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From Porsche to Pokémon, Daniel Arsham’s art examines the modern age

In two exhibitions and a new fashion line, the multidisciplinary artist explores material, time, and cars.

From Porsche to Pokémon, Daniel Arsham’s art examines the modern age
[Source photo: Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]]

Daniel Arsham resists categorization. In a word, he’s an artist, but his work fans out across such a wide spectrum that the description is almost meaningless. Trained in painting and drawing, he’s maybe best known for his sculptural works of familiar contemporary objects that appear to be eroded through geologic time. He’s also served as the creative director of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and created collaborations with brands including DiorPorsche, and Pokémon. He works at an architectural scale through Snarkitecture, a design firm he cofounded with Alex Mustonen, which has designed store interiors for the fashion retailer Kith, among others. And his most recent endeavor is Objects IV Life, a rugged fashion line designed for material circularity.

Daniel Arsham at Paris Mens Fashion Week, Fall-Winter 2023-24. [Photo: Adam Katz Sinding/courtesy Daniel Arsham]

new exhibition now open at the Orange County Museum of Art attempts to put this wide-ranging work in one setting for the first time. Featuring drawings and paintings, eroded sculptures like a bronze Delorean car that appears to have crystallized, and sports items created for the Cavaliers and Formula One race car driver Lewis Hamilton, the exhibition is a 20-year retrospective of the New York-based artist’s varied output.

It’s a range of work that Arsham says came more from curiosity than intention. Aside from his traditional artist’s education, his body of work bleeds into media in which he freely admits having no formal training, from architecture to furniture making to fashion design. “I spent so much time investigating them and learning about them that eventually I found myself doing them,” he says.

Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]

The exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art presents this mix through the lens of time and the often flawed ways we understand the past by the objects that are left behind. Asrham’s eroded sculptures explore this concept most directly, as modernized versions of traditional Greek and Roman sculpture. These ancient sculptures are themselves skewed windows to the past, as their once gaudy painting has faded away, giving modern viewers the impression that their original state was actually austere. “I started to pick apart this notion that history is inherently fictionalized,” Arsham says.

Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]

His sculptures spin that notion forward to create what he calls “a fictional archaeological sense.”

“All the objects from our lives, the things that we surround ourselves with and things that we define ourselves through and by, those things will all become relics at some point,” he says.

Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]

The future relics he’s created though his sculpture include such diversity, from Leica cameras to Pokémon cards, but a big and recurring theme is cars. (The eroded DeLorean in the OCMA show, known best to many as the time machine in the Back to the Future films, hits the theme of time on multiple levels.) A second exhibition, opening later this month at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, focuses more specifically on Arsham’s interest in cars, including a stripped-down 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster and his take on several familiar cars from movies including Bullitt and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]

The Petersen exhibition also includes one of Arsham’s many reinterpretations of the iconic Porsche 911, which is itself a kind of marker of historical time. “One of the reasons I’ve gravitated toward Porsche, and the 911 model specifically, is that it’s really one of the only body shapes and models of cars I can think of that has existed since the 1960s relatively unaltered,” he says. “If you look at a 911 today and you see the first one from 1965, there’s a design language that flows through all the different eras.”

[Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli/courtesy Daniel Arsham and Perrotin]

The Porsche 911 has been a recurring focus of Arsham’s work since long before he first formally collaborated with the brand in 2019. “I had the poster on my wall as a kid. I made drawings of those cars,” he says. “When I had the opportunity to work with them, it felt very familiar in a way, and a dream project to touch that history.”

These kinds of collaborations with big money brands—Porsche, Dior, a phone for the Chinese electronics maker Xiaomi—have rankled some of Arsham’s contemporaries. One early and notable collaboration, a monochrome sneaker in white for Adidas, elicited some carping. “There was a lot of pushback from people that I was associated with in the more traditional art world. The criticism was, How are you going to let this brand use your artwork to sell sneakers?” Arsham says. “Number one, I was interested in sneakers, and it was part of my youth and my everyday experience, anyway.”

“Also I’ve never really wanted to only talk to art people. It’s a pretty closed loop, and it becomes self-referential and insular,” Arsham adds. “My feeling was, the company may be using the work to achieve their objectives, but I’m using them for this massive reach that they have to bring my work to people in places where there aren’t art museums; to audiences that maybe didn’t grow up in an environment where art was important or they just were not exposed to it.”

Kith Tokyo [Photo: Daisuke Shima/courtesy Daniel Arsham]

More recent collaborations have less of a layperson connection, though. Arsham continues to work with Porsche, and hints at an upcoming project focused on “a timekeeping device” from a “very big Swiss company.”

Daniel Arsham: Wherever You Go, There You Are, 2023. Orange County Museum of Art. [Photo: Yubo Dong/ofstudio]

Even so, he argues that spreading art into a wider range of formats inherently increases its accessibility, and its impact. That’s why, he says, fashion has been an interesting avenue in which to expand his work. “One of the first things we think we learn as kids going to a museum is don’t touch anything. It’s this precious object that you cannot physically engage with,” he says. “Working with Dior, I could make all these things that, for me, approach the level of an artwork, or they at least contained an idea within them, but they were wearable, they were functional, they were designed to change your character.”

It’s an approach he plans to continue through a move into furniture, as well as future collections in the Objects IV Life fashion line. Its $180 T-shirts and $550 jeans float a bit above most people’s budgets, but compared to gallery artworks that can cost tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, they’re at least somewhat within reach. It also brings Arsham closer to his audience. “When I make a sculpture, I’m just forming a sculpture,” he says. “But when I’m working in fashion, it’s almost like I’m shaping the end user.”

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Nate Berg is a staff writer for Fast Company. He is based in Detroit. More

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