tom sachs on chanel vs. NASA

As his new retrospective opens in Austin, ultimate space artist Tom Sachs discusses his idiosyncratic work and obsessions, from Scotch tape to Kubrick.

by Sarah Owen
27 March 2015, 4:45pm

Tom Sachs has been making bowls at a pottery station in his hotel room in Austin. Although he assures me that it's a form of occupational therapy, the hobby feels like a natural extension of his very analog body of work. Sachs lives by the mantra that the reward for good work is more work, so while he launched his new film 'A Space Program' during SXSW last week, he also presented an exhibit at Lora Reynold's Gallery and his Boombox Retrospective at The Contemporary Austin, an immersive exhibition of objects, audio installations, and sculptures. Sachs' process-driven creations all bear his intentionally handmade aesthetic, from the controversial Chanel Guillotine in the nineties to his intricately staged Space Program which culminated in 2012 with "a mission to Mars" at the Park Avenue Armory. "Do a messy job first. Then take the time to repair it more thoroughly. The overall time will be the same but the result will be more 'fucked up' and show evidence of your labor," reads rule 18 in Glue Gun Manifesto, which his studio assistants (must) diligently adhere to. We caught up with Mr. Sachs at Hotel Saint Cecilia during the festival to chat tampon sculptures, Fiona Apple, and the greatest art of the 20th century.

Where did your ongoing affinity with space come from?
It's complicated but it's kind of the main thing that we do - going to the moon is the greatest art project of all time. We built a military scale campaign just for the spirit, it's propaganda Cold War stuff but few lives were lost. More lives were lost building the Panama Canal than the whole space program. The other thing that makes America great besides from the space program is the African Diaspora, because the greatest art of the 20th century is hip-hop.

Who do you think is the greatest artist of the 20th century?
It's always Louis Armstrong, there's not even a close call because all that chatter about artists is small potatoes. You know without Louis Armstrong and James Brown and that soul, that's the energy of our time. Because music is what moves our bodies and all the stuff that we are talking about with paintings and sculptures it's pretty intellectual, you know? And when people ask me who are the artists that inspire me, it's always musicians. I mean I love Alexander Calder and Barnett Newman, I do, but it doesn't bring me to tears the way, you know….Fiona Apple does (laughs)

In your Boombox retrospective at The Contemporary Austin there was an obvious dichotomy between the analog aspects next to digital devices like the iPod.
There are different advantages and problems with the device. I think that the perception of abundance leads to a disdain for resources and there's a loss of respect that happens with this device. You have so much on this that it's not that organized and it is truly abundant how much music we have. I've noticed how out-of-control my resources have become so I really used this show as an opportunity to buckle down and make my immortality playlists. So I had this totally bloated, like probably you and everyone else in your life have, out-of-control music libraries versus maybe when they were on CD or cassette.

When did bricolage become part of your process?
At the Contemporary Austin there's a painting of a Scotch tape and that's sort of the first and last tool that you use. Kids use it when they first start making sculptures and grannies use it to fix their cane or whatever. I remember always when I was a kid taking my dad's shirt cardboards from the dry cleaning and cutting them up with scissors and taping them and making helicopters or taking my mom's tampon telescoping tubes and making rockets out of those, fishing those out of the trash. Just innocently going through the trash and I've been going through the trash ever since.

I read in Bomb magazine back in 2003 that you didn't think academia or the system helps the important ideas behind art. With that statement in mind, would you ever consider opening an art school or institution of sorts?
Yeah, I've been invited to teach at schools over the years. I've done one night stands in universities and I'll go lecture but I consider the studio to be my school and all the people on my team are the people that help me build the stuff. And movies like Ten Bullets and Color are the training manual for that, but it's a teaching hospital. There are people on my team that are better welders than I am, that are better at computers or whatever, but when it comes to the sculptures I kind of make the first gesture and then teach others how to do it. One man cannot build a space program.

Why did you plan the first trip to the moon in 2007?
I've always made sculptures that spoke to power structures. I started thinking about what the symbols of power were, those that are greater than Chanel or Tiffany's, or McDonald's and I thought that the NASA logo was a logo of faith. The only thing that gets as close to that would be the crucifix because that's another symbol of faith and both science and religion are on a parallel course to answer the same questions: are we alone, where do we come from? And it's been like that for a few hundred years and so I've taken what's greater than Chanel, and NASA is the crucifix of science, the brand logo of science.

We noticed some similarities in your A Space Program film but also Ten Bullets and Color to the work of Wes Anderson. Do you see any of that?
If I'm to be transparent about the films that inspired me and helped me make the movies I do, the direct lineage is Stanley Kubrick because of found music, set shots, and doing it over and over again until it's perfect. Eliminate unnecessary words. If you look at all of our movies there are no unnecessary shots, there's nothing that doesn't absolutely need to be there.


Text Sarah Owen
Photography Dotmo

Tom Sachs