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The Brooklyn Rail

The crazy, ersatz glamor of Tom Sachs’s pure products could be considered in the context of commodity fetish if he hadn’t already recognized that we’ve passed that point of purchase long ago. In his novel Kingdom Come, J.G. Ballard summarized the dematerialization of coveted property into properties of pure exchange: “At the sales counter, the human race’s greatest confrontation with existence, there were no yesterdays, no history to be relived, only an intense transactional present.” This present is what makes up the artist’s intricately-crafted vehicles, exploring the virtual space between commodity desire and its consummation with what Sachs has termed an “oscillating syntax.” With Spaceships, he extends a typically canny hand toward a consideration of sculptural vehicles as banal as a leaf blower and as visionary as a Mars exploratory craft. I took the opportunity to discuss the exhibition and his thoughts more broadly on art and popular culture at the gallery recently.

Tom McGlynn (Rail): I’d like to begin by restating the wonderful phrase “philistine misrecognition” that Thomas Crow coins in the course of his description of your sculpture Leaf Blower (2020) He sets up a very apt analogy between your sculpture and Brâncuși’s 1923 Bird in Space because of the formal reference you make to that modernist icon, in Leaf Blower’s fabrication of a similar vertical thrust and integrated base. The philistines he’s referring to are US Customs agents holding up the Brâncuși when it was shipped to New York by Marcel Duchamp in 1926—a snafu in which they classify the sculpture as industrial metals and kitchen supplies. They refuse to recognize it as art, in the way in which you refuse to recognize a leaf blower as non-art. What informs how you see art?

Tom Sachs: I don’t really come from an art background. If you want to talk about a Picasso or a Cézanne, I can’t compete. But if we’re talking about making a Tom Sachs, I’m the undisputed expert on the subject. I don’t really care if a thing is a painting or a sculpture or a cathedral or a sneaker. It’s all art to me. Joseph Beuys said, everyone’s an artist. And other people have said everything is art and art is everything. But those kinds of platitudes sometimes eliminate the subtlety and nuance of what’s important. To me, what’s important is not what you do. It’s how you do it. 

Rail: Like how you get power into certain sculptures. You’ve used the sort of batteries people use to power electric drills, and you made a charging station for them, Charging Station (2019). That seems very matter of fact. Is the charging station actually recharging the batteries for other works? 

Sachs: Of course it is! People should have the power and independence and autonomy to keep their own sculptures, their own artworks, operating as they are intended to. But the functionality of the charging station is that it is a sculpture in and of itself.

Rail: Your studio is nicknamed, “Allied Cultural Prosthetics,” sounding custom-made for a customs agent. 

Sachs: That was a sort of pseudo corporate identity I created in the nineties as a way of getting industrial suppliers to take me more seriously. The thing is, when you do something long enough you kind of back into being an expert. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but after all these years, I’ve been making my own bootleg art for so long that it’s turned into real art somehow. 

Rail: You’ve said before, “The reward for good work is more work.”

Sachs: It’s my religion—the ritual of making things. I didn’t really come from a blue-collar background. The myth of David Smith is very close to me because he also came from a similar background.

Rail: He taught for a time at Bennington, where you went to school.

Sachs: That’s true. His ghost was very much alive. I used his anvil when making my first sculptures. 

Rail: David Smith was a worker, fabricating tanks during World War II, but also an aesthete in overalls, intentionally misrecognizing his East River barge studio as “Terminal Iron Works.”

Sachs: He chose a blue collar. He was a college educated guy who chose that persona. There’s a fantastic PBS style documentary where Dustin Hoffman does the narration—it talks about when Smith was in the West Village he adopted a hillbilly upstate look, and then when he was upstate, he wore a white shirt and tie under his welding smock because he wanted to be always either. He didn’t know how to fit in, so he chose on purpose not to.

Rail: I ultimately ended up reading “non-art” essays on the sympathetic magic fabricated by Madison Avenue, going straight to the source, as it were. David Ogilvy and the onset of the spectacle of the Reagan administration taught me more about simulation than Baudrillard! 

Sachs: David Ogilvy, I’ve never read him, but now I want to.

Rail: One of the milestones of advertising literature is Ogilvy on Advertising. It’s vital, like ersatz American spirituality, but in terms of this kind of misreading I recall J.G. Ballard talking about how he read technical manuals as novels, and novels as technical manuals. I thought of that when I saw LEM Equipment Matrix (2007). It also reminded me of Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder (1914), which was also essentially diagrammatic. What can you tell me about that piece? 

