Expansive Art and Expansive Minds, with Daniel Popper
Daniel Popper is larger than life in the art world. Known for his large-scale public art installations, Daniel creates fantastical structures designed to invite spectators to interact directly with them. From music festival audiences having psychedelic experiences with his installations, to students perched under his piece at the Nelson Mandela School of Science and Technology, Daniel’s work has intrigued and inspired crowds worldwide. Listen to this episode to hear what Daniel claims is his most psychedelic experience in life so far.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
On this episode of The Cultured Podcast, we talk to South African artist, Daniel Popper, about his massive building-sized sculptures of intertwined wood and metal that call us into our hearts.
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together, we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hello, my babies! Happy whatever month and day and year it is when you listen to this episode. And that’s how we keep it evergreen, folks. Welcome, welcome. I am super digging this conversation I had with Daniel Popper today, the one and only massive sculptural artist who also has a set and stage design company called Pop Productions, very apropos given his last name–Popper. But before we get into that conversation, I want to talk about my inspiration for the week, which is none other than my kitten. You guys. I got a new kitten. His name is Sylvester. His nickname is Silly. He’s Silly Sylvester. Silvestre for those who speak Spanish. And he has brought so much joy into my life, like, I already have a cat. She’s almost 12 years old, got her when she was a baby, so we’ve been together for a very long time. Luna, my Luca-chu, my boo-boo, my bunny. I love her so much, my pinchy pinchy pesa. If you have pets then you know that you come up with the most ridiculous names for them. But Sylvester has really added some much to our lives because he is so effervescent and he has so much personality and he has brought a lot of joy to my days which are filled with work. I mean, I’m working sunup to sundown, and to have a built-in distraction that is just so free and cute, and full of love and curiosity has actually been very expansive for my days, which was not something I expected. And sure, I did not expect to adopt a kitten but here we are. 2020, you wild bitch. Anywho, Sylvester, I love you so much. He’s currently asleep super-duper cute with his white little whiskers. He’s a tuxedo cat just like Luna so they match they have the same little white socks on their paws. We’ll add a picture of Sylvester I guess, if you want me to, to the show notes. I mean, I guess, whatever. If I have to. We’ll go ahead and do it. Because we will. But anyway, I hope that you are finding some semblance of joy, some sparkles throughout your day to pull you out of whatever your daily routine is so that you can have a little bit of joy and curiosity of your own, you know what I mean? Alright, here we go. Let’s talk to Daniel.
Hello, Daniel. Welcome to The Cultured Podcast.
Daniel Popper 3:24
Thank you for having me.
Michelle Khouri 3:25
What I love about these COVID episodes is that they get very intimate because we’re all in our individual location. So tell us about where you are right now, Daniel.
Daniel Popper 3:36
I’m currently at home. I have my wife and two-year-old in the room next door so you might hear my two-year-old. Hopefully, she doesn’t come in here. But yeah, I’m at home in my home in Cape Town.
Michelle Khouri 3:46
Oh my gosh. Well, it’s great to be in Cape Town. I’ve never been. This is my first time. Welcome to Atlanta. That’s where you are with me and my little kitten, my new kitten who might be meowing. But anyway, let’s get to it.
Daniel Popper 4:01
Cool. Let’s have a chat.
Michelle Khouri 4:02
Let’s have a chat. So, you know, first and foremost, I mean, there’s a lot to be said about your work. And I have been following you for a very long time on Instagram, and just consistently not only in awe of your work, but also, I connect to it in a very deeply like spiritual way. If we’re going to be totally frank, it really connects to my heart center. So before we even dive into the very many things we have to talk about with your work, why don’t we just level set? Who are you and what is your art form?
Daniel Popper 4:35
Okay. My name is Daniel Popper. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa. I somehow stumbled into a career creating large-scale installation artworks for music festivals, and more recently for public spaces. I like to create something that people can interact with somehow as opposed to just look at, whether that be climbing or going inside or walking through or being able to touch and feel. I mostly work with figurative subject matter. I typically will start off with just something that excites me and try and put my heart into it. And then what comes out is what comes out and then we can talk about what it means afterwards.
Michelle Khouri 5:24
I dig it, I dig it. So–
Daniel Popper 5:26
Michelle Khouri 5:28
First of all, describe the primary materials you work with.
