“Time doesn’t have a shape, and sometimes, my memories don’t feel like memories – they feel like predictions.”
W hat is it about time? Contemporary artist Daniel Arsham responds to this question by searching the past. He brings up recurring ideas from childhood memory to create temporal dislocation and projects them upon the present and future. Throughout his career, Arsham has maintained a preoccupation with imagining today's everyday objects as they would be seen in the unknown future as excavated artifacts. Often he would access his own past, taking “elements from childhood to reform them,” he said in his collaborative film for adidas Originals, “Hourglass: Past.”
Much of Arsham’s art reconstitutes figures from the artist’s memory into what would appear to be centuries-old unearthed relics. These works disdain nostalgia, referencing the past as future to give the objects new purpose as “catalysts for the 21st century mind to travel backwards and forwards at once,” Steven Matijcio, Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center curator, writes in Fictional Archaeology.
In Arsham’s Pyrite and Selenite Teddy Bear (Large) , what at first appears to be a well-loved childhood teddy bear, is instead composed of pyrite, selenite, crystals, and hydrostone to create an uncanny distortion for the viewer. The work manages both to be familiar and alien – a beloved object from the distant past, long discarded and forgotten. This unique work was executed in 2017, but gives the impression of coming from ages past.
“I spend a lot of time thinking of ways in which I can dislocate people from the particular moment in time they’re existing in.”
Focusing on mass culture, Arsham would transform modern-day objects that are universal across cultures, and imagine them fallen to centuries of decay. Embracing this duality, Arsham balances the work on the knife’s edge of the present, gesturing toward future archaeological discovery and past origin – both fictionalized.
“All art is time travel communicating with people from the present but also people who are yet to be born,” artist Marc Quinn wrote in a preface to Arsham’s book Fictional Archeology (Gallery Perrotin and Editions Dilecta, 2015). According to Quinn, Arsham “gives us the macabre thrill of seeing our culture, how others might see it centuries from now.”
“Through his work we glimpse, from a safe distance, the ravishes of times which await us all. And there is nothing more thrilling than dying by proxy and living to tell the tale.”
Arsham has explored his concept of “fictional archaeology” through collaborations with global lifestyle brands, including Dior, Porsche, Adidas, Pokémon and many others that would grace the pages of Vogue Magazine. Working with luxury, fashion or entertainment objects, the artist conjures a portrait of contemporary life refracted through time’s distorted lens, and puts distance between the now and the “future relic.” In a unique work executed in 2019, Arsham dreamed up a version of the world's most influential fashion and lifestyle magazine, but made of selenite, quartz and hydrostone. Standing at a height of 121.9 cm, Large Scale Vogue Magazine resembles a stele – a monument to the legacy and continuous cultural impact of the referent. In an elegant twist, the object outlives its original function as the arbiter of taste and has instead become an object of cultural veneration.
“Why do societies around the world go to such ends to preserve and venerate the physical remnants of those before the?” This is a question posed by Matijcio in Fictional Archaeology. He answers: “The simple answer is because they are pieces of us, and our anthropocentric path through time.”