Visual artists generally work with a wide array of colors, but an exhibit now open at the High Museum of Art features installations with an intentionally limited palate.
Stepping off the elevator in the Anne Cox Chambers wing into the second floor of Daniel Arsham’s “Hourglass” exhibit, viewers are confronted with a full-size Japanese tea house and Zen garden. The entire thing takes up the majority of the gallery. And everything from the gently curved roof to the wooden deck is a vivid blue.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan,” Arsham explains. “One of the things that I’ve noticed in Kyoto in particular is not only have these temples not changed in hundreds of years, but literally the pattern of the sand that’s raked into the gardens is identical to what it was hundreds of years ago. And I feel like those buildings and those places float in time a little bit. They could be from now, they could be from 500 years ago or 500 years in the future. And we’re willing to accept them as existing in that time looking the way that they do.”
This timelessness gets at one of the main ideas Arsham is playing with in “Hourglass.” The artist calls the tea house a “perfect vessel” to house this fluid notion of time.
Just off to the side of the teahouse, in what’s normally a hallway in the gallery, Arsham has constructed a cavern. It’s dimly lit and made of what looks like purple stone spheres, which on closer inspection turn out to be basketballs, volleyballs, soccer balls and the like. All are cast in amethyst crystal.
“For the last number of years, I’ve been working on a series of pieces that are sort of like fictional archaeology,” Arsham says. “So I’m taking objects from our present life and reforming them in geological materials.”
A number of the balls in the cavern seem to have been eroded and the insides look like a cracked open stone – all raw jagged edges. It’s as if we’re looking at a petrified sporting goods store. It’s playful, and at the same time, it’s kind of sobering. If these everyday objects are basically fossils, what’s happened to the people who used to play with them?
“That transformation presents us with the idea that we have either traveled to the future and we’re viewing a kind of archeological site of our own lives or that these objects have been brought back from the future," he says. "There is something sort of extraordinary and uncanny about being able to step out of your own moment in time.”
This uncanny mash-up of geology and time travel presented in this exaggerated scale is summed up at the start of the exhibit.
On the first floor of the show, the viewer is presented with four large-scale hourglasses. At either end of the hourglasses is an object like a camera or some other technological object. These objects, like the soccer balls in the cavern, are molded from stone.
“Cast in crystal or volcanic ash,” Arsham explains. “And as the hourglass turns, one of the objects is buried and one of the objects is revealed.”
These ideas are further explored in the exhibit through recorded monologues … and on certain days, through performance. Members of Atlanta dance company glo and will be in the galleries on Sundays.
“There’s a child in the space who is reciting a narrative as if they don’t recognize the objects within the hourglasses and they’re trying to uncover the meaning behind them," Arsham says. "On the second level, there is an older performer in the space also reciting a monologue, and they’re also raking the sand within the dry garden.”
In the past, Arsham’s work has been monochromatic — black and white and grays. The deep blues and purples of “Hourglass” are new to the artist’s work.
“So I’m colorblind,” he says. “About two years ago, I was introduced to this company called Enchroma which at the time was developing lenses which would correct certain kinds of colorblindness. And mine happens to be one of them. So a little over a year ago I received some lenses that – they don’t cure the colorblindness, but they artificially trick your eye into believing that it’s seeing a larger range of color. So I got these glasses and it was kind of an amazing experience with color and I began working with a couple limited ranges of color.”
“I’m not wearing the glasses anymore,” Arsham continues. “I decided after a number of months that they were distracting me and I was tending to pay more attention … even walking down the street, to these vibrant colors that were jumping out at me. So I’ve used them now more as a tool within the studio to look at a material or a color, see how others would see it, and them I’m able to objectively judge it. The sort of ethos that was present in my work before with this reduction of color has carried over into these newer works with color in that even though I can see a full range now, I’m not making rainbows.”
Arsham may not be making them, but the fleeting nature of rainbows might fit in with “Hourglass’” ideas about the passage of time and that the sands that bury us might also transform us into something crystalline and new.
Daniel Arsham’s exhibit, “Hourglass” is open now at the High Museum and runs through May 21.