Daniel Popper 5:32
There’s not one material that I love to work with. I want to work with all of them. I haven’t yet worked with all of them. But the ones that I mostly started working with was wood, trying to see how I could use wood. And I love the texture and feeling of wood and then you know, reach limitations with it and started to understand limitations around it with regards to like longevity, outdoors, etc. And then move to working with concrete and glass fiber. And I’m going to start working in bronze, stainless steel and those kinds of materials and substrates. So pretty much everything.
Michelle Khouri 6:11
I mean, there’s incredibly different processes for each of those materials. It’s stunning to me that you’re just like, yeah, I guess like wood and bronze and such, you know? Granite and steel. And that’s really impressive and also courageous. Right? You have to have this spirit of experimentation and not very much a fear of failure.
Daniel Popper 6:33
Exactly, exactly. I think that’s the thing. It’s like it, I can see how it could be quite daunting. You know, when I started working with wood, I was like, “Oh, I could do carpentry,” and then I was like, if you get into carpentry and you know, start creating like tables and furniture and stuff like that, and that becomes all you do. You know? That’s one thing and it’s kind of a bottleneck. But there are people that have gone into that and that’s their, sort of like, their craft, you know? And they are just absolute masters at what they do and they understand the materials, they have been working with them for so long. And you can just ask them. And then, you know, after doing that, and trying to figure out on my own, failing, asking questions, whatever and then doing it, it does chip away at the fear.
Michelle Khouri 7:09
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? But so many of us don’t even, I don’t think we carry the confidence to even just approach someone and say, I don’t know how to do this, but I want to do it. Will you share knowledge? And you’re right, a lot of people want to share that knowledge and their passion.
Daniel Popper 7:26
Totally. If they don’t want to share it, then–
Michelle Khouri 7:30
They’re assholes! No, I’m just kidding.
Daniel Popper 7:31
And also. Yeah, exactly. Like, if it’s somebody you know, and they don’t want to share that information, they’re not really somebody who you should know. Yeah. And you will find people that are just super generous with what they know. It’s the greatest thing you can do, you know, if you make a discovery is to be able to share that.
Michelle Khouri 7:48
I totally agree. Do you have a background in engineering of any kind?
Daniel Popper 7:54
Nope, not at all. Again, we started building these sculptures of a certain scale that was achievable for me. And then when it started to get bigger, and then they would like fall down and almost kill people, I then realized, shit, I need to get some engineering done. And there’s guys out there that been studying engineering for seven to 10 years, you know. So again, those people were people that I asked I had friends that was super generous in the early days, they were able to give me some free advice. Now we have engineers that we work with. We just created a piece that’s going up in Miami and the test to pass the hundred and 80 mile an hour hurricane dade codes of Miami, you know?
Michelle Khouri 8:32
Oh yeah, I’m from Miami. I know the hurricane life.
Daniel Popper 8:35
Yeah. So I’m primarily, you know, the designer of the piece. And then, you know, you start off with that’s the idea then comes the hard part. Then it’s like, how. How are we going to do this?
Michelle Khouri 8:46
Tell us a little bit about how the ideas sprouted, for what is now Pop Productions and soon to be this unbelievable, massive solo exhibition in Chicago, this enormous sculpture in Miami, tell us about the beginnings. The seeds of the ideas.
Daniel Popper 9:03
Well, South Africa has a, had a, and still does, an outdoor festival industry very, very underground, not commercial at all, you know, nothing like Coachella or anything like that. I think, you know, our biggest festival would probably be like 5000 people. And, you know, when I was growing up, early 20s that’s, you know, what I was doing for fun. They were often spaces of inspiration for me, they were like, you know? I would just get super inspired going to those places and knew that I wanted to be a part of that industry. And I started just coming up with concepts, potentially for stages, small stages and stuff like that, at those small festivals. And then this Burning Man Festival came to South Africa. It was totally different, totally different to any, any other festival that we had. You could bring your art. That was it. And it was like this participation concept. And I just, I don’t know, that was just such an inspiring idea to me. I’ve moved on from those kinds of festivals. It’s because it’s become my career, but I had the awareness in my early 20s that I had nothing to lose. And there was no social media, there was no name attached to the work, you know what I mean? So you could go anonymously create your thing, experiment, see, watch people interact with it, and just get that feeling of, like, just pure joy of immersing yourself in the experience of making art for other people to enjoy. It’s really been an evolution just having the awareness to risk it all is really awesome because I think that’s what holds so many people back from doing that kind of thing, because there’s so much on the line, you know? Especially now, like, doing something at Burning Man. You know, there’s so many people. There’s so many high profile people there. Instagram everywhere all over the place, you know. And God forbid you create this terrible piece of art. Oh my god. You know what I mean? It’s a really big thing. People really are afraid to fail creating work. It’s the most important thing to go through because you have to realize that it’s, like, who cares. Who cares if you make it.
