Daniel Arsham's work is hard to pigeonhole. The Cooper Union art graduate and one-half of design studio Snarkitecture (a partnership with Alex Mustonen) applies his skills to collaborative and interactive projects hovering elegantly between art and design. His new show at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) - the result of his residency at Philadelphia organisation - opens today.
Taking inspiration from Hurricane Andrew, which Arsham experienced as a teenager (the show's title 'Reach Ruin' is an anagram for hurricane), the installations explore the 'dramatic and destructive power of nature' and the fragility of architecture.
Also presented on certain dates during the exhibition is an immersive performance titled 'Study for Occupant', created with Arsham's frequent collaborator, choreographer Jonah Bokaer.
Wallpaper* caught up with Arsham to talk about his multi-disciplinary creative approach.
How 'architectural' do you consider your work to be?
My degree was actually not in architecture. I studied art at the Cooper Union but much of my work involves the manipulation of architecture. A number of years ago I formed a design and architecture practice within my studio that allows me to expand in scale and in public space through the collaboration with an architect, Alex Mustonen. We work on projects that relate directly to my work, developing fabrication techniques or making objects and structures that can meet building code. We also make work under Starkitecture, which takes different forms. For example, we just finished a very large pavilion for the entrance of Design Miami.
What was the feeling and message you aimed to convey through this exhibition and the performances?
Much of the work goes back to an experience that I had 20 years ago: a very strong storm in Miami, where I grew up, where I watched the demolition of architecture and the reformation of space in a very quick and violent way. It has always been something that is prevalent in my work but I have never explored it directly. There are a lot of works in this show that relate directly to that, such as the reformation of shuttered or broken materials back into objects.
The performances both relate and don't relate to that. They relate in that there are cameras that exist within the exhibition that are cast from the first film camera I ever owned (a Pentax K1000). They are cast in various 'broken' materials that relate back to that experience, like deconstructed broken pottery, sand or shuttered glass. There are cameras also used in the performance, cast in plaster. And I used blue gels on the floor to recreate the bizarre light that comes with the storm.
What other materials and techniques did you use for this installation?
Part of the mission of the FWM is to encourage artists to work outside their preferred medium. I've never worked with a number of the materials in this exhibition, such as some of the resins we used. Some of the pieces involve wind, light and sound so I worked with an engineer from MIT to develop the performative work that you see in the video. I also worked with compressed glass; I have worked with this technique before where we compress sand and other materials into a mould, but the Fabric Workshop helped me develop this into a larger scale. So I have these massive 16ft-tall eroded columns, which wouldn't have been possible before.
Have you worked with the FWM before?
This is the first time that I worked with the FWM and this project has been ongoing for about a year and a half. I've been coming here, going through their archives. They have an extensive collection, not necessarily of artwork but of ephemera, relating to artists' production. There are boxes and boxes that are very neatly organised containing from studies from the 1980s to things that many artists have worked on while being here, like models and drawings. I really enjoyed this collaboration.
Have you worked in Philadelphia before? What inspired you in the city?
I feel like I have been in a bubble of Philadelphia. Most of the times I have been here have been very intense work periods where I have gone directly from the hotel back to the museum. But the hotel that I am staying in has a very interesting history. There is a plaque outside that indicates that it was the first International Style building built in the US. It was the Philadelphia Savings and Trust I think, and is now the Loews Hotel. It is very interesting to be in a structure that was originally built as an office building and reformed into a living space and there are some real quirks in it. When I woke up this morning I was staring at the ceiling and noticed this angled beam that projects out of the walls and connects with the ceiling. What can be concealed behind that?
We understand this project was conceived to connect with the public. How do you hope to achieve this with the Philadelphia audience?
The choreographer I work with very frequently and also on this piece, Jonah Bokaer, often has very specific ways that he wants audiences to experience the work. In the case of this show, it is a very long room, 30ft wide by 100ft long. He has set up seating on either side of the space, so while the audience is witnessing the work they are also witnessing other people watching the piece from the opposite side, which creates a very different dynamic than working with a stage.
In one sentence, how would you describe your work to somebody who isn't familiar with it?
My work makes architecture do things that it shouldn't do and reforms materials that often cause people to rethink their surroundings.
Watch the making of 'Storm', 2012, comprising crushed glass, foam, paint, a sound system, fans and lights
The Fabric Workshop and Museum
1214 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
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Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).
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