The artist Daniel Arsham is an illusionist. A creative polyglot, he moves freely among the worlds of art, architecture, fashion, film, and performance, manipulating materials to create otherworldly effects that “dislodge people in time,” as he describes it. Figures appear to emerge from the wall that they’re trapped behind. Once-plush stuffed animals appear calcified; once-gleaming steel is rusted and cracked.
As an artist, Arsham has cast himself as an archeologist of pop culture: He mines iconic objects—Casio keyboards, cassette tapes, touchtone corded telephones—for the stories they tell us about our past, our present, and our ideas of the future. Of course, nothing ages faster than the future, as Arsham’s latest gallery show, opening Saturday at Perrotin New York, seems to suggest.
Tackling his largest sculptures to date, the artist presents a showroom of relics, chief among them a 1981 DeLorean, the time-travel vehicle of choice in the 1985 film Back to the Future, and a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT, the joyride at the center of the 1986 classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here, Arsham talks to W about some of his latest sleights of hand.
What’s the significance for you of using the DeLorean and the Ferrari?
All of the fictional archeological pieces that I’ve made have always been things that are often icons. When I started thinking about doing a large scale object, a car came to mind. I began to think about my favorite cinema cars. And obviously the DeLorean is a specific one. But the DeLorean itself has its own kind of interesting history, because it was this kind of failed projection of the future, and yet 30 years later it still is kind of very futuristic looking and elegant in a strange way.
That particular model of Ferrari has its own interesting history as well. It was a very rare model; only 55 of them were ever produced. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the cars that you see [moving] on screen are not actually real cars. They’re all replicas that were built by a prop master. The only real GT was shown parked in the garage of this kind of Mies van der Rohe-like modernist style Chicago house where the father who owns the car lives. I bought the DeLorean, but for the Ferrari I found the guy who made the prop cars for Ferris Bueller. He made this prop car for me based on the original he made.
And where does this guy live?
He’s in Tennessee. These car sculptures are different from any of the other works that I’ve made, both in terms of their scale, but also what that scale necessitates in terms of fabrication. I couldn’t use the same process of casting because the weight of the thing would almost collapse under its own stress. So what I ended up doing was taking both cars apart and casting sections, and then fitting them back onto the original chassis and frame of the car. So inside of the DeLorean, there’s the real DeLorean, and inside of the Ferrari is the original chassis that the prop master made for me.
Now a kind of favorite topic of conversation with people is, “What’s your favorite cinema car?”
Which is yours?
I think for me it’s the DeLorean. Back to the Future was part of my youth. The second one had all of these kind of cultural touch points, like the Nikes that are auto-lacing. Strangely enough, [director] Robert Zemeckis said that Biff’s character in Back to the Future II was based on Donald Trump. And if you go back and watch the film, it’s a dead ringer. Because basically what happens is Biff goes back in time and gives himself a sports almanac, which allows him to bet knowing the results of the future, and so he becomes this billionaire and takes control of the police. His character is ostentatious, always wearing a leopard-skin robe, and has terrible taste in architecture and is this kind of real estate mogul in an alternate future that has been created by that disruption of time.
Does the political landscape find its way into your work in any way, in terms of your view of the future?
I think it plays into the viewer’s reaction to it, but the work has existed in this kind of vein for 10 years.
There’s a kind of inevitability that I see, that all of the things that are present in our life will someday become a ruin. But it doesn’t mean that that’s a kind of negative, right? It’s just part of the continuation of things moving forward.
One of the things I find really interesting about your work is that you are able to live in a lot of different worlds and traverse a lot of different disciplines. You’ve worked with Usher on an album cover, with Pharrell on a performance piece, and early in your career, designed sets for dance pioneer Merce Cunningham. How does social media play a role in your work life?
Well, it allows access. It reaches audiences that might not otherwise, number one, live in a place where there’s a gallery or museum or just feel comfortable. There’s a lot of people certainly that follow my work that I think, not having been to a gallery before, might find it intimidating. You know, can I just walk into a gallery? And then there are things that you just physically don’t see within a gallery, so social media allows me to show other things that I’m thinking about, whether it process or the story behind the works and the making of them.
I’ve met so many people through social media that are in different disciplines, so I think that it somehow allows all of these different creative mediums to feel a little bit more blended or less defined.
You’re always playing with expectations and upending them.
It’s sort of evolved from looking at architecture as something that can it be malleable—can it ripple and fold and act like another material? In this new exhibition, there are these sculptures that look like figures wrapped with canvas and rope, but there’s no fabric or rope in them. They’re entirely cast materials. Even standing a couple inches away from them, there’s a kind of visceral quality to the material that really makes you believe they are fabric.
What was the inspiration for those kinds of works? Was that classical statuary?
Originally, I was looking at the famous Man Ray sculpture The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), which is a sewing machine that’s wrapped in wool and tied up with twine and then certainly there’s a lot of Surrealists who used this idea of concealing to unveil something, up through works that Christo made, wrapping entire buildings.
You’ve been working for awhile with Ronnie Fieg at KITH. And you have another sneaker collaboration with Adidas out in October that includes a film. What interests you in working in fashion?
With Ronnie. it just started out that we were friends. He was one of a group of people that I knew ten years ago that were just starting in fashion. Virgil Abloh was another. But it was before kind of anything was really happening, you know? So when Ronnie went to go open KITH, it was kind of natural for an architect to work on the design; it was us figuring it out as we went. And we really thought about it more as an experience of not creating places for people to come and buy stuff, but creating a place for people to come and hang out.
You also collaborated with KITH on a special capsule collection that included new lab coats for your studio. Why do you need a lab coat?
You know how Mr. Rogers walks in and takes off his shoes and changes into his work shoes? It’s the way to distinguish my outside life from what’s happening in the studio, and it creates an aura around not only the way that I feel when I have that on, but for everyone else who works with me here. It’s like a suit that you put on that changes. That’s one of the things that I love about fashion and sneakers and all of that—it makes you carry yourself in a different way and feel different. And the studio is a place of invention, and I can kind of be whoever I want to be when I’m in here. And when I put that on, that’s who I am.
Do you have a massive sneaker collection?
Oh, yes. Hundreds of pairs. They’re stacked up everywhere.
What are your current obsessions?
Architecture. I’m in the process of buying a 1971 Norman Jaffe house that was built in Long Island. He was well known for a lot of residential, all-cedar housing that was super popular in the like ’70s and ’80s and had an extremely simple design. It’s a kind of architecture that really went out of favor in the ‘90s and the aughts, but now it’s come back. And this is going to be like my project for the next few years.
How old are you?
It is actually my birthday on Saturday. The Perrotin exhibition opens on my birthday. I will be 38.