In­side the Mind of Tom Sachs

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From March 29 to May 3, American ar­tist Tom Sachs is sho­wing his new works at Thaddaeus Ropac’s Ma­rais gal­le­ry in Pa­ris un­der the title American Hand Made Pain­tings. Most of these pieces were made using me­dia such as mar­que­try, py­ro­gra­phy and po­ly­mer pain­ting.


It is hard to in­tro­duce the work of Tom Sachs in just a hand­ful of lines. The first im­pres­sion is that he is an ar­tist who re­jects neat fi­nish in fa­vor of a do- it- your­self, hand­made aes­the­tic that de­li­be­ra­te­ly contrasts with the smooth in­dus­trial pro­ducts that have conta­mi­na­ted con­tem­po­ra­ry art. Big com­pa­nies pro­duce ob­jects that are “per­fect”—smooth and glos­sy in terms of fi­nish—but cer­tain­ly not beau­ti­ful. Have you ever won­de­red why cars were so ugly no­wa­days? What Sachs is loo­king for, above all, whe­ther in an ob­ject or a work of art, is the in­ge­nui­ty or the personality of its ma­ker, which are things that once hel­ped de­fine a work of art. In the brilliant bricolage done by the ar­tist and his as­sis­tants as they invent tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions using poor ma­te­rials (adhe­sive tape, light­weight card­board and, above all, ply­wood), there is so­me­thing of those American pio­neers who were cons­tant­ly pu­shing the fron­tier west­ward. Sachs is an ex­plo­rer, and it comes as no sur­prise to learn that he has made a mo­del of an En­glish ship from the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry ( Bar­bie Slave Ship, 2013), as well as a ma­quette of the Chal­len­ger shut­tle. He has al­so set up some wa­cky space mis­sions. In 2007 the as­tro­nauts and young la­dies on board his to­tal­ly hand­made re­pli­ca of a moon cap­sule (wea­ring pa­per space suits) com­plete with the com­pu­ters in the con­trol room, lan­ded in the Ga­go­sian Gal­le­ry, and on the way did a bit of da­mage in the name of science. In 2012 Sachs and his aco­lytes spent a month in a Mars base set up in a big space on Ar­mo­ry Park Ave­nue in New York. Des­pite their rough-and-rea­dy feel, ho­we­ver, these works are all about myriad ti­ny de­tails, of­ten co­mi­cal fea­tures in which we can lose our­selves and, in so doing, ap­pre­ciate the phi­lo­so­phi­cal un­der­pin­nings of Sachs’s art. The Bar­bie Slave Ship is not just a boat full of blondes en­chai­ned by their de­sire to look like each other, it is al­so a giant tool­kit. The tools are kept in com­part­ments de­si­gned for their spe­ci­fic di­men­sions—just as they are in the ar­tist’s stu­dio. What’s more, at the back you’ll find all you need to make an ex­cellent whis­key on the rocks. There are not ma­ny ar­tists around no­wa­days ma­king such po­ly­se­mous work, ba­sed on a culture that connects His­to­ry with more mar­gi­nal concerns, re­plete with real eru­di­tion about the his­to­ry of forms, ar­chi­tec­ture and de­si­gn, but al­so such fun ac­ti­vi­ties as sur­fing and ska­te­boar­ding. It was long thought that Sachs was a neo-Pop ar­tist—his over­size Hel­lo Kit­ty pieces and re­makes of fa­mous brands (Pra­da, Cha­nel) might be read in these terms—but the op­po­site is ac­tual­ly the case. He does not of­fer an image of the world as a tar­get for vi­ru­lent critique, but re­creates it ba­sed on his own aes­the­tic, and with a ri­chly acer­bic sense of hu­mor. R. L.


