Daniel Arsham’s eroded relics are rooted in classical sculpture

Daniel Arsham’s eroded relics are rooted in classical sculpture

The New York-based artist turns back time for an exhibition of crystallised busts, friezes and sculptures at Galerie Perrotin in Paris

For almost 15 years, American artist Daniel Arsham has recreated iconic cultural items from the 20th and 21st centuries, inviting audiences to see these commodities anew. Using his signature technique, he’s crystallised everything from Walkman cassette players and Sony headphones to Polaroid cameras, Smeg refrigerators and Nike classics.

Such artefacts are recast and reframed, often presented as partially eroded ‘future relics’ that reflect how our culture might be historicised by generations to come. For his current exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, however, Arsham has stepped back even further into history, leaving behind current and recent cultural movements in favour of those from the 7th century BC up until the early 1800s.

‘The idea to work with sculptures from classical antiquity came two years ago when I was in Paris preparing for a project with a museum,’ the New York-based artist explains. ‘I have always been interested in the way that objects move through time, but this is the first time I’m working with classical and ancient objects.’ To that end, the exhibition at Perrotin includes a series of large-scale busts, friezes and sculptures cast from the originals.

Installation view of ‘Paris, 3020’ at Perrotin
Installation view of ‘Paris, 3020’ at Perrotin. Photography: Claire Dorn. © The artist. Courtesy of Perrotin

We see Michelangelo’s Moses rendered in blue calcite and hydrostone, eroding near his thighs, chest and head. Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo, realised in white calcite, hews closely to the original – albeit with areas of her head, torso and right knee apparently weathering away. To create these works, Arsham was granted unprecedented access to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais (RMN), a 200-year-old moulding studio that reproduces masterpieces for several major museums throughout Europe.

‘The RMN has a selection which includes thousands of moulds of works from antiquity to the Renaissance to neoclassical works,’ says the artist. Arsham sorted through these moulds and selected pieces to reform, a decision often based on two things: ‘one, the kind of historical context around some of these pieces and, two, around the works that were most visually iconic’. Finally, he ensured the pieces would work with his process, which involved recreating them in crystal, volcanic ash and ‘other materials that we associate with the geological time scale’.

The sculptures are presented on pristine plinths, illuminated from underneath by white fluorescent light. Sleek and cool, they are a stark reminder of where we’re standing: not in the Louvre or Acropolis Museum or the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but rather in a contemporary art gallery. The works here could easily be from the past, present or future, a confusion of time that is inherent to Arsham’s work. And just because the source material has changed doesn’t mean his artistic approach has become any different.

‘In general, I like try to create scenarios that allow these works to float in time,’ adds the artist. ‘I treated these [ancient] objects the same way that I would treat an Apple computer or a Jordan sneaker – objects that we associate with a particular era in history. And therefore, these objects can become useful in my project to confuse that history.’

Looking forward, we can expect to see more from the past. ‘I certainly will be engaging further with many of these objects,’ Arsham says. ‘There’s a vast trove of moulds of these works that I now have access to, and the project is just beginning.’ §

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