Much of Daniel Arsham’s work, now on view in a survey at the Orange County Museum of Art, resides in the liminal space between the present and the future. The artist made his name crafting an archeological exploration of our current time, eroding recognizable items from our everyday lives into hard-worn relics belonging to an age that has yet to happen. The rest of his practice, ranging from sculpture to installation to set design, similarly bends the dimensions of existing structures and time, a consistent through line in the artist’s oeuvre. On the second floor of the exhibition reside pieces from Arsham’s collaborative work, featuring items made in partnership with everyone from the Cleveland Cavaliers to Porsche.
“Wherever You Go, There You Are,” Arsham’s first major American museum show, synthesizes his years of artistic exploration into a potential future using what limited resources are available: namely, the present. “I essentially just gave [curator Heidi Zuckerman] a list of almost everything that I've made for the last 20 years,” explains the artist. This entails a swanky Ferrari, classical sculptures, a Back to the Future Delorean, and what was once a state-of-the-art space suit. All of these are broken down, missing chunks, and past their point of utility. It is “an inevitability,” as Arsham describes, that everything we surround ourselves with will one day be a memento from a different way of life.
“The archaeological works began with an interest in or a questioning around history and the idea that what we’ve learned in school has been very definitive: ‘these things happened’ or ‘this is truth,’” says Arsham. Having undergone a “material transformation” into natural substances like volcanic ash or crystal, his renderings of commonplace items distort the surroundings that viewers take for granted, and “that causes a confusion in the objects for the audience,” Arsham continues, “They're looking at something from their own experience, but it feels like something from the past, which is confusing. The works become like problems that people try to unravel.”
Within the span of history, our birthdates are, as Arsham notes, “relatively accidental,” and the ability to look back through past eras is relatively easy. Hindsight offers a simplified understanding and aesthetic of each decade: the mod fashion of the ‘60s, Prohibition-era speakeasies of the ‘20s, or the angsty rebellion of ‘90s music. “It's very difficult to go in the opposite direction and project forward,” explains the artist. “I was fascinated by that realization—that we sit in this weird time collapse where the past and the present are all we can really know. It creates, for an artist, potential to play with what could the future look like?”
With the staging of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” Arsham is offered a chance to see some of his works for the first time in nearly 20 years, many of which were sold off into private collections. “I don't really know how to describe it. It's a strange experience to see, especially the paintings, from that long ago.” The show allows him to trace the flow of his output, transitioning from era to era as he matured in style and substance. “The way that I make a mark now, when I'm painting, it's very different from the way that the marks looked 20 years ago. Not that one is better, it's just that I can notice there's a whole process of making that I had in that moment in time. The older paintings are much looser, in a lot of ways.”
One such piece on display, Arsham’s Untitled (moon painting), 2016, sees the moon fading into a sea of blue brushstrokes. It’s bright, almost white, on its visible side, a bold vision of what once represented mankind’s most audacious ambitions. That dream, like Arsham’s eroded space suit, has long since come and gone as today’s day dreamers look towards Mars and beyond. In the realm of artmaking, Arsham’s bounds are endless, restricted by neither time nor physics. “Making art is a way to express ideas, but it's also a way to learn about things,” he says. “It's kind of twofold for me in that way: expressing and learning at the same time.”
“Wherever You Go, There You Are” is on view through June 4, 2023 at the Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa, California.