I would say that I do need them because this space can get quite insular. I would say that most of the people I surround myself with are not visual artists; they’re musicians or in fashion. The way that these people make meaning or convey ideas is in some ways more useful for me as a way of understanding than it is to hang out with other artists and understand how they are doing things.

So they are helping you to reinterpret your understanding of meaning in creativity and art?

Maybe less so what meaning is but ways of forming meaning or potential meaning.

Let’s talk about your latest exhibition Moonstone. You said that it deals with concepts of space, exoplanets and time all integrated into these Japanese gardens. I’d love to hear a bit more about it?

So the sculptures that exist within these gardens are invented planets. I talked about spending all this time at JPL, and one time they invited me into this bizarre creative studio whose mission it is to communicate to the public some of the more complex discoveries they make. That could be ice on Mars or exoplanets with multiple moons. They do this through creative means so I have started to integrate some of the forms I saw there, one of them being these exoplanet moons, which are kind of like invented planets.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan over the last 10 years or so and one of the things that has always fascinated me about these gardens is that they are fixed in time, in that they have generally been unchanged for hundreds of years, but they are actually remade every day. The pattern in the sand is raked clean of leaves and other debris and remade every day. In this garden I am creating the moons like some distant solar system or collection of planets and the sand can actually represent space-time or a ripple in a plane of space.

Very similar to the Buddhist mandala.

Yes, but the mandala is very much about the act of the construction of that as a visible manifestation of impermanence. With a Japanese dry garden that act is not seen – you will rarely see a monk reshaping the garden, it’s usually done very early in the morning before anyone else is around. I don’t know if it is necessarily a hidden thing but it’s just not something that is part of the ethos of the recreation.

I guess you could say that your whole body of work is like a Japanese garden – you wake up every morning and start again. Is that an appropriate metaphor?

That’s actually a perfect metaphor. I also started making these works a couple years ago that are large-scale hourglasses. I don’t know if you’ve seen them but they are about 24 inches tall so much larger than a typical hourglass. At either end of the hourglass sits one of these fictional archaeology objects – it could be a camera, a cast or a crystal. As you turn the hourglass you uncover the object on the bottom and the object that was on the top begins this process of burial. It’s like a cyclical archaeology that’s never-ending. That object forms this kind of perfect encapsulation of so many different ideas that I’ve been working with.

“Eco-Visionaries” Group Exhibition featuring Daniel Arsham opens at the Museu de Arte, Arquitectura e Tecnologia, Lisbon from April – September 2018

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