Michelle Khouri 10:59
You go through it. You survive it. You realize you’re not going to die from failure.
Daniel Popper 11:03
I’ve made so many shitty pieces of work. I can’t tell you. I just did it, like, blindly like going, you’re like, “I’m going to get this thing, right.” And I had this vision and I’m like, “Yeah, because I was inspired by like…” and you walk away after and you’re like, what did I just do? Oh my gosh. Yeah. It’s important. You have to do it. You have to make rubbish and you have to not care.
You maybe don’t have to not care. But certainly detach from, like, don’t put so much weight on you caring about it. It’s one of the hardest things ever. I mean, it’s, you know, to tell that to an artist. I mean, it’s your heart and your soul goes into this work, you know? You’re just offering yourself up to this thing. See what happens. Get it out the way. It might fail. It might succeed. And it’s really not up to you.
Michelle Khouri 11:47
That’s really powerful, Daniel, because also It sounds like you see yourself as a channel of a message outside of yourself. Is that — Is that how you see yourself as an artist?
Daniel Popper 11:58
Um, I mean, that’s a potentially a fantasy that, uh, you know, could hold. I wouldn’t know. I have no idea if it’s true or not. And that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the work is created and that people get inspired when they experience it. That’s what matters to me. You know? There’s messages about nature. There’s messages about climate change. There’s messages about the human soul, the human spirit. It’s all in there. People read so deeply into it, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. But, uh, I cannot take any sort of responsibility for or try and come out and say, “Yeah, I’m channeling this thing that I need people to experience.”
Michelle Khouri 12:39
You create stunning, enormous, highly complex work that absolutely embodies so many different messages that, to me, are both grounded and ethereal. And so I don’t buy it, not one bit, that you’re not a channel. And, in fact, I mean, it’s the kind of work that I feel like the most ideal state for ideating it or for coming up with it is also the most ideal state for experiencing it, which is tripping acid or some other kind of mind-expanding plant medicine, which I know that you partake in from time to time and I have done LSD before. And it is so expansive and so special and riddled with such weird taboos, like, back in the puritanical US in those days when we’d call marijuana like “Reefer Madness,” you know, is what I think LSD experience is now. But, I guess, the point that I’m getting to is you talked about creating work based on whatever excites you. So what excites you?
Daniel Popper 13:49
I’ve gone through so many phases. I’ve calmed down a little bit now. And I’m a dad. And I think I think the experience of being a parent is the most psychedelic experience that you can imagine. It doesn’t even compare, you know? But uh, before being a parent if you want to have a sort of comparable psychedelic experience. Yeah, I mean, I was super passionate about psychedelics and mind-opening, mind expansion, and stuff like that. And there’s a lot of imagery attached to that stuff. And you become incredibly open to imagery and visions. And I was also very passionate about this sort of visionary, outside of art movement.
Michelle Khouri 14:29
What do you mean by visionary art?
Daniel Popper 14:31
There’s a bunch of artists around the world that create visionary art. It falls outside of what would the world would consider to be like fine art, you know, the stuff that you see in like these fancy art galleries. And so contemporary artwork that taps into a deeper level, a deeper understanding of our experience on this planet, you know, and hugely inspired by the psychedelic experience.
Michelle Khouri 14:55
I know that you were planning on having your first solo exhibition this year in Chicago. Is that right?
Daniel Popper 15:00
Michelle Khouri 15:01
And obviously COVID there was a wrench thrown into that. But I think what we’re all seeing is that if we sink into and flow with these, what we might consider challenges or obstacles, we’ll see that there are opportunities for expansion in different ways and for pivoting and flowing in ways we never thought we could. And so it sounds like as of right now, the exhibition is still planned for April of 2021.
