Sarah J. Edwards in conversation with Daniel Arsham on a vast array of subjects including Easter Island, fictional archaeology, hip hop, calcite, communication etiquette and his tweets.
First published 2019
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art by Daniel Arsham
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin
Photography by Guillaume Ziccarrelli
Daniel Arsham On How Successful People Communicate And Other Stories
Art is perhaps an overlooked go to experience when the quietening of the mind is required. Which, let’s face it we all need more of now that we are bombarded with so much information at such high speeds.
Some years back, I kept chancing upon images of a particular piece by Daniel Arsham, a set of solid looking turntables which were both intriguing yet simple. Turntables or decks (choose your preference) are the heart of so many joyous experiences; incredible music, shiny vinyl blended and cut by great DJs commanding a room, creating entire atmospheres and pivotal memories.
Daniel Arsham’s signature style depicted this iconic technology as ancient relics, throwing it way back to the past and offering a silence never associated with such an object. That piece was my entry point to discovering more of his work, from calcite and volcanic ash teddy bears, basketballs to architectural illusions and zen gardens. Daniel Arsham’s work whether intentional or not, captures a sense of calm, perhaps even a sense of making peace with the past.
First of all, I wanted to talk to you about your 1210 piece, because something about it keeps...wait, when did you make it?
“Which one is it?”
The 1210. The turntable, it’s the 1210, right?
“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
[Confused, I ask again] The turntable?
[Pauses] “Oh right, the turntable. That piece was first done. It would have been 2012.”
Ah! So it was good for you to do it and right then for Technics to announce they were going to discontinue it. [Laughs] So it was a real hit for you to make that piece.
“Yeah, you know, it’s part of this larger series that I’ve been working on, of, fictional archeological objects. When I’m selecting the different objects, I’m always looking for things that are iconic or things that sort of signify a particular moment in time or reference some kind of cultural moments. So obviously the turntable is significant for a lot of different people but kind of calls out, it’s an object, it’s an icon of itself.”
Sally and I DJ’d a lot of parties, so that’s an important piece of equipment for me and I kept seeing your piece, I absolutely love it and then I got into reading about you. You went to Easter Island, is that right? And is that where the whole idea to work with fossilised objects came from?
“Yeah. Yeah, I spent about six weeks on Easter Island making paintings of the Moai statues there. The Island is quite small, most people that visit aren’t there for that long, so I was really able to go everywhere on the island, a lot of different places that most visitors don’t go and there were some archaeologists there. I had a couple of conversations with them and was sort of curious about their take. Not only on the objects, but the Island because it’s so difficult to get to. Nothing that’s brought there ever really leaves, even trash.”
“So, there’s a dump on the Island that contains essentially nearly everything, every waste object that’s been brought there for the last....since it was discovered. You know, hundreds of years ago. There’s this bizarre moment where the objects that have been brought to the Island overtime will become archeological relics the same as the Moai statue. That influence of time, or that confusion of time is something I found interesting and I began to work with that idea of a sort of lapse of time where I could take objects from now and cause them to appear as if they were uncovered in the future. I was doing it, not like a Trompe-lœil effect, I was actually kind of transforming the material of the object into things that we think about having a geological time frame; volcanic ash, crystal and trying to really let the objects have this sort of material truth to them.”
I love it.
“It felt authentic.”
You listen to a lot of hip hop, don’t you?
“I do, yes.” [laughs]
I love it because what you do is kind of hip hop, isn’t it? Taking what’s there and making a time capsule out of it. It’s perfect, it’s old and brand new all at the same time. I have some more comments about it later on.
Now, the material is calcite, right?
Do you know about the south east coast of England, which has white cliffs. There are 100 million years of calcite formation.
“Oh no, I don’t.”
I thought you might find it interesting, it’s basically a single celled algae called coccolithophores, that’s at the bottom of the food chain in the sea. It builds hard calcite plates around itself and it sinks to the bottom of the sea and in multiples are what makes the sea blue appear brighter. I was thinking about your work, because you began with white and then introduced blue and it’s almost the perfect sea blue.
