The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
This conversation took place on the occasion of Tom Sachs’s recent exhibition at the Bohen Foundation in the meatpacking district of New York. Nutsy’s is a commissioned work that will travel to the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin later this year. We started out talking in the back room of an industrial supplier near Tom’s studio, a reminder of what lower Manhattan once was like. It’s also a place where we both spend a fair amount of time shopping, so we thought it would be appropriate.
Tom Sachs’s highly personalized use of materials and processes is rooted in bricolage, a French word for do-it-yourself. His work addresses a wide range of issues including appropriation, branding, consumerism, globalization, entertainment and functionality. He first became known for making guns out of urban detritus and store-bought hardware. Then he became better known for branding his own constructions with the logos of luxury fashion houses like Prada, Chanel and Hermès. He made headlines when a bowl of live ammo at the front desk of his show at Mary Boone’s 57th Street gallery landed her in jail for a night. Recently his work was on the frontline again when his controversial sculpture Prada Death Camp , a model of Auschwitz made out of a Prada hatbox, was exhibited at the Jewish Museum, New York.
His new show outdoes everything he’s done previously. An urban sprawl of foam core and hot glue, united by highways for remote-controlled race cars, Nutsy’s is a world in 1:25 scale complete with a McDonald’s, a sculpture park, a ghetto, and Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier’s housing project in Marseilles. It also has a life-size DJ booth and a 10,000-watt boom box. Oh, and it took Tom and Team Sachs two years to build. Like most of Tom’s work, it has a functional aspect: on Tuesday nights the gallery stayed open late so race-car drivers could smoke bongs, drink Buds and compete for prize money.
A mutual friend, the actress Gina Gershon, brought me to Tom’s gun show eight years ago and I was won over at once, not just by the work but also by the person. We’ve been friends and have exchanged studio visits ever since. He is one of the most committed, generous, and ferociously talented people on this or any other planet.
Int. Day. Victor Machinery, New York.
Jon Kessler Here we are a few doors down from Tom’s studio, at Victor Machinery on Centre Street. There’s only a few of these places left in New York.
Tom Sachs I was attracted to this area because of all the industrial stuff.
JK It’s so close to both our practices.
TS You know, when I was studying architecture in London, I went to see the Saatchi Collection. There were these sculptures of yours, turntables with figures of army men on them and a light shining through that cast their shadows onto the wall. It was visually complex but relatively simple mechanically. I liked Haim Steinbach’s work there too: it was all Air Jordans, Yoda masks, lava lamps and weight-lifting machines. I liked how cold it was, like a supermarket display. But when I saw your piece I got a bit of a push to go ahead and do my own thing. I had already been going to thrift shops, but that’s when the idea of combining became essential for me.
JK What happens when there are no more stores like Victor’s, and you have to shop for everything on the Internet? I assume that you get most of your stuff sent to you UPS now?
TS Yeah. When I moved to this area, Canal Street and places like Victor and Eastern were still forces, and Centre Street was all machinery. I could get my motors and army surplus, even consumer surplus. That quickly disappeared and was replaced with fake Gucci sunglasses and Prada handbags. Then I started buying that stuff. That was how that whole branch of my practice got established. I would bring Gucci sunglasses to people in Europe and they would say to me, Are those real? And, you know, they’re real sunglasses, they’re just not authorized.
JK Your work is very populist, and I wonder if that’s the main reason you haven’t been given the critical attention you deserve.
TS I find it disappointing. I read October and Arts and Artforum in college, and I always thought that when I moved to New York I would be engaged in conversations like that. But there was never a movement toward the real. People didn’t go all the way. It’s too threatening to the art-world system to have art that works, because part of what makes it so strong is that it is insular. You need to be a little provincial to keep your things tight. That’s partially why I’m not as interested in art as I am in media and technology.
JK There are so many ideas in your work, like failed utopianism, functionalism and design, high and low culture, surveillance and globalization, that I would imagine critics could really bite into. That is, if they don’t want to talk about hot glue and duct tape.
TS Well, it’s like Barnett Newman said, it’s what ornithology is to the birds.
JK You’re talking about criticism?
TS There is a lot of art that has its pants down, so to speak, and gets the critical attention. I think the popularity of my work doesn’t leave a void for critics to fill. It’s a very complete world; it’s anti-elitist. There might as well be a sign on it saying, “This doesn’t need anyone to explain it.”
JK How did Nutsy’s change when it went from the studio to the Bohen Foundation?
