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"I’m fascinated by the idea of the future"

American visual artist Daniel Arsham talks about his creation for the Hennessy 250 Tour and about his obsession with time.

Daniel Arsham, you seem to be quite a productive artist…
I’m a visual artist but I also work in stage design, sculpture and painting. Additionally, I also take photographs and I make films. But, to me, it’s all one coherent universe. The stage work that I have been making for the last 15 years first began when I was working as a stage designer for Merce Cunningham.

How did you meet your working partner Jonah Bokaer?
Jonah was a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s company. I met him during the time that I was working there. Merce was a legendary choreographer who started in the 1950’s by working with many great visual artists. However, his way of working involved keeping the dance elements separate. He would therefore keep a separation between the choreography that he created and the artwork that the different artists created for the stage. The result was that neither party knew what the other one was making. With Jonah, this process is reversed because we start off by looking at the artwork that is going to be on the stage.

How does your artwork interact with Jonah’s choreography here?
For the Hennessy 250 project, the dancers share their position with the sculpture at a certain moment. This is something that would not have been possible with Merce Cunningham. Since the start of the 20th century, there have been many different ways in which choreography has been utilized as an interactive element that facilitates engagement with the stage décor. That being said, I believe that our methodology is still an act of utilizing choreography in a unique way because I am bringing things to the theatre that would otherwise only be seen within the context of a museum or a gallery and then Jonah is utilizing these same elements to form the base of his choreography rather than as an accessory to it.

Why is the notion of time so central in your production?
I’m fascinated by the idea of the future in general. It is an unknown thing and the presence of temporality is something that I have always incorporated into my work. I try to imbue the things that I create with a sense of impermanence. I want them to be able to have the sense of floating in time, a little bit, rather then being stuck to a particular moment. In other words, I like to make things that look like they could be from the past, the present, or the future. This allows for a different perspective when viewing the work because it stands on its own, the viewer is not able to contextualize the work by putting it in a temporal context.

What’s the message behind all this?
There is not really a specific message embedded within the work. I see it as being more of an invitation to the viewer to think about his/her own life, about the things that he/she possesses that will one day turn into dust and disappear. But I’m not trying to say anything specifically.

How did Hennessy inspire you?
It’s hard not to be inspired by a tradition that is very much about consistency and trying to marry consistency over a long period of time, a process that is extremely difficult. And then you also, alongside this, have the ritual of the tasting that takes place every morning at a precise hour. I admire the discipline of someone who can be very good at something that is idiosyncratic, like a nose for a cognac or somebody who perfects perfumes; a skill that is very specific and takes years and years to perfect. I work in a lot of things that take a long amount of time to perfect so I have a deep admiration and respect for that kind of dedication.

How do you see your work evolve in the next 50 years?
I’m continuing to work in film because it’s a language that allows me to expand a lot of ideas that I work with sculpturally. Film is a world that uses the element of time to tell a story and to expand on things that I cannot quite realize in sculpture or painting. There are themes that have been recurrent throughout my work and I’m constantly pushing to explore new media and new material and this piece that I made for Hennessy is the first version of this new kind of work. I’ve been thinking about a work like this for a number of years and I had to go through a number of steps in order to get here, to this point in time, in order to learn how to do these things and to then scale up my artistic process.