I didn’t know whether that was something that’d naturally happened with your work or if you’d mindfully put it out there.
It’s something they’ve discovered more recently, close up they have incredibly detailed patterning. They’re amazing.
Changing the subject a little bit, did you do your photo exhibit of the 60,000 images, that was being curated by AI?
“I have not, no. The project was stalled for technical reasons, but I’m still working on it. [laughs] It’ll happen eventually.”
I was thinking earlier, I really want to talk to Daniel about time and how all of us have deadlines, don’t we? But because we rely on technology so much we’re kind of...well, you can never truly be on time because technology doesn’t necessarily allow it. I was really lucky to get to phone you up at bang on 10:30am. Sometimes we’re waiting for the beachball on the computer. I feel like we all have to become more patient with the amount of technology we have to rely on.
“Yeah. Yeah. That project was interesting because it essentially was a project within an as yet unperfected technology. I essentially wanted to use this AI that was trained in looking at images that were tagged with different emotional characteristics, right?”
“The machine learned based on certain images what kinds of images could evoke certain qualities.”
“And it did so by, you know, it could recognise people in them, it could recognise what they were wearing. It could recognise colour and shadow, kind of emotional qualities of these images. But it hasn’t worked properly, yet. [Laughs] One day.”
Do you know what’s funny about that, I have a question for later which is about where we have a certain idea and you tell yourself, ‘Ok, I’m going to do that next week’ and you realise it should actually take five years.
And then you realise why it actually took five years, when it does finally happen. I’m kind of learning that now, it’s like I was the super impatient kid and that’s something that didn’t leave me until well into my adulthood.
So that can be really tricky when you want to create something, [especially when you do a lot of things yourself], if that makes sense.
“Yeah, a lot.”
I was looking at your twitter and I really enjoyed some of your tweets. The first one — which I thought was really interesting for other creatives, to understand that’s there’s an empathy out there was, ‘We’d love you to pitch for a job and we can’t guarantee you’ll get the job or be paid, but we’d love to see your ideas anyway.’
And you replied, ‘Yeah, that’s gonna be a no, dog.’ [Laughing] and I was thinking, where do you draw the line on that? It’s interesting because you can be so excited about a potential project and then there’s that standing on a bit of a cliff edge as to whether you’ll be rewarded for it or not. I just think it might be nice if more creative people could band together and help those people understand the value of paying for them. If they think we’re good enough to approach us, in the first instance.
“Yeah, I mean, just in general as a creative — and you have also likely arrived at a place, where there’s a certain set of ideas that you can tap that may seem easy for somebody else, when they look at how you do them. But what they don’t realise is that it took years to get to this place and all of the work that we’ve put in to arrive at this time, doesn’t mean that I’m going to hand out all this knowledge for free. It’s not even about money, it’s about a kind of mutual respect. We often have this and it happens more with — I have the architecture practise as well called Snarkitecture, it happens often with that, where there is haiku sort of, well it’s not a true haiku but that I always quote which is, ‘Will you please make something amazing, we have no budget.’”
[Laughing] Yeah! Yeah.
“And it’s like, [laughs] the operative line in that is, ‘no budget’, not will you make us something amazing. [Laughs]
Yeah. It’s terrible! It’s kind of worse if you happen to then see your work in public but you didn’t produce it, if you know what I mean.
There was another tweet, which I thought was really interesting which was on the lines of, ‘If you don’t know someone really well, don’t call. Send a text.’ And I wanted to know, because I am interested in this as well, where do you think it changed? Where do you think it changed when the spontaneous phone call and leaving a message became impolite?
[Laughs] “Um. I mean, I sort of communicate best by text. I think it’s quick, it’s [pauses] I don’t know. I had this kind of realisation a couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s an all over creative, Virgil Abloh. He was telling me...”
Ah! Virgil, yeah!