Daniel Popper 15:30
Michelle Khouri 15:31
And how does that feel to have to sort of like pivot and change?
Daniel Popper 15:34
Initially, it was a bit frustrating, but to be honest, you know, we tried to pull a five sculptures in a year. It was pretty intense. Like, we managed to get to do it. I mean, up to the point that I was ready to ship the works. And there was a hell of a lot of work that was going to be left to onsite and figuring out. So initially, it was a bit frustrating and then it was like, hang on, we actually have a little bit more time to get the pieces a little bit more refined and work on them a little bit more. And I’m really, really grateful for that for that extra time, I must say.
Michelle Khouri 16:04
Hmm. That’s beautiful. So you’re from South Africa. And I want to know what it felt like for you to be commissioned a few years ago by Siemens to create a memorial statue for Nelson Mandela. What was that like for you?
Daniel Popper 16:19
Yeah, that was an absolute trip. It was such a fantastic opportunity. One of Mandela’s dying wishes was for a school to be built in his village where he was born in a rural village of Verso in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. And the CEO of Siemens agreed to grant his dying wish. Siemens foot the bill and funded building an entire agricultural school. It’s called the Siemens School of Science and Technology. And it’s a school specifically focused towards agriculture and technology in this rural village. I mean, there’s literally there’s like no electricity or running water, you know? And they have this amazing state-of-the art school. The marketing director of Siemens reached out to me because they needed something to sort of beautify their, sort of, public gathering space. And so we decided on this tree of knowledge. At the base of the tree, we put these inspirational quotes from Nelson Mandela. And it was, it was really cool because it was also at a school. So just kind of like, knowing myself as a kid, and you know, all you really care about sometimes as a kid is like, “What’s for lunch?” and like when you get to go play sport, you know? But there might be some kids that would be having their lunch break sitting at the sculpture and would potentially be inspired by it. And that was a really cool feeling. It was also pretty wild because he died, you know, almost at the time that we were busy doing it. So when we were there, putting it up was the funeral.
Michelle Khouri 17:47
Oh my God.
Daniel Popper 17:47
And we could see the funeral from where we were working from our build site. We saw the planes flying over and, you know, just all just the world they ascended into this village where we were like. It’s so remote, it’s literally in the middle of nowhere. And while we were there, it was mad, like all the roads closed and like everyone from Oprah to like Barack Obama, like, arrived. You know, to this funeral.
Michelle Khouri 17:55
Oh my God.
Daniel Popper 18:12
Such a trip. And so yeah, it was a pretty surreal experience. I mean, it’s so long ago as well, for me, I think was 2014.
Michelle Khouri 18:20
Yeah. Did that in any way change the way that you saw yourself as an artist or creator?
Daniel Popper 18:27
I mean, it did, in a sense that it was my first public work, like and permanent work because I was creating more temporary stuff. And I was creating stuff that was again, like I said, Music Festival base, stage designer, working in the psychedelic space and whatever. And all of a sudden, I was in this corporate space creating something that was somewhat of a monument and a memorial and, you know, a public landscape beautification piece. And it was a success, you know? And I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty good at that. That was really cool.”
Michelle Khouri 18:57
Right. In ways, it set you on your current path, which is kind of bonkers to me, Daniel, that like the thing that set you on your path to where you are now was a freakin’ memorial to Nelson Mandela. That’s pretty amazing. So what’s interesting about our conversation earlier about this detachment from identity, which was at the beginning of your path as an artist, in other words, displaying work and not having your name attached to it is, now you’ve created such a signature, at least in my mind that I could see a Daniel popper piece, probably from miles away, literally, and know it’s a Daniel Popper piece. You know, I wonder if there’s been a change in your psyche, because now I don’t think there’s a mistaking a Daniel popper piece. So even if you tried to hide in the crowd.
Daniel Popper 19:49
I mean, yes or no, I still feel like I don’t really have any particular style of working and I look at some artists that are just so defined by their style. You know, like look at artists and you can just see like, “Oh, yeah, that’s one of the characters,” you know? And I just feel like I’ve just never been that guy and I never want it to be tied down to a certain style of working. But you can’t fight that. It’s just going to happen. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, you know? I’m pleased to hear you say that you can recognize a certain common thread throughout my work, but I mean, if you look at the piece that I created for Scorpios Beach Club last year in Mykonos, it was my first time working with wicker cane and we created such an abstract piece based on Cycladic Greek sculpture based on the mythology of letter. You know, when I finished I was like, “Wow, that was so different,” you know, so different to anything I’ve created in the past and it was different material, different styles, different things, yet, I guess there is a commonality and the people really enjoyed that piece. So I don’t know. It’s cool to hear you say that.
