“Relics in the Landscape” by Daniel Arsham at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
In 2006, artist Daniel Arsham was asked by Merce Cunningham to design a theater set. The legendary choreographer has collaborated with leading artists, including Robert Rauschenberg. His decision to work with the young Arsham therefore testifies to the latter’s gift for declaration.
Almost two decades later, Arsham recalls working with Cunningham when visiting his first outdoor exhibition, “Relics in the Landscape” at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. He cites this opportunity to work on the enormous scale required for a stage set as having a major impact on his future practice. He now works through drawing, sculpture and in the metaverse, and one thing that stands out in all of his work is his ease in approaching the monumental, both literally and conceptually.
The exhibition combines new and older sculptures that draw inspiration from three millennia of cultural references. Three works were cast from molds taken from rooms in the Greek and Roman wing of the Louvre, while others reference 20th-century pop culture icons, including ET’s bicycle and Bugs Bunny.
“I went to the facility outside of Paris where the Louvre keeps all of its molds,” Arsham told Wallpaper*. “They have molds of every stone sculpture owned by the French Ministry of Culture. It’s a question of preservation, but it’s also a bit of a colonial idea, like, they would ship a cast of the Venus de Milo to Algiers and put it in the embassy. Luckily they did, as many of these works degrade over time.
The visit to the Louvre archives was born out of Arsham’s friendship with Ludovic Laugier, national heritage curator in charge of Greek sculpture in the museum’s department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities. While exploring the museum’s collections of ancient sculptures, the artist was particularly drawn to the Venus of Arles, which dates from the 1st century BC. Given its status in the French national collection, Laugier informed him that the only way to be allowed to work with the sculpture would be to write a thesis.
Two years and a thesis later, Arsham obtained permanent access to the entire collection and cast several works, including those installed in the park today. The deal came with two conditions: that he complete the casting process in France and that he not damage the original moulds.
Upon entering the landscaped garden, we are greeted by Eroded bronze melpomene (2021), a head half-buried in the landscape, its surface eroded into a mottled blue patina that both grows and decays. Nearby is Sitting Pikachu Crystallized Bronze (2022), also eroded to take on the appearance of an archaeological ruin. Meanwhile, a crystallized rendition of ET’s bike appears to emerge from a large pond. These apparent relics from modern and ancient ages are placed on land that has been held and sold across generations for 1000 years, it presents us with another twist in our perception of time, something that Arsham says he loves to play with to challenge us by looking at his work.
‘I have Pikachu and I have the Venus of Arles, both rendered in bronze and with these erosions in them. Erosions have crystallized in them. They may appear to be in a state of decay, but we also associate crystals with growth, don’t we? So they could either crumble or reach some sort of completion. I like that kind of confusion that happens there.
Exposed to the elements, Arsham’s works change light throughout the day and the seasons in which the show is presented.
Arsham aims to sow confusion and relishes the contradictions he raises by placing cartoon characters next to ancient sculptures. But these works have more in common than you might think. Pop culture touchstones have loomed large throughout our lives, seeming to have always been there; meanwhile, many ancient works are themselves copies and have been altered many times over the centuries, even millennia. Venus was originally Aphrodite and was even controversially thinned in popular depictions of the 1920s. Some of these alterations have since been reversed in more recent artistic interpretations.
By playing with time and shortening the story, Arsham makes us aware of the brevity of our existence. He remembers his childhood home in Florida being destroyed by a hurricane and being rebuilt to look exactly the same. The effects of this experience resurface in his work time and time again. From his 365-day NFT to his design work and scenography, he applies his vision seamlessly across all disciplines.
“The only difference for me is that with architecture or design, it has a specific function. Art can have a function, but its function is not defined. Right? It is open. It’s aimless in a way, but in a way, that openness is kind of its goal.
Daniel Arsham: “Relics in the Landscape” is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park with no current end date, ysp.org.uk; danielarsham.com