Daniel Arsham Sets Up Merce Cunningham’s Last


When Daniel Arsham first met Merce Cunningham in 2006, he was a 24-year-old artist who’d recently graduated from Cooper Union. The two were introduced because Cunningham was looking for a local artist to design the set for his piece eyeSpace, which was to open in Miami the following year (though he now lives in Brooklyn, Arsham had moved to Miami after completing school). Arsham has worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) several times since, both before and after the choreographer’s death in 2009.

MCDC’s final six performances—capping a two-year legacy tour planned by Cunningham prior to his death—will appear at the Park Avenue Armory, Dec. 29–31, and Arsham has been tapped to design the stage décor. “We wouldn’t be doing anything differently had Merce been around for this,” Arsham says. “But we’re all paying a little bit more attention.”

Arsham’s design takes full advantage of the Drill Hall’s 80-plus-foot ceilings, from which he will suspend eight giant “clouds”: oblong forms, the smallest the size of a car, made up of clustered-together colored spheres. The lumpy forms are based on photos of clouds that have been enlarged to such a degree that the color of each grapefruit-sized sphere represents a single pixel. Arsham showed similar, though smaller-scale, sculptures made of colored Ping-Pong balls at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris last year.

In keeping with Cunningham’s preferred working methods throughout his career,  the pair had an unorthodox collaboration. The only information Cunningham would provide Arsham was the length of the performance and where it would take place. Cunningham would simply say, “Do whatever you want.” His only requests, Arsham told A.i.A., were that the designer make sure the set wasn’t flammable and that he didn’t do anything to injure the dancers. Cunningham typically divided his performances into three parts—the choreography, the stage design and the music. All of the collaborators involved worked independently, and the three elements came together only when the piece was performed live.

Arsham found this method of working “both liberating and somewhat restrictive.” His latest commission, begun after the choreographer’s death, hasn’t been much different from previous projects.

Many of Arsham’s stage designs—for MCDC and for his ongoing collaboration with the choreographer Jonah Bokaer, a former MCDC dancer—involve architectural elements that he and/or the dancers interact with. For a MCDC tour in France in 2009, Arsham built a wall on stage that he cut holes into during the performance, slowly revealing a light source behind the wall. Replica, a piece he did with Bokaer, included a giant white cube in the middle of the stage. Arsham (from inside the cube) and the dancers on stage slowly eroded the foam-and-plaster structure by knocking into it and pulling it apart. Another recent work, Recess, which premiered last summer at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, features a large sheet of white paper that Arsham (hidden under the paper) and Bokaer (the sole dancer) fold and manipulate into mountain- and iceberg-like forms.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform at the Park Avenue Armory, 6:30 pm and 9 pm, Dec. 29–31. Daniel Arsham’s show “the fall, the ball, and the wall” will be on view at OHWOW, Los Angeles, Jan. 20–Feb. 16, 2012.