TS I don’t think it’s as interesting. It’s the difference between being at home and being a guest in somebody’s house. The original plan was to make it a home for us to move into, but that wasn’t realistic. A gallery is not a studio, and a public space has different constraints.
JK I became aware of the interactivity of your installation when I went to one of the Tuesday night races. The drivers are smoking bongs and there’s a DJ spinning records and you’re all in your Tyvek jumpsuits running through the installation with your remote controls.
TS The performances give the installation more life. All the functional aspects of these things, like the boom box and the repair station, are evolving as we get better. Sculpture for me has always been about developing a language. The actual making is a big part of that language. That’s what building it, operating it, and constantly developing it is—developing a language.
JK Despite the fact that you have a studio full of assistants, the work doesn’t feel fabricated: your hand is all over it,
TS Well, it’s all real.
JK What does that mean?
TS It’s not made up to look like something other than what it is. All of that stuff is built by me and my crew, and we have a very specific ethic: Make the effort to show your work rather than hide it. We have all these great people who start out as studio assistants but wind up making really personal contributions. We maximize everyone’s natural skills.
JK Your studio reminds me of an architect’s.
TS The manner in which we do things is always based on a triangle of good, cheap, and fast—you choose two out of three. I always say make it good and show how you made it. Don’t hide the screw, show it. Always show the glue mark. Let the tape show the dirt that it picked up while being handled. There are other rules too. Writing is always in Sharpie, and if something needs to be written and I’m not there, there’s a chart of my handwriting so it matches. When it comes to making the logos, sometimes it’s just a question of using a projector and tracing the letters. Duct tape is generally done in cross-hatch pattern, and if it’s laid horizontally it must go on in a shingle-like pattern so that dust doesn’t accumulate on the ridges. Mending plates should always show the price tag from OK Hardware, which indicates that the thing was built in SoHo.
JK There was so much in the show, so many pieces, so much material and so much process, that it was easy to miss a lot. People were walking around with a kind of glazed look.
TS Maybe I should be more manipulative. I often think about Robert Gober, who hides all the details of how he makes things. That restraint is what’s so exciting about his work. But I could never do anything like that. All I can do is what I do.
JK I know you know Richard Wentworth. I see the influence of those English artists, Woodrow, Wentworth. Richard Deacon, especially in this show. You must have seen their work while you were living in London.
TS Yeah. That generation, for sure. Bill Woodrow is a big one, Tony Cragg, there are even a couple of younger artists that are right out of that, who I think are just as good. Like Rachel Whiteread and Steven Pippin. What I like about all those English artists is that they’re process oriented. I always used to say that what I do is process-oriented conceptual art. The concept is really about the making. That part of it is really un-chic right now. People don’t obsess over that aspect of Rachel Whiteread’s work, do they? It’s more about its monumentality.
JK Most people are out of touch with how things are made.
TS People always say to me, Where did you get this stuff? And I’m like, I made everything. There’s nothing I like more than talking shop.
JK Your work has grown and shifted focus considerably since Gina brought me over in that snowstorm to Morris-Healy.
TS The first show.
JK You’ve come a long way baby—from the guns, Hello Kitty, the telephone books and the art-about-art stuff. Appropriation. I told you to give that shit up. From that you went to the Sony Outsider. And then to the show at Mary Boone’s that addressed the body and functionality and exposed all the systems and guts.
TS I really believe you have your God-given talent and then you have your job, and your job is to bring your talent to the world. The fashion packaging was a way to report on culture. I thought I’d give the world this information through my bricolage stuff. Which is what the building of the guns was about too. I mean, I watch TV. Then with the Sony Outsider I thought, Okay, I’m going to expand this idea and make it more violent and aggressive and difficult I’ll make a perfect full-scale model of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, but I’ll make it Sony. It’s like cargo-culture shit. We don’t just drop bombs, we drop culture, and that’s how we erase culture. So instead of using bomb parts I made it like a capsule, but deluxe, with a DVD player. It was a huge failure because it was so expensive and had all these moving parts and lights and heating and air conditioning and plumbing. One critic who usually misses the point really nailed what was wrong with that piece. She said it looked too machine-made, it didn’t look like art. And I remember never feeling like that piece was mine because it was one of the first things I didn’t make in the shop. I had it fabricated.
JK You didn’t make the shell?
JK But you put all the circuitry in?
