Sky's the limit

Visual artist Daniel Arsham created cloud-inspired decor for Merce Cunningham Dance Company's final performance

Daniel Arsham

Thousands of of coloured balls, connected to one another to form giant clouds, fill half of contemporary artist Daniel Arsham’s Brooklyn studio. The other half of the open space is occupied by Snarkitecture, the collaborative art and architecture practice between Arsham and architect Alex Mustonen. “A lot of my work is about manipulating architecture and causing it to do things it’s not supposed to do,” explains Cleveland, Ohio-born Arsham. As an example, he cites the dressing rooms he designed in 2005 for Dior Homme’s Los Angeles boutique, which erode the surface of the walls.

As for the cloud formations, they will be suspended in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory to serve as decor for the final six performances of the renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Dec. 29 through 31). Once the show is over, the company will disband in accordance to the wishes of its founder Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009 at age 90.

On a December afternoon–with his pet rabbit hopping around the room and Drake’s new album playing in the backgroundAshram sat down with Maclean’s to discuss his latest creation for MCDC and other collaborations.

Q: Please tell us about this striking three-dimensional sculpture. What was the inspiration for these giant clouds made of spheres?

A: The shape is directly based on images of clouds taken on a phone: The image is blown up, the colour is sampled from an individual pixel and these spheres were dyed with that. The coloration comes from the tours I did with Merce, from photos I took in Australia or France or wherever we were. This is personal, but for me it was a way to bring this experience into this final performance.

Daniel Arsham

Q: That’s understandable, having collaborated with MCDC since 2004, you must have a pretty intimate appreciation of Cunningham’s creative process. 

A: Yes, the way Merce worked was very unique. It was all chance based, meaning that he thought of an evening of dance as three separate elements coming together for, as he would say, “the convenience of the audience.” However, those three things–the choreography; the visual elements like set design, costumes and lighting; and the score–all three were created independently of one other, without [one artist] knowing what the other one was doing. And this was throughout his entire career since the ’50s! It allowed him to experiment and gave him different problems to solve and allowed him to do things he wouldn’t have thought of.

Q: Wow, I love that idea…

A: At times, it was terrifying. When I first began working with him in 2004 I had never worked on stage, I didn’t know any of the trappings of the theatre. He’d seen my work, got in touch, asked me to create a stage design for a new piece. He said: “because of the way I work, you’re not going to know what I’m making, you’re not going to know what the music is, just do whatever you want. Just make sure it’s not something that will injure the dancers.” And that was it.

Q: The upcoming show is called “an Event.” Can you explain what that means?

A: Sure. Merce had another body of work which was called Events, where a few days before the performance he would roll dice and the number that came out would tell him which works from his repertory he was going to select from. He would then select sections from his repertory works and roll dice to see which order they went in. So every time an Event is performed it’s a unique combination of the work.

Daniel Arsham

Q: Did that influence your decor for this final performance?

A: Even if Merce was alive he wouldn’t know what I’m making anyway, so it’s actually no different in terms of my relationship to his final piece.

Q: Right. Has experimenting with this chance-based system influenced your other work?

A:  I don’t use [Merce’s method] because I like to make more specific decisions. The other sort of limiting factor is whenever I worked with Merce’s company, not only was there not a narrative, there was never a direct interaction between the dancers and the set…  I work very frequently with a younger choreographer, Jonah Bokaer, who used to be a dancer for Merce, and we don’t work that way. We work completely collaboratively. It’s different, you know? However, I find Merce’s way of working very freeing in some ways.

Q: So in this new performance work you’re creating with Bokaer, is your role also primarily decor and visual aspects?

A: Yes, Jonah and I have created a number of works on our own that are beginning to tour and have their own life, although in a few of them, I perform. I’m never seen, so I’m not dancing but manipulating things that happen onstage; moving things around. There’s a work that uses these huge rolls of white paper. There are moments where the paper gets crumpled up and I’m inside of it sort of moving these mountains of paper, but the audience never sees me physically. But I’m there.

Q: Since making visual art can be quite isolating, it must feel good to collaborate.

A: Merce collaborated with hundreds of people, and inherently working in theatre involves tons of people. I mean, you have to work with everyone form the lighting designer to the stage manager to all of the dancers… and usually, the paintings and small drawings that I make are a very solitary practice.

Arsham’s new cloud sculptures will be exhibited at the Park Avenue Armory and at the artist’s upcoming show in L.A. at the OHWOW gallery. For information about his other projects, including collaborations with Jonah Bokaer, please visit

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.