Sachs: The LEM is diagrammatic and meticulously wood burned—one of the biggest wall pieces I’ve ever made. You can see the LEM’s influence throughout the Spaceships show, but this piece allowed me and my team to lay out each part of the ship and examine it as a studio. Now, we’ve been able to use that intimate knowledge of the LEM for sculpture.

Rail: There is an aspect of paradoxical misrecognition to your work. It is simulacra to some degree, it is a stand in, but not exactly Duchampian, rather a post-readymade?

Sachs: If I hadn’t been formed by Marcel Duchamp I probably would have either been in advertising or worked on the innovations he developed. In some ways I’m expanding on the science or craft or whatever you want to call it.

Rail: Advertising plays on us like an American genetic mariba—an ingrained expectation of generic desire that we all share that can be considered egalitarian. This was one of the appeals of Pop art.

Sachs: I'm very committed to the ideas in the work being accessible. The objects may not be affordable to everyone, certainly they are not, but that’s why we make sneakers and zines and videos.  

Rail: Your work projects a triumphant DIY aesthetic.

Sachs: Ultimately, everything is DIY. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes about bricolage for the first time when describing Aboriginal people who use herbs with the expertise of a surgeon for medical purposes, and they have this unbelievable knowledge of stuff that they’re repurposing, but that concept gets stretched to mean “to build or repair with available limited resources.” The more I study bricolage, the more I understand that everything is done with available, limited resources, even the space program. If we had more money, we'd be walking on Mars, and certainly would have landed on Europa by now. 

Rail: To some degree you are incanting your own sympathetic magic out of those received notions of cultural myopia and distance.  

Sachs: Frank Lloyd Wright said intellectualism is top-down thinking. My faith is in working. It comes from my hands and through my hands. Now, of course, there are ideas about our culture and the way we understand value, but it’s very important that those ideas aren’t dressed up in unnecessarily complex words to mask a missing core. I think about the great artists who inspire me—Alexander Calder, Yoko Ono, Stanley Kubrick, and James Brown. These artists kept it simple and didn’t add unnecessary noise. Because all communication (and art is a form of communication) is a way of eliminating noise in the signal.

Rail: Stanley Kubrick is an interesting example, and it brings up the idea of the heterotopia, like a Foucauldian heterotopia where you have this space that exists within another space—a ritual space. A crashed C-47 becomes a heterotopia within the jungle, it becomes a ritual space. 

Sachs: Okay, let’s drill down. Work is the ritual. It is my sympathetic magic. I build these things because I want them to exist. Through that there is a magical transformation where these things come to life and become bigger than just the plywood that they’re made of. They literally teleport me to another dimension. That’s why this show is called “Spaceships.” A Kelly bag is a spaceship because it gives access to other dimensions and it’s expensive to build, like a spaceship.

Rail: William Shatner recently was a passenger on a spaceship. When Captain Kirk got to space he seemed disappointed, like he was surprised there was nothing there. 

Sachs: I would expect so much more from James Tiberius Kirk! Of course there’s nothing there. That’s the whole point about going to space. So you can look back at Earth and understand how precious it is. And how we have to protect our natural resources. The magic is here.

Rail: He was poorly acting out a science fiction.  

Sachs: No, that’s a reality. It's fiction, sure, but it’s real. There are many people among us who believe in the United Federation of Planets, who went to Starfleet Academy in San Francisco and have invested a lot of faith in that. Of course it’s a fiction, just like Jesus, but it has values that can influence the lives that we lead here on Earth. It’s important that we acknowledge that. The difference between the Death Star and the International Space Station is that everyone knows what the Death Star is. 

Rail: Considering the DIY aspect of your sculptures, there’s a scene in Apollo 13 (1995), in which they fabricate an oxygen scrubber from spare parts—

Sachs: Yes! It’s the ultimate bricolage moment in civilization, where they make a square air filter into a round one using duct tape and a sock. The director, Ron Howard, missed an opportunity to elaborate more fully upon its implications. I compare that with Major T.J. “King” Kong’s reading of the survival list in Dr. Strangelove (1964). They’re about to blow up the world and he says something like, “Everyone go through their survival list,” and he takes about a minute to list off everything in the survival kit: pep pills, sleeping pills, miniature Bible/Russian phrase book, nylon panties, etc. They spend a whole minute talking about that to build a greater analogical connection to aspects of American culture.

Rail: The slow build. Yes. It’s important to take a moment with each part, and doing so reinforces the connection. I think that sort of occurs with your sculptures too. Because the fabrication allows you to see how a thing is put together. It allows that access.