TS I put all the circuitry in, and I did some of the plumbing. When I reshowed that piece at SITE Santa Fe, I reworked it. I made a much more beautiful steel-welded base instead of a fiberglass boat base. And I redid all the labels that had been stuck on, hand-painted them with a Sharpie so it looked more handmade. I’ll fuck with it some more for the Albright-Knox show in October.
JK So you’ve been around long enough now to see artists come and go. It doesn’t necessarily last.
TS To be honest, I never think about them going.
JK Hey, I haven’t shown in a long while and people think that I’m gone.
TS Well, you’ve become less visible publicly, but your work continues through me and others who have been inspired by you. Your work, like mine, is much larger than you. All of us are just chipping away at this thing that is much bigger. It’s like a sci-fi movie with some giant art alien, where all these themes are blown apart and make the universe understandable to everyone. That’s when all of us are going to be out of business. It’ll be great—we’ll have this incredible global consciousness of peace. Just like in James Cameron’s film The Abyss.
JK I love that.
TS It might take a thousand more years for us to understand nature on that level, but only then are we going to have situations where we’re not killing each other. In the meantime, you and I have a lot of fucking work to do. The Björk song about that, “All is Full of Love”, has all the machines inside the mountains just waiting to come out. They’ve always been there, and the dinosaurs too.
JK Björk’s a genius. You have a healthy relation to history, more so than most artists I know. It seems much less movement-based and academic. Maybe it’s because you don’t feel fixed to a generation or a movement.
TS I don’t think academia or the system helps the important ideas behind art. It helps art as a business, the commercial aspect of it. It helps academia itself because it keeps people in school and a dialogue going. But it doesn’t help the big things.
JK But if aesthetics is “what ornithology is to the birds,” then you wouldn’t necessarily have an understanding of what the taxonomy is like without—
TS —ornithology. That’s important, and I don’t mean to discount it for those who are interested in it, but it’s not important to my practice. It can be counterproductive. I find that the people who make the most interesting work are working artists. People who have gone out and done something in life, have had real jobs or have been educated in medicine, and they’ve been able to apply that life experience to it. How the fuck do these architects build buildings without ever having been on a job site? There’s no sensitivity there to the laborer who does the actual building, or to the materials.
JK At Columbia most of the architecture students don’t construct models anymore. It’s all done on computers. There is no relationship with materials except a virtual one.
TS The computer does not show details. It informs. Frank Gehry uses computers to realize complex forms that are developed through models first. A computer can’t teach a joiner how to bond things with disparate materials in an intelligent way, which you learn by actually building things.
JK That’s the way Norman Foster does it.
TS He’s an exception of course, and we’re lucky that he gets to build. He has integrity. For him it’s about the materials.
Int. Day. Kessler’s Studio, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
TS Look at these sculptures. They show the scars of labor. When you move a screwhole, that scar is a mark that tells us where you were. This registration mark shows where the center of the circle you’re making is. What gives value to that logo FUCK YOU are all those drips. They make it yours. Most artists and craftsmen would have erased those.
JK But does that really give the piece more intimacy, or do you just like it because you’re a fetishist?
TS I don’t think I’m a fetishist. We are practitioners and we finger the evidence of our practice. If we were to start faking it and start rubbing duck butter on stuff, that would get pretentious. You have to really be vigilant because it’s a slippery slope and you could easily drift into pretentiousness.
JK I’m reminded of the recent Times story about Levi’s and their quest to create the ultimate faked worn-out jeans.
TS Helmut Lang had these beautifully worn jeans with paint splatters and a blob of silicone on them. Six pairs with stains all in the exact same place. But getting back to the thing that I think is exciting about this new work: you’re playing and moving things around and you’re getting to enjoy that time. Once you commit to building it, all the play is gone and the execution therapy begins.
JK Well, the evidence of the play is gone, for the viewer anyhow. I make my own work. It’s very uncool to say it, but I’m proud that I know how to do all this stuff. The work would not exist in the way that it does if I didn’t make it. I couldn’t draw this stuff out and send it to someone and tell them to make it. People suggest that and I realize that they don’t understand the level of intuition involved. By the way, what was that arcade game you used for the Aspen show?
TS Williams’s 1980 Defender. I bought that on eBay for 300 bucks. I’ve seen them for as much as 800.
JK I love that piece.
TS Where did you see it?
JK I saw it in your studio. That was the beginning of my dualistic relationship with your work, loving the physical piece but feeling removed from the experience of using it. Not being able to play arcade games, I felt more like a voyeur. It was the same the other night at Bohen. I didn’t know how to race the little cars, so it made me feel a little old, but I enjoyed watching the race anyway.
