Daniel Arsham: Occupant

The New York-Based Artist Gears Up for a Genre-Defying Performance at Art Basel

Daniel Arsham’s multidisciplinary art practice incorporates sculpture, design and theatre, creating a body of work that is both sublime and energetic. Today, photographer Clément Pascal captures a rehearsal of Arsham’s latest large-scale performance project, Occupant, opening this December at Art Basel Miami. The artist’s long-standing collaborator, choreographer Jonah Bokaer, joins him in the cavernous Basilica Hudson, a 19th-century, formerly industrial space in upstate New York where four dancers move delicately around Arsham’s chalk objects, arranged in a geometric spread across the floor. “Because I operate within so many different artistic spheres, people often confuse my role,” explains Arsham, who was first introduced to dance by the late avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham. “In the art world people think I have an architectural background, in dance I’m an artist in the traditional sense, and in architecture they have no idea where to place me.”

How do you approach the setting of a piece like this?
Daniel Arsham:
Most theatrical work has a stage scenario in mind, though our work is more fluid and can operate in a gallery, museum or a traditional theatrical setting. Sometimes this can be quite challenging because of the changing nature of the shape of a space. If you choreograph a piece you need to bear in mind that the movements need to be easily translatable to retain the same impact. 

Tell us about the sculptures used in Occupant.
DA: I presented Jonah with the idea that we would have numerous technological objects such as cameras and microphones, cast in chalk plaster. These are white ghosts of their former selves, and would be eroded and transformed by the performers. A lot of the way this happens is through games that Jonah creates with the dancers. Jonah will tell them which items they should touch, trying to get to a place where the dancers can forget the original purpose of the object.

What spurred the use of chalk plaster?
DA: I use chalk because it degrades as performers use it. In this show, the stage floor will be covered in black paper. As the objects are used, marks accumulate on the floor, creating a large drawing. The objects do break and I usually try not to prescribe to the dancer what the objects represent. For Occupant, it’s been helpful to put the dancers in a mental framework where they are actually trying to unlearn what these objects are, and how to use and hold them. 

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