Michelle Khouri 20:50
I think there is a signature but I would agree like you’re incredibly versatile. And I’ve seen a lot of your pieces, I think particularly when you’re asking to commission it seems you’re able to really flex your full versatility for whatever you know you have to fit into. Now speaking of mythology, and of course, like thinking about the expansion of the human psyche, and the much deeper layers of human existence and all that, do you spend a lot of your time doing research to help inspire your creations?
Daniel Popper 21:23
I do. Look, not all the time. But I think for that particular piece, I researched the area, the island of Delos. And, you know, we have a few sculptures coming up in particular remote places. And the briefs are so wide open, you know, you just want to tie them into the history of where they’re going, you know, and be sensitive to that as well. So I do a lot of research on the spaces and places and cultures where I’m going to be putting work. And then occasionally also, just sometimes I’ll just be drawing something and I’ll be like, “Wow, that’s cool. Let’s go with that.”
Michelle Khouri 21:54
To close this out. I really want to know what you’re toying with for the future like what are some of the the little sparks igniting for you right now for the future?
Daniel Popper 22:03
Well, like I said, I think at the beginning of our conversation, it’s just continuing to explore new materials, wanting to work more in more permanent materials, working with bronze, stainless steel. Also exploring different scales. I mean, I’ve become known as somebody creates large-scale work. And I’m like, “Well, does it have to be so big all the time?” You know? What about creating smaller works. I get a lot of requests from people to create, to want to buy smaller stuff for like, their homes and whatever. So I’m going to be exploring that. We have plans to publish a book in a couple years. I’m just so continuously driven to just want to keep pushing my own boundaries, and just you know, I still feel like I have such a long way to go. You know, when I look at the heroes and the giants of this industry, or what they do, they just saw I’m just like, oh, man, I’m nowhere nowhere near the you know, these guys and there’s a lot of work to do to get better at what I do.
Michelle Khouri 22:57
Well, that is bananas to think about. I think it’s also a balancing act between striving for betterment, but also recognizing the exceptional work that you do.
Daniel Popper 23:10
Michelle Khouri 23:10
Before we fully sign off, where can we go to fully take in your work, see it, experience it, online and in person?
Daniel Popper 23:19
Well, my website danielpopper.com. And then Instagram: @danielpopper. I’m really terrible with my Instagram but a try and post like, at least twice a month. My works up permanently in Tulum, Mexico at Ahau. It’s the very famous piece of Ven A La Luz, of the woman opening up her chest. That’s always if you’re keen on a holiday in Mexico. And then I will be putting up soon, as soon as the travel ban lifts and we’re able to travel again to the United States, we’re going to be putting up a piece in Fort Lauderdale at Society Las Olas residential real estate building. And then next year, April, they’ll be the exhibition opening up at the Morton Arboretum of the five works and that’s going to be up for three years and so that’ll be a great space for people to go and experience the works and yeah. And some exciting festivals next year lined up. Electric Daisy Carnival again. Electric Forest again. And Boom festival. MoDem festival. Yeah, so if you’re in Europe: MoDem in Croatia and Boom in Portugal.
Michelle Khouri 24:21
I just wish you would actually put some effort into your work, Daniel, like, can you stop being so lazy?
Daniel Popper 24:28
I’m going to try. I’m going to try. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to try.
Michelle Khouri 24:32
And all of this while being a husband and a father to a two-year-old. So cool. Cool. A lot of free time. (laughter)
Daniel Popper 24:40
Michelle Khouri 24:40
Thank you again, so much for opening your heart to us. I really appreciate you.
Daniel Popper 24:44
Thanks so much, Michelle.
Michelle Khouri 24:51
You know what, for someone who hates interviews that sure was an amazing interview. Daniel Popper, that was amazing and, truly, you got to see his work. So go to all those digital spaces where you can see stuff because it’s jaw-dropping. And until next time, you know what to do. Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it Cultured.