Sachs: Since the dematerialization of art, it’s been really difficult to figure out what to make and how to make it, because everything’s been made. A lot of artists choose to go towards performance art to find a way to express themselves, or Conceptual art, because everything has kind of been done. For me, focusing on the transparency of the way a thing is made is an important antidote against the soullessness of the best thing ever made, an iPhone. It’s finding a way of amplifying the individuality within the way a thing is made that is essential to making stuff today, whoever you are.

Rail: You don’t make distinctions between hierarchies of fabrication, or hierarchies of experience, or hierarchies of material. That’s the necessary precondition for an artist to be able to move between high and low, fine art, low art, objects, commodity, desire. Some of that hopefully inoculates me from, you know, hopelessly desiring a Kelly bag. 

Sachs: We define ourselves in different ways. One of the ways some people define themselves is through their possessions. Other people, it’s through their work. Other people, it’s their friends. Other people, it’s their money. Others, it’s through the books they read, through their ideas. There are all different ways for other people. Right behind you on the gallery wall is a Mondrian that I made in 1996 because I really wanted one, but I didn't want to go down to Wall Street and start organizing money as my occupation. So I went to the Museum of Modern Art, selected one, and I made it out of tape. I went straight to my retirement path, which is spending time with my hobby. That's why I always think of this in some ways as a hobby, the art studio as a hobby. I do it like an amateur, for love. I'm a professional, but the motivation is that of an amateur, with a professional’s tactics.

Rail: In Spaceships there’s a presiding aura of a mad professor, kind of a crackpot vibe. I don't mean to be pejorative. I have a lot of respect for crackpots. 

Sachs: Yeah. Me too. Think about crackpots like Buckminster Fuller.

Rail: Or Nikola Tesla. 

Sachs: Louis Armstrong—though I don’t use that word. I think it has a pejorative flavor to it. But when they made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a team at NASA worked on it. There was plausibility in the technology. In a lot of ways in the studio I try to bring in experts so that I can carry out my crackpot amateur ideas to an extreme professional degree.

Rail: Right. Like when you were a resident at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

Sachs: It was an exchange program more than a residency. That was in 2011, for the 2012 Mars landing piece. We had our own space race. We were both trying to get to Mars around the same time. Our studio beat them by a couple of weeks. Neither of us found life, but we put it there. We planted opium poppies there and we harvested opium resin. 

Rail: In the current show there’s a work that looks like a classic 1950s UFO.

Sachs: That is called the “backshell.” There are two Backshell paintings (both 2022) in the show. That shape is the structure from a declassified NASA blueprint of the backshell which is part of the Mars entry phase. It’s one of the images I got during my time with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The backshell protects the lander as it goes through the intense friction of entering the Martian atmosphere. 

Rail: Oh, so it's something that does exist, not some alien craft. 

Sachs: Well, we are the aliens.

Rail: Not all the sculptures depict vessels for outer space.

Sachs: The exhibition is called Spaceships because there are a lot of different things that spaceships are. My religious training is limited to Carl Sagan in Cosmos, and in that we understand that the human body is a spaceship. It’s a vessel for genetic code. When you travel from London to New York in 1914 on a titanic ship made out of metal in only four days—and everything goes right—that's a form of spaceship. When you're in your car—that's your spaceship. Certainly the lunar module or the command service module sculpture that's on the poster—those are obviously spaceships. It means a lot of things to different people in different dimensions in different ways.

Rail: Right, the spaceship as the vessel of transportation from one dimension to another.

Sachs: There are different realities that we live in. There’s the consensual reality that we're in now. There's sleep, which is a psychedelic experience that we experience every day—where we go to other dimensions and have immediate amnesia about it unless we work to train ourselves to remember. And then there are traditional psychedelics, using drugs that offer us a brief window into another dimension. There’s the metaverse. There’s web3. There's the internet. Those are all real worlds. That's why I'm so committed in a way to the Star Trek world because it was another part of my early religious training. Star Trek: The Original Series was science fiction, but each episode was about a different set of values. It had a broad understanding of imperialism and non-intervention. It was a very interesting show at a very interesting time in American history. Think about how General Order 1 was the non-intervention rule and they were always breaking it, but for good reasons. They always had unbelievable firepower. When they were outmatched occasionally, every fifth episode, they had some unbelievable stroke of luck where they were able to weasel out of it, somehow!

Rail: It was proto neo-liberal propaganda.

Sachs: I think it really was. And I think that informed my values in a lot of ways. That plus the New York Times makes you into a liberal. It took years of anarchistic punk rock to decondition those values. That's part of who I am. We're all complex figures made up of different values.

Rail: Well, our trajectory from philistine misrecognition to proto neoliberal to anarchist is probably as good a place to land as any.