Would you agree if I said that you have an am­bi­va­lent re­la­tion to a l ot of things, es­pe­cial­ly to American culture, and that this is the “mo­tor” of your work? I am cri­ti­cal of the kinds of spi­ri­tual de­mands the mar­ket puts on our souls yet I am a willing but par­tial­ly aware par­ti­ci­pant. This gives my work the au­tho­ri­ty by being com­pli­cit and speaks from the in­side of the is­sue. Ad­ver­ti­sing is a dis­gus­ting coer­cive art that I ap­pre­ciate. I des­pise how ad­ver­ti­sing en­cou­rages bo­dy dys­mor­phia but I love how those heels make her ass look.

Much of your work is about the idea of con­quest “in the name of ci­vi­li­za­tion”: you de­ve­lo­ped space pro­grams to the Moon and Mars. You re­built part of the USS En­ter­prise and made a ver­sion of the Fat Man bomb which de­vas­ta­ted Na­ga­sa­ki. For the last Lyon Bien­nale you crea­ted the Bar­bie Slave Ship, an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Bri­tish ship ex­hi­bi­ted in a church. All these ve­hicles are mi­li­ta­ry weapons, but there are some cozy shel­ters too, where you can make cock­tails, watch DVDs…

In the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry we control­led hu­man bo­dies and their va­lue as ex­trac­ted through slave la­bor. Pu­nish­ment was limited to the bo­dy and in­flic­ting pain. When the style of tor­ture mo­ved to­ward the mind, in the twen­tieth cen­tu­ry, so did pro­fit. In a consu­mer-dri­ven eco­no­my, ad­ver­ti­sing and its re­sul­ting de­ci­sion­ba­sed va­lue, va­lues of iden­ti­ty are control­led to maxi­mize the pro­fit. Blond hair, blue eyes and big tits open doors. We want to be Bar­bie or we want to fuck Bar­bie. I’m not saying it's right or wrong but it’s the way it is and no one is exempt.


What did Lar­ry Ga­go­sian say when your as­tro­nauts des­troyed the beau­ti­ful floor of his Be­ver­ly Hills gal­le­ry, when they col­lec­ted some rocks from the Moon? It’s al­ways ea­sier to beg for for­gi­ve­ness than ask per­mis­sion. That said we were ve­ry pro­fes­sio­nal with the ex­ca­va­tion and res­to­ra­tion. The fine moon rock dust (re­go­lith) that was har­ves­ted during our lu­nar mis­sion is the ra­rest of the rare. Which he en­joyed snor­ting with me.

You’ve been on the Moon and on Mars. What could be far­ther? What’s the next step? The icy moon of Ju­pi­ter known as Eu­ro­pa has six times the amount of wa­ter of Earth. In our So­lar Sys­tem it is the most li­ke­ly place to find ex­tra­ter­res­trial life. We are ho­ping to find in­tel­li­gent life or at least hor­rible mons­ters that we can kill and bar­beque.

Let’s talk about your stu­dio, which is a work of art in it­self. Eve­ry­thing has its place. There are strong rules in your stu­dio, but it seems that you have a lot of fun too. All the people who work with you, like Pat McCar­thy, the Nei­stat bro­thers, they are more like fa­mi­ly than col­leagues, no? Can you tell us a few words about the Nau­ti­cal Chal­lenge? For more in­for­ma­tion about that race, watch the mo­vie:­­jYXc0. And buy the book: http://tom­­ti­cal-chal­lenge.

You’re a fa­mous ar­tist. You have a lot of res­pon­si­bi­li­ties, ma­ny people work for you, but your work claims that you’re still a kid loo­king for fun, ad­ven­ture and great ex­pe­riences. How do you deal with this—one more—am­bi­gui­ty. What’s the se­cret of free­dom? The stu­dio is a tea­ching hos­pi­tal. The best part of my job is I get to be a student my whole life. People ask this ques­tion of­ten so my ans­wer is to watch our indoctrination film www.ten­bul­