“Yeah! And we’ve worked on a couple of things together and you know he doesn’t use email at all really. He showed me basically this way that he was using text where he had like, five different group texts set up, which were about different things within his design. One would be about the shoes that he was working on and another would be the store he was designing and everything was done through these group chats and I think there’s something immediate about that. If I look at my phone right now, I’ve got 10,989 unread emails.”
[Laughing] Yeah. Yes.
“I also have 88 unread text messages, but I’ve definitely looked at all of them, they’re just ones that I haven’t actually clicked on. I think text is just, I don’t know, whether it’s impersonal or not, it’s faster and more efficient and I think that we’re all looking for more efficiency in our lives.”
Definitely, so it comes back to the point of technology verse being super patient. Like Daniel’s going to reply to one of those 88 texts. [Laughs] There was another tweet which I really enjoyed and that was, ‘20% of your art is based on rigorous thought and examination of ideas and 80% are trust and instinct.’ And I know for an absolute fact, when people say to Sally and I ‘how do you choose your features because you got people so early?’, or ‘Why did you give them a cover?’ All we can ever say is, it was a lot about instinct and that’s how we choose everyone.
I was really curious to know what comes first, do you set yourself a challenge and do you chill out on it or do you relax first, then the question comes to you that you want to answer.
“I mean that notion of instinct, I find that — you know especially in my own work, there are things that I’ll come across that, I’ll either note mentally or I’ll note in a notebook, that this is something interesting that I want to follow up on. It may take me years before I figure out what the use of that idea will be for. Sometimes it’s a technique, or it’s a palette of colour or a relationship of materials but, the instinct is to know that the moment is right to use that.”
“To be able to recall it, right?”
“Everything that’s ever been done or ever seen has probably be done before in some other combination or context, but I think it’s the instinct about the moment and also the instinct about, kind of about the context. You know? There’s certain pieces that I’ve waited to show because I wanted them to be in relation to other objects or in a certain place, you know. I’ve waited to show things that I’ve wanted to show in Japan and in different places because of the context. That’s the instinct there.”
I feel like instinct makes things happen at the right time, it comes to you just at the right moment. I’ve read lots of books about achievement because I’m really interested in why some achieve more than others and why sometimes you think, like with music, ‘well that song is huge’ and it isn’t necessarily great, but there’s so much belief in it, that turns to encouragement and that turns to the success of it.
Do you ever feel as a creative, your work is kind of like a gift to an audience and from an inside point of view, you’ve solved a problem by being a creator. For example, whatever you’ve created, it may have come to you via a question you wanted to answer or a problem you wanted to solve. It might be you wanted to get more experimental with materials you’re working with. Do you ever find that?
“I mean, I think, I don’t know if it’s a gift. I often think about my work as an invitation for people. My work doesn’t really mean anything specifically. I try not to close down different types of meanings that could be within the work. These are just objects that I’m putting out in the world, they’re sort of odd, [laughs], they’re not objects that you’d see everyday and they provoke things. They may be ideas, they may be nothing at all but I think [pauses] they’re an invitation.”
That’s a really nice way to put it. I was going to tell you how I feel looking at your work, which I actually need to come and see it in the flesh because of being so far away. Have you shown in London?
“A couple of times, I’ve shown every year at Frieze, but nothing really outside of that.”
Ah! I feel like when I look at your work and this is just from using the Internet, I find that it brings out my smarter tranquil side, if that makes sense.
I think it’s because some of your pieces are in reference to things that have inspired me and have been a pivotal part of my life. I loved basketball when I was younger, I found that really, well...I thought it was the best sport on the planet and then obviously DJing. I love the amount of energy in those actual things and you’ve then turned it to...well I originally thought you’d turned them to stone or concrete before I realised which materials you work with. Do you ever put your work out there thinking you’d like to evoke certain feelings in people?
“I think as soon as I start to be too specific about those things, then I close off all the other potential meanings, right?”
Yeah, that makes sense.