TS Well, think about African art, it’s all made for real rituals in an actual place. Our fucked-up ritual is as obscure to anyone else as African tribal ritual is to me. It doesn’t make a ceremonial mask any less cool. It maybe even makes it cooler for me to see that object in a museum than some fucked-up sculpture. One race night at Bohen John had one car and Eric had another and one guy went into the McDonald’s first and slid sideways and blocked the entrance. But if he backed out, the other guy would get to the burger first. So they had this ballet where they’re blocking each other for two minutes. Meanwhile Will, who was in third place, was quickly gaining ground and they had to give up this combat to prevent Will from coming in and catching up. (laughter) It was so exciting, and it became very clear that we needed more places on the track where smash-up combat could occur. Right now if you get pole position you have a major advantage.
JK What’s pole position?
TS Pole position is always first car out, the closest position to the starting pole. From there you have a 75 percent chance of getting to the bong-hit station first. The bong and the pot are loaded into the trunk of the car, and if you’re the second person you have to wait all this time for the DJ to load the second bong hit into the car and by then the first guy’s back at the bong station.
JK So if you create more spaces where the squabbles could happen—
TS —you even the playing field. I hope that this summer at the Deutsche Guggenheim we’ll have time to manipulate the track to enhance the competition. To bring it back to the idea of playing, it’s like with these things that you’re making here. You play with them but at a certain point you have to commit to metal, and once you commit to metal it’s hard to change it.
JK For me it’s a balancing act between needing to get formed and wanting to remain unformed. Maybe it’s an equation.
TS It reminds me a little of the quitting coefficient.
TS Let’s say you’ve got an idea. So idea is zero, and completion is ten, along a horizontal axis. And on the vertical axis you have time. It takes you one-fifteenth of a second to think of a really elaborate sculpture, but it takes you a year to make it, or the rest of your life.
JK You can pass it onto your kids and future generations.
TS Yeah. So let’s say that you’re working on it and all of a sudden you’re halfway to completion. And then you’re three-quarters of the way. By now you’ve spent like 500 hours and you’re 99 and 99 hundredths of the way there. But you’re still not there. You’ll never get there. It’s Zeno’s paradox. You never quite get there, and ultimately you have to quit and say, Okay, this is good enough. It’s analogous to Fibonacci’s Golden Section. I call it the quitting coefficient.
Ext. Day. Outside Kessler’s studio.
JK Tommy’s back there dumpster-diving. What is that, a Mix Master? He’s got it, he’s taking it. He’s taking that old toolbox too. All right! Score!
TS That girl was throwing out her Apple. And I was like, Does it work? And she was like, No. And I said, Don’t you want to smash it up on the ground? (laughter) There’s a bunch of shit in here.
JK Look at all this stuff. Here’s a cool ice-pick.
TS This is from England. This thing is good to have in a car. These things, I can never have enough of.
JK What is that?
TS This? Hello. Where the hell do you buy that?
JK There’s a bunch of fishing stuff in here. This is a serious bricolage case…. Here’s a file.
TS We should play rock-paper-scissors to divide this shit up.
JK No, it’s all yours.
TS Are you telling me you don’t want this Craftsman wrench?
JK I have three that size.
TS That’s really the only valuable thing in here.
JK I just like the smell of the box. Let’s market that as a cologne.
TS You know what I love? Those amazing shrines in Chinatown. You’ve gotta go to the sheet-metal shop on Grand Street. In the back they’ve got all these guys who weld stainless steel, and they are incredibly low tech. They use these Lincoln Tombstone welders that they somehow hopped up to make them weld stainless. They’ve made these incredible little stainless-steel shrines where they keep their personal tools and their Buddhist shrines and their incense—
JK —and their pile of oranges.
TS Exactly. They’re kind of crappy, but they’re stainless so they look really fancy and yet functional and sacred. They seem to take the place of pinup girls.
JK That kind of stuff influenced my art for years.
Int. Night. Planet Thailand restaurant, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
JK Do you mind sitting next to my fountain?
TS It’ll be like background noise.
JK They called me up the other day because the fountain wasn’t working. The pump was broken, and there was no place left in New York that would fix it. I wanted to cry, it was so sad. Even in Chinatown, where the art of bricolage is still thriving, nobody would fix it. I finally opened it up myself, it was only a little blockage, just some crap keeping the rotor from turning.