You stu­died at the Ar­chi­tec­tu­ral As­so­cia­tion in London. You wor­ked in Frank Geh­ry’s stu­dio in Ca­li­for­nia. You’ve built so ma­ny mo­dels, like the ones with the Ci­té Ra­dieuse and la Villa Sa­voye by Le Cor­bu­sier… Why didn’t you be­come an ar­chi­tect? Is ar­chi­tec­ture fi­nal­ly too “se­rious”? Ar­chi­tec­ture school is like ma­rine boot camp to weed out the non- ha­ckers. I thought it would be ea­sier than being an ar­tist. I thought you had to be a ge­nius to be an ar­tist. But eve­ryone is an ar­tist, ar­chi­tects and cops in­clu­ded. Ar­chi­tec­ture school hel­ped give me the confi­dence to fol­low my in­tui­tion. It was al­so a good thing to stu­dy while I was be­co­ming an ar­tist and my grown-up self. Art school is an idio­tic place to learn to make art, but a great place to make friends. To be an ar- tist you must learn va­luable trades like mar­tial arts, fo­rei­gn lan­guages and do­cu­ment for­ging. This is Wer­ner Her­zog’s phi­lo­so­phy, as well as mine.

Where does your “Do It Your­self” culture come from? Why is it so im­por­tant that a sculp­ture of a car, or of a plane wa­ter clo­set, works. Why can’t it just be a sculp­ture? There is a ji­had against func­tio­na­li­ty in con­tem­po­ra­ry art. And in a sense I agree with it be­cause func­tio­na­li­ty in art robs its mys­te­ry and spi­ri­tua­li­ty. When my sculp­tures func­tion it’s a way of ge­ne­ra­ting au­then­tic de­tails and dee­pe­ning the ex­pe­rience of ma­king them. It’s not im­por­tant that they work per­fect­ly, I’ll leave that to in­dus­try. But the qua­li­ty and phy­si­cal cha­rac­te­ris­tics are the re­sult of the ri­tual of work and use wi­thin a com­mu­ni­ty.


Your works have to show how they were made. Eve­ry­thing has to be vi­sible, even the blood spla­shed during the ac­ci­dents. Is that a kind of mo­der­nist he­ri­tage? Scars of la­bor. But al­so, the ad­van­tage the ar­tist has over in­dus­try is his fin­gerp­rints. I could ne­ver make an iP­hone, but Apple could ne­ver make a pro­duct that tells the sto­ry of how so­me­thing is made with the trans­pa­ren­cy of one of my sculp­tures. The glue drips, screw holes, cum stains and fin­gerp­rints all de­clare that this thing was MADE and not hat­ched. The hy­po­cri­sy of the Bau­haus: in an at­tempt to em­brace the ma­chine age eve­ry piece of Mies fur­ni­ture had to be (and conti­nues to be) ve­ry hand made.

You’ve made pic­tures since the mid-ni­ne­ties. Ori­gi­nal­ly, you made some Mon­drian re­pli­cas

with duct tape, now you use much more py­ro­gra­phy or po­ly­mer paint. Are these pain­tings a kind of pause when your big pro­jects take months to be com­ple­ted? Are they a kind of per­so­nal “ho­mage” to cer­tain fi­gures? To your grand­fa­ther who spent a lot of time figh­ting ter­mites. To Mar­lon Bran­do in Cop­po­la’s Apo­ca­lypse Now… and to some ve­ry im­por­tant icons: the American dol­lar, the Mc­Do­nalds lo­go, the sti­cky tape you use eve­ry day at the stu­dio. This ex­hi­bi­tion at Thaddaeus Ropac is a kind of por­trait ex­hi­bi­tion, isn’t it?

