Daniel Arsham has a female pet rabbit named Oliver. They met when she hopped into his Miami studio, a former storage hangar for damaged airplane noses. Now she roams Arsham’s Brooklyn space, a vast room filled with chairs enveloped in billowing sheets cast in plaster and some of the artist’s newest works: clouds of pastel Ping-Pong balls and massive drawings of classical Greek sculptures sprouting geometric growths.
Oliver is one small part of the fairy-tale world that the artist evokes in every medium. This strange universe has its own creation myth, relating to the evolution of his architecturally minded art practice. “I grew up in Miami, and in ’92 there was a hurricane there that I was nearly killed in, with all my family”, Arsham says. A neighboring house’s roof blew off and crashed into the living room, exploding the windows from their frames and coating everything in a fine layer of pink installation foam. “Before that, you understand architecture in a certain way,” he explains. “There’s a solitary about it. I never know what was inside all those things.”
The patriarch of architecturally obsessed art, Gordon Matta-Clark, was interested in those same hidden interiors, the actual contents of a wall—“all this crap running through them: beams, electrical lines, and plumbing”, says Arsham. But while the artist cites Matta-Clark as an inspiration, he wants to go beyond the simple nuts and bolts of his environment to create something more playful. The “Pixel Clouds”, for instance—which , along with the sculptural drawings and a series of larger-than-life motorized children’s toys called “Push Puppets”, will be included in his solo show “Alter” at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, in Miami, from December 1 through 31—are based on cellphone pictures of cumulus, cirrus, and other heavenly formations. These have been blown up to reveal individual pixels and then re-created in three dimensions using painted table-tennis balls.
Arsham’s fixation on the potential of his surroundings—and on catching things in the process of transformation—is also evident in his collaborative architecture practice, dubbed Snarkitecture, and his theatrical sets, which he started making in 2007. That was the year the then-24-year-old artist struck up a friendship with the late choreographer and fellow wry trickster Merce Cunningham. The 84-year-old modern-dance master commissioned him to design a set, specifying only: “Whatever you do, make sure it doesn’t injure my dancers.” Arsham went on to create the last sets on which Cunningham’s troupe performed in his lifetime, in 2009 at La Biennale nationale de danse du Val-de-Marne, near Paris. Now, for Art Basel Miami, the artist has designed a new backdrop for enactments of Cunningham “events”, choreographies determined by dice rolls.
Arsham is intrigued by stories of how John Cage, Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg (Cunningham’s longtime artistic adviser) would “arrive in a place, and Bob would explore and find trash outside to build the set. The first of Rauschenberg’s combine works was made for Cunningham.” For the Miami performances, Arsham will be eschewing trash in favor of EPS foam. Small stages will be constructed on an opera house’s main stage, on which both the dancers and the audience will be positioned. Meanwhile, the hall, left tenantless, will not be entirely empty. “I’m going to do this gigantic pile, like an avalanche, of platonic solids—cubes, pyramids, and speheres—this cascade covering portions of the seats”, says the artist.