TS You’ve said that some of your students don’t know how to make things. That’s a shame because it’s so important. It’s really not in style right now. H. C. Westermann hasn’t had a major show in New York, which is amazing. That big tour never came through Manhattan. But I think people will come around.
JK I heard that Jessica Stockholder, who heads the sculpture program at Yale, is teaching a materials and process class for the grads. She felt that there was a need for that. That’s a big change right there.
TS I did a class at Cal Arts called Combat Construction Techniques and the Zen of Joinery. I tried to compare Japanese joinery to combat construction techniques developed during Vietnam.
JK You mean like using Krazy Glue on skin?
TS Yeah, that kind of shit. I did a demonstration using the hot-glue gun to join two pieces of wood. I let it cool and then pulled them apart. Then I heated up two similar pieces of wood with a propane torch for 15 seconds and put them together, and no one was able to pull them apart. It was about the concept of catalysts and the essential quality of three, three being this weird magic number with joineries. I wanted the students to think about joining dissimilar materials. I was encouraging them to invent things on their own.
JK I think we’re finally coming out the other side of the post-studio thing. But it’s going to take a lot of time to educate kids again about how to manipulate and work with materials in order to get their ideas across. There’s not enough understanding about how to make the ideas and the objects play off each other.
TS For me it was always about taking the wrong thing and putting it with the right thing. Like taking a Hermès package and making it into a model of a weapon. Or taking bricolage plumbing and making it into a weapon that I could shoot. I feel lucky that my practice of bricolage allows me to exercise the way an athlete would. If I need to drop a little theory or throw in some context to keep an audience, I’m okay with that kind of whoring.
JK What’s going to be the next thing?
TS Well, I tried to fake an art movement with the American Bricolage show, with Tim Hawkinson as the central character. I really wanted American Bricolage to be a thing. But it was too soon.
JK That was an excellent show, Tommy.
TS I wish we could have gotten Calder’s toaster. But everything else was good.
Int. Night. Bohen Foundation, New York.
TS In the Bohen installation there’s McDonald’s versus Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation — the reality of modernism versus the potential of its optimism, Unité‘s promise to solve the world’s housing problems. Le Corbusier, of course, is blamed for the problems of housing. His ideas were so pure and intelligent, but often the greedy management of places like Unité were inhumane. Although he was a sensualist, a great humanist, Le Corbusier is accused of insensitivity to the occupant. And then the other duality is bricolage, the handmade, and manufacturing, how you have at one end something like a NASA rocket, which is handmade, and then things like The Bricolage Sound Systems of Jamaica, the 10,000-watt boom box, which is custom made with very limited rather than unlimited funds. It’s ultra-limited funds with maximum effect. It’s that triangle again, of good, cheap, and fast. You have to choose two. You can never, ever have all three in anything. NASA obviously chooses good and fast. And with the boom box it’s good and cheap. I don’t know how you judge speed of art, because it’s in a constant evolution. In the ‘50s and early ’60s there were these sound-system wars with people like Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, who founded Studio One. They would gather as many speakers as they could and make these walls of sound. They were like gangsters; they would have rivalries. There were these amazing painted speakers and the tradition carries on to this day; if you go to the Caribbean you’ll see these speakers all over, sometimes mounted on trucks. The traditions of this music are not rooted in wealth.
JK How does that speaker system function in your show?
TS Formally it’s a foil for Unité. They’re two walls that relate. Structurally, Unité is a wall of sound as well: it’s this really flat absorptive material, foam core, almost like a negative. The boom box is a positive, and it pushes out sound. We made the speakers, and before we assembled them we painted the wood so everywhere there was a cut you would see the wood grain. We used silver rather than black screws, and every time there was a hole we filled it with resin and we didn’t repaint, so you see every repair and fuck-up. Anyway, the building models and the functional things are both parts of our studio practice. One shoots out sound and then the other absorbs it.
JK There are a lot of situations in your work where the object, which is the stand-in, the surrogate for the art object, if you will, and the other thing that is actually functional, the thing that you play with and that gets used, stand together.
TS Yeah, the guns that look real don’t shoot and the guns that look fake do. In a way the functional pieces, because they are functional, have the most potential outside this art-world context because they can really work. Last Tuesday, when Glenn O’Brien came over to Bohen to play his great old records, I felt like there was a party going on, and in a way there really was.
—Jon Kessler is chair of the visual arts division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches sculpture. Recognized for its innovative use of materials, his work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Kessler is cofounder Bozart Toys, a company that manufactures artist-designed toys.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.