“Things that it could provoke, so...no, I don’t. I have a sense of what it can...potential ideas, but I’m often surprised by some of the references that people pull or things they associate the works with and I like that.”
That’s brilliant, isn’t it? I think it’s really nice when someone tells you something entirely different from what you expected about a piece of work. I know that I get that with my photography. It’s really interesting what it does for other people. So, going back to the music side of things, I wondered if you can tell me which tracks have given you the biggest boost to go after what you want. Is there anything that gave you the energy or soundtracked things for three points in life; a moment in childhood, where you knew what you wanted to do, graduation and then a career tipping point.
“Um, like things from back in the day or things from now?”
Well, ok, say you can think of a moment in childhood that was a really big turning point for you, which was ‘now I know what I want to do’.
“I remember really liking this Digable Planets album.”
“The first Digable Planets album which would be my earliest hip hop memory. I just remember I had that album on vinyl and it was hard to get. It was such a cool object. The design of everything, their music videos. I remember them being so amazing. Now, you look at them, they’re kind of so basic compared to what’s done now. That and the Common Sense album.”
“That’s later ‘90s.”
“Then of course Biggie and that whole East Coast hip hop thing that happened and more recently, certainly all of the big hitters and I’ve been listening to a lot to this guy Russ, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him yet?”
“A couple of friends put me onto his record and we’ve been playing it a lot in the studio.”
That’s good. I wanted to ask you, whether you’re getting the same sort of thing...do you ever feel overwhelmed with that instant resource of so much information by having a mobile phone in your hand. If we’re sitting around and someone wants to know the history of something or where a word first came from and everyone can find out everything immediately. We’ve got that and then we’ve got Instagram and Instagram Stories and Twitter and the news. Does it sometimes get in the way of what you want to do work-wise or do you have a way of compartmentalising what you take in?
“Ummm, I mean, I don’t feel like it gets in the way. I think it makes people both more discerning and makes them more distracted at the same time, but I think when you do get something that speaks to people and is impactful, I think you know it. And I’ve had this experience where people say that social media is keeping people from saying things in real life, [but often they find my work] through that and they end up coming to an exhibition and coming to see something, because they’ve seen it on Instagram.”
Well, that’s really good. That’s brilliant. Do you find that you create further out of your creations? But this goes back to what we talked about earlier — maybe you don’t because you said you don’t want to get too specific, but do you find once you’ve made something, you get more stories in it and you can spend time with that and then find yourself almost making homages to what you’ve already made?
“My work has always been done in series, so in that way there’s a kind of repetition to some of the work, but I usually know when I’m done with things, you know? When I’m not seeing anything interesting in it anymore or I feel like I’ve exhausted all of the possibilities of the given material or medium or concept, then I sort of move on to the next thing.”
I think it’s really healthy to be like that.
I wanted to speak to you about - well, Sally and I are keen to kind of get people to think about consuming things differently and take more time with things. I guess it’s quite a good idea as there’s this thing I’m discovering the waiting on technology is more and more apparent, like uploading speeds. We’re trying to get people to take a break from the amount of short information that’s out there and get more into the longer reads. Do you find there’s anything you do that’s quite sort of meditative that helps with your work?
“Umm, anything I do outside of work?”
Well, not necessarily outside of work. I’m just interested if you do anything that’s more sort of calming that helps bring in the ideas.
“Yeah, there’s this whole series of works that I’ve been making that are using sand and sometimes they’re larger scale with these gardens and other times they’re smaller scale. There’s an exhibition [I worked on in Paris] called ‘The Angle of Repose’. Repose is to be at rest. The angle of repose is when you pour a granular material like sand or sugar or any material like that, there’s an angle when it forms a cone. Depending on the coarseness of the material, the angle will either be shallow or sharper. So like flour for instance has a really sharp angle it can hold its form. Sand has a more shallow angle form and it’s a moment where I found a material really defining a shape. Other than pouring them in the same point, the material itself defines the shape that it takes and I just found that an interesting concept that relates to a lot of the other ideas that I work with.”