American Hand­made Pain­tings opens at Ropac on March 29 in the Ma­rais. The works are an ex­pres­sion of my love for my coun­try mixed with a melancholy for its glo­ry days. In some ways its al­so an ex­pres­sion of my own fee­lings of mor­ta­li­ty. In 1974, the year Louis Arm­strong died, the USA gross na­tio­nal pro­duct shif­ted from a pro­duc­tion to a consump­tion bias. In other words we shif­ted from being the world’s lar­gest pro­du­cer to the world’s lar­gest consu­mer. Eve­ry em­pire has its peak and de­cline. Some ima­gine that com­pu­ters will change this and the USA will re­turn to its for­mer glo­ry but if you vi­sit De­troit, or even So­ho-Mall, its hard to ima­gine. But that’s just how I see Ame­ri­ca. And my job as an ar­tist is to make the world the way it ought to be. I em­ploy sym­pa­the­tic ma­gic to build the Ame­ri­ca I want to live in. To create the kind of eco­no­my that can sup­port in­no­va­tion where it’s nee­ded and pro­vide jobs for those who un­ders­tand that the work is the re­ward. And that the re­ward for good work is more work. Good­will (2013) is a mar­que­try pain­ting in ply­wood. In the stu­dio the ply­wood is al­ways pain­ted be­fore it is cut so the cut line be­comes evident. In the 1980s I used Good­will In­dus­tries (a cha­ri­ty ba­sed thrifts­tore chain) as a pri­ma­ry source of art sup­plies (used fur­ni­ture) but the Good­will of the 1980s was sel­ling dis­car­ded things from the post war Na­zi-de­fea­ting 1950s. The Good­will of to­day sells junk from the 1980s. The ori­gi­nal lo­go was de­si­gned by Jo­seph Se­lame in 1968. When mo­der­nist he­roes like Ray and Charles Eames, Ray­mond Loewy, and Hen­ry Drey­fuss were still out there ki­cking ass by ma­king things like Po­la­roid’s SX-70. The ins­pi­ra­tion for this show is the fol­lo­wing mo­vie (­­q_ZZ_eM), a vin­tage ad for the Po­la­roid SX-70. UNI­TED STATES (2014) was ta­ken at full scale from the side of a NA­SA Moon Ro­cket. Its pen­cil lines re­present the back of the frame and lar­ger pa­nels for fu­ture gra­phic im­pe­ria­lism. The font is USAF Ama­rillo which is used by the Uni­ted States Air Force and the Uni­ted Fe­de­ra­tion of Pla­nets. It is si­mi­lar to Ed Ru­scha’s font Boys Scout Uti­li­ty Mo­dern in that they both express the sim­pli­ci­ty and aus­te­ri­ty of a get-the-job-done style of pea­ce­kee­ping or art-ma­king. Maybe this is why Ame­ri­cans are ran­ked as the fifth worst lo­vers (France is ran­ked fourth best). Un­tit­led (Spi­der­web) [2013-2014] took over 2,000 man hours to create and was built at war­time pro­duc­tion speed. It is maybe the grea­test re­flec­tion of the stu- dio’s com­mit­ment to the ho­nor of la­bor. There are some other pain­tings in the ba­se­ment gal­le­ry. They are from the ba­se­ment of my mind. All are syn­the­tic po­ly­mer on found pa­nels. If the large ply­wood pain­tings ups­tairs are the ex­pres­sion of my fo­cu­sed and ex­pres­sed ideas, these pain­tings are like the in­side of my mind. I don't to­tal­ly un­ders­tand them but so­me­times an ar­tist’s best work lies just beyond his abi­li­ty to un­ders­tand them.

« Scotch ». 2011. Pein­ture po­ly­mère sur contre­pla­qué. 81 x 81 cm. (Court. ga­le­rie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pa­ris). Syn­the­tic po­ly­mer paint and hard­ware on ply­wood

« Uni­ted States ». 2013. Po­ly­mère sur contre­pla­qué 120 x 225 cm. (Court. Tom Sachs et Ga­go­sian Gal­le­ry Ph. G Han­son). Syn­the­tic po­ly­mer paint and hard­ware on ply­wood

« Bar­bie Slave Ship ». 2013. Tech­nique mixte. 532 x 215 x 690 cm. (Court. Tom Sachs, ga­le­rie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pa­ris / Salz­bourg, Spe­rone West­wa­ter Gal­le­ry, New York et Bien­nale de Lyon; Ph. P. Fu­zeau). Mixed me­dia Page de gauche / page left: « Bar­bie Slave Ship » (dé­tail). (Ph. G. Han­son)

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