the future according to artist daniel arsham: fossils, film and james franco
Meet the artist imagining the future through fossilized flip phones and the ‘Future Relic’ film series.
Photography James Law
To some people, the future is all about flying cars, sexy (but evil) robots, or Sandra Bullock spiraling into the stratosphere. To artist, filmmaker, and architect Daniel Arsham, it looks more like a giant pit of fossilized Gameboys or Juliette Lewis chatting with an owl. After a trip to Easter Island, Daniel became interested in an imagined future in which the objects we use now are obsolete fossils. This series of sculptural pieces (currently the subject of a major solo exhibition at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center) drove him to create films around this narrative. Daniel's first three films of the nine-part Future Relic series have already featured the likes of James Franco, costumes by Richard Chai and Public School, as well as a score by Swizz Beatz to name only a few of his eager collaborators. After premiering the latest installation at TriBeCa film festival and releasing a limited edition object from the film last week, we caught up with Daniel to find out why the future is more than fantasy.
Can you tell us about Future Relic's starting point? How did you devise the story and why divide it over nine installations?
Around 2011, I had been invited to go and make some paintings on Easter Island in the South Pacific, an amazing, very tiny island where these famous statues called Moai exist. While I was there making paintings, there were a number of archeologists on the island working. I started following what they were doing, and I became interested in archeology. I started to imagine the future in which these thousands of years old sculptures were unearthed next to this detritus from our present lives. When I returned from the trip, I started making works that I thought of as a fictional archeology. I imagined a camera that was remade in volcanic ash or crystal, geological materials. And I spent the next year playing around with technological objects mostly related to communication—phones, cameras, things like that—and trying to find ways to reform them.
When I started showing these works—the first major exhibition I had with them was in 2012—a lot of the people writing about the show asked questions like what did I imagine this world look like? Where did these objects come from? I kept saying that I imagined if you could travel to the future in a thousand years, this would be like looking at an archeological dig of your own site. People asked that so many times, so I thought to write a narrative that would encapsulate that world, and Future Relic came out of that. I wrote it as these nine vignettes that take place over a long period of time, but all set in the future.
When did you first become interested in the future?
I always loved movies that depicted the future, and I think that coupled with my interest in architecture has really started to inform some of the decisions that went into making the films.
How important is collaboration to your practice? How do you chose the actors, brands, and musicians you work with?
In many ways, they're all just friends. I met all the actors in the film through the gallery that I work with in Los Angeles [OHWOW Gallery.] They are people that came to know my work, I told them about the film project, and they were happy to be involved in it. Same with the musicians, they're just people that I knew. I met Pharrell in Miami about 10 years ago. He and I were always interested in what the other one was doing, I was fortunate enough to be able to go and see his process, and it was by his invitation that we began working on different things together.
In addition to costume commissions for the Future Relic series, you've also worked with brands like Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. Have you always been interested in fashion?
I sort of got into fashion stuff by accident. The first exhibition that I had in Paris with Emmanuel Perrotin was in 2005. Hedi Slimane, who was then the head of Dior Homme, saw the work and commissioned a project following the exhibition, so I came to know what he was doing from there. And just by living in New York after that, I met a number of other designers, so for me, it's just felt like what my friends were doing and the collaborations have felt very natural. The stuff that Snarkitecture [Daniel's collaborative architecture practice with Alex Mustonen] has done with Public School has come out of just being at dinner and saying 'We're doing this runway show, do you guys want to do something for it?'
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?
I would have loved to work on a film for Hitchcock, Orson Welles or one of those towering film figures. I don't know whether I would have wanted to collaborate with them or just work under them and learn.
You have so many objects you've amassed in your sculptural practice, from flip phones to Gameboys. Do you have a favorite?
I'm looking for icons, things that are immediately recognizable as an image. I have a really beautiful 35 mm film camera, a Mitchell, that I did a piece with. Usually the objects get destroyed in the casting process, but I took extra care to not completely destroy that one so I still have the original. It's already a relic from the past.
What excites you most about the future?
That we don't know anything about it. Depicting the future is this kind of beautiful idea because it has to be made up with things that already exist, so it's this kind of combination of the past and a mental projection of where things may be. In some ways, imagining the future is like making an artwork: you're building this thing out of a world that already exists. It feels familiar, but also new, and that's why I like it so much.
Text Emily Manning
Photography James Law
Images courtesy Film the Future