Daniel Arsham Is in Merce’s Mercy
“ODE/EON (Set for Merce Cunningham’s eyeSpace)” 2007. Photo courtesy Perrotin.
Artist Daniel Arsham splits his life between Miami and Brooklyn—he’s feeling Brooklyn a little more these days—but right now he’s in Paris, at the Festival Val-de-Marne, the French Biennale of dance, which runs through April 4. He’s there to design the sets for legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s newest production, Au Tour de Paris, a moveable feast in honor of Cunningham’s late ex-Artistic Director, Robert Rauschenberg, to be staged across various venues in the City of Light for the duration of the festival. It’s no small thing to be touched by Merce’s magic wand—Rauschenberg was the original Cunningham collaborator, and Warhol put in some time, too. Arsham first got together with Cunningham on eyeSpace, a 2007 piece that premiered in Miami. Cunningham wanted to work with a local artist, so he asked Bonnie Clearwater, the director of North Miami MoCA, to nominate twenty artists—Arsham was one of the twenty, then one of one.
Cunningham has brought attention to the young artist, and it’s fitting that it was Miami where Arsham made his mark. He came up with a suddenly emerging young art scene in Miami championed by Clearwater, notably in “The House at MoCA,” a 2001 group show featuring Arsham and his artist roommates, who were then living and exhibiting work together in a rented Edgewater bungalow. Since then, the architecturally-minded sculptor—he calls his work “architectural interventions”—graduated from art school in New York (Cooper Union), signed to a big international gallery (Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin), collaborated with a rock-star fashion designer (Hedi Slimane, in his Dior Homme days, on an “intervention” in the Dior Homme store in L.A.), and established an evolving working relationship with an icon of modern dance. I was lucky that he had to wait a couple hours for lights to be installed on the set in Paris, otherwise he may never have stopped moving long enough to answer a few questions about the production.
FAN ZHONG: I hear Merce has a big birthday coming up.
DANIEL ARSHAM: He turns 90 in a few weeks!
FZ: Is he as sharp as ever?
DA: Definitely. The interesting thing about working with Merce is that it’s all chance. He thinks about an evening of dance in three components: the choreography, which he does; the score, which the musicians do; and the stage, lighting, and costume designs, which the artist does. But none of these three collaborators know what the other is doing-until the premiere. He has no idea what I am doing here right now. So there is no direct collaboration.
FZ: Is that nerve-wracking?
DA: Yes, but the stage manager and the people Merce works with are all used to this method. Their only real concerns are (1) you cannot injure the dancers, and (2) you cannot burn the house down [laughs].
FZ: So he gave you no direction at all for eyeSpace?
DA: None whatsoever.
FZ: And for this?
DA: I got a little more direction this time, but more in terms of overall concept of the tour, which is dedicated to [Robert] Rauschenberg. He was Merce’s stage manager in the 60s. He did the lighting, the art—he even swept the stage. We’re doing a tour of smaller theaters in Paris, more like 400-people theaters, rather than, say, 1,200. They’re the sort of theaters that the company would’ve performed at when Bob was there.
FZ: And Jasper Johns worked for Merce, too. Warhol as well. How is it to be included in that company?
DA: In the beginning, it’s bizarre. But after a while you realize that the way they went about everything was so casual, so it’s not as intimidating. Working with Merce is a totally different experience, as opposed to a very involved dance company. There are so few limitations that it’s almost like making a work by yourself in the studio.
FZ: A lot of your art looks like it’s part of a stage set. It seems such a natural fit for you to work onstage.
DA: Before I did eyeSpace with Merce, I had literally never set foot on a stage. But I understood its advantages lie in the idea that you have a fixed viewer. In a gallery, you have this white cube and the viewer is able to move about. Sculpture is 360 degrees, but in the theater the sight line is fixed. You can do things that you can’t in a gallery; you can get away with much more. The piece I did for eyeSpace was this sort of Art Deco theater that was collapsing. It looks like it’s going through the floor and coming out of the ceiling. The piece looks a lot bigger than it actually is—it was built with an extremely forced perspective. If you walk behind it on the stage, all the hidden tricks become visible.
FZ: What’s the stage look like for the tour?
DA: When Bob was the Artistic Director, the company was very small and they didn’t bring anything with them when they traveled. All the sets he designed were from found materials that existed either in the theater or the city they stopped at. So the first of his combined works was actually done onstage. The idea of this tour is similar—going to a place and making something out of what’s already there.
FZ: But is there an idea that links the sets?
DA: There’s a wall we built in the back of the stage, so that it looks like the back wall of the theater. It’s painted black. There will be a bright white light positioned behind the wall, and I’ll be cutting holes through the wall from behind as the dancers perform, so the light will show through. It’s the idea of using the theater itself as architecture for the set. Rauschenberg used to assemble things and move them around while the dancers were onstage.
FZ: That’s a bit like the project you did for Dior Homme when Hedi [Slimane] was there. Your art’s very architectural. Actually, what I immediately thought of when I saw your art was Do Ho Suh.
DA: [laughs] That’s funny. I actually studied with him at school.
FZ: I didn’t know that.
DA: Yeah, he was an adjunct professor at Cooper Union when I was there. I think his relationship with architecture is more about place and biography, whereas I don’t distinguish between style and location.
FZ: I think it was Dan Graham who said that all artists want to be architects, and all architects want to be artists. Did you study architecture at Cooper?
DA: I didn’t study it specifically, no, but it is something that comes back around to me constantly. I don’t know that all artists want to be architects, but there is something about the scale and the ability to build something that is completely enclosed, which is different from a sculpture that you view from the inside or the outside.
FZ: Will you continue working with the stage?
DA: I will. Jonah Bokaer, a former dancer from Merce’s company, runs a few performance spaces in Brooklyn, including Chez Bushwick and CPR. We are collaborating on a new piece that will premiere in July.
FZ: Do you feel like working on the stage has informed your art?
DA: Definitely, with the fixed vantage-point idea that I mentioned earlier, and with light. In a gallery, you begin with a white box that’s completely lit. On the stage, you begin with total darkness and build from there. It’s much more additive. It’s great to work in the theater. I love it.
The Festival Val-de-Marne runs from March 29–April 4 in Paris. The Au Tour de Paris events will be held at Théâtre Jean Vilar, Vitry-Sur-Seine (March 29); l’Espace Michel Simon, Noisy-le-Grand (March 31); Le Théâtre des Bergeries, Noisy-le-Sec (April 2); and Théâtre Paul-Eluard, Bezons (April 4, 2009). The Festival Val-de Marne coincides with Cunningham’s 90th Birthday, on April 16th, 2009. There will also be a major celebration at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, from April 16–19, featuring the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, accompanied by musical performances from John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), Takehisa Kosugi, and Sonic Youth.