interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
All artwork images copyright Tom Sachs and Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York. All works by Tom Sachs in his studio, New York
TOM SACHS’s hidden studio on Centre Street in downtown New York is a giant evolving artwork in its own right. Like a homemade fractal, each element of the studio — from an artwork in progress to an entire room bustling with assistants — acts as a part of the fragmented panorama of his social laboratory.
When I visited the studio, everyone was working on Sachs’s expansive, interactive exhibition, ASTRONAUTS TRAINING MANUAL, SPACE PROGRAM 2.0: MARS. It will be co-presented in New York at Creative Time and the Park Avenue Armory from May to June 2012. This clandestine atelier felt like the galleys of a spaceship on its odyssey, as the memories in — and projections of — Sachs’s multifaceted mnemonic objects collapsed the past and future.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you been on the radio before? The sound of your voice is like a radio.
TOM SACHS — A feedback loop, maybe?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s so clear, like crystal. So, this is it: your NASA Air Space Program project.
TOM SACHS — Well, the Space Program will be shown at the Park Avenue Armory in May 2012. I’m currently working on a show for Sperone Westwater gallery, which opens in ten days. Over here we have a countdown clock set for ten days. The Space Program show at the Armory takes place in 210 days.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I should have a countdown clock at Purple.
TOM SACHS — I got the idea from a friend who has a fashion company. She had a countdown clock in her house and used it to count the days before she could go to her beach house.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you take pictures of all your visitors? To remember them by?
TOM SACHS — It’s a photography project and a guest registry. You don’t have to sign in because we’ve got you on file. You’re in our database, forever. You have an ID number. You’re a part of us. Sometimes if there’s a group of, say, 20 people, it’s hard for me to remember everyone’s name.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They all become part of the Tom Sachs Corporation.
TOM SACHS — Like everyone here, you’re assigned a number. Mine is 2007.053.001. Some of us have them tattooed on ourselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do all of your employees and assistants have a number?
TOM SACHS — Yes. We’re teammates.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How many people are on the team?
TOM SACHS — Right now, in this location, there are 12. Then there’s the basement, the loft, and the space next door. We also work with subcontractors. Have you been here before?
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, never. I’ve wanted to visit your studio for a long time, but I held onto my curiosity until I could do this interview, so that it’d be fresh for me. Your studio is a very artistic experience. It would be perfect for taking pictures in. I thought I could take a tour, and we could talk at the same time.
TOM SACHS — Here’s the main room, the Space Program. There’s a coffee machine, which is part of the repair station — for repairing the mind. And these are tools for repairing bicycles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are the tools and equipment all part of the show?
TOM SACHS — Yes. It’s as if we’re going back to Earth. You see there? Earth is starting to fill up the screen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s going down. What’s that going up?
TOM SACHS — Mars. We’re actually moving away from Mars. It would be the other way around if we were going toward Mars. We’d see it growing as the camera moves in. These are some of the many special effects.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Every detail is thought out and constructed.
TOM SACHS — I call it transparency. You see every single detail. Nothing’s hidden.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s this, a rescue machine?
TOM SACHS — It’s a re-entry capsule. When the spaceship enters the heat of the atmosphere — parachuting down — we splash back to Earth. Then the helicopter picks us up and brings us back for the final re-entry.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful. It’s so well done. I see the Hermès logo on the carriage here.
TOM SACHS — It indicates the helicopter pad. Obviously, it comes from Hermès.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And here’s a little Playboy Playmate.
TOM SACHS — She’s actually a Penthouse Pet — a little sleazier and sluttier than a Playmate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To welcome the space team home?
TOM SACHS — Well, they’ve got the milk-filled breasts — maternal juice — to welcome the astronauts back to Mother Earth. It’s to distract the helicopter pilot, make his job more challenging — like sirens luring sailors onto the rocks, but without the challenge of a battle.
OLIVIER ZAHM — During the show, does someone from your team operate the machine?
TOM SACHS — We all work together and have different roles. Everyone is responsible for a different aspect. Here’s Mission Control. That’s me — I’m the flight director. To give you a sense of the scale of things, here are the repair station, and the rescue special effects we play with, and the helicopters.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a name for each piece?
TOM SACHS — Yes, they all have their own name: Vodka Delivery System, Hot Nuts, Rescue, Darkness And Stars, Launch, Ignition, Entry To Descent Landing, Rover Deployment, Mission Control… This is the conveyor for the Vodka Delivery System, the suiting station where the astronauts get dressed in the beginning and at the end. There, that one’s taking a shower.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this a bus?
TOM SACHS — It’s a motor home. Over here is the biology lab where we’ll be growing the poppies on Mars — terra-farming Mars with poppies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Just like in Afghanistan.
TOM SACHS — This chamber is currently simulating the environment of Afghanistan — a desert climate with the exact temperature and humidity. There’s very little oxygen on Mars, but there’s an abundance of CO2. Plants don’t need oxygen, but they love CO2. They produce oxygen. CO2 helps them grow. We pump in CO2 from a tank to help them grow faster. And I think if we can solve the water problem, which is a problem on Earth as well as on Mars, then we can grow poppies on Mars and produce oxygen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why grow poppies, and not corn or something else?
TOM SACHS — Corn has a very low commercial yield, compared with opium. Although corn and poppies do work well together as alternating crops because of the chemistry, before we can develop high-end products like corn, we need to develop the soil. Poppies make the soil richer, and so better for corn to grow in. Poppies also grow quickly in the spring and then die, so you can plant another plant immediately afterward and then harvest in the fall. The two crops represent high-end and low-end yields, although there are plenty of cheap crops. Opium, from a colonial perspective, has been an influential and destructive crop. I wanted to skip through all the politically correct stuff and go straight to the source.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this spaceship the same one I saw in your studio a few years ago?
TOM SACHS — Yes, it’s from 2007. It also lands on Mars, though it’s been modified. Now we have much better machines and better-trained astronauts. Equipment has also been made especially for Mars.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, am I part of your program now?
TOM SACHS — Yes, you are! You’re going to be assigned a job. I’m not sure what yet. Maybe we’ll have you help the astronauts get dressed. You’d be good at that. Or you could talk to them by phone through the glass.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are all the astronauts men?
TOM SACHS — No, only women. It’ll be a mission of two women. They’ve been to the moon, and now they’re going back to Mars. I’ve studied the politics of astronauts working in a closed capsule. It’s been discovered that all-male teams get along best because they establish a hierarchy very quickly. Mixed groups are OK, too, but they can get a little complicated. An all-women astronaut group is a toxic team. In psychological studies, it’s been found that they end up fighting. I don’t know why, but that’s the general assessment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But is it a scientific fact?
TOM SACHS — According to NASA studies, it is. Our two astronauts will land on Mars and drive around in a car and get into an argument. They’ll have to overcome their differences. It takes seven months to get to Mars, so they’ll spend a lot of time together. One astronaut says, “Hey, do you think we could talk about our feelings?” and the other one says, “Shut up! We have work to do!” The other says, “I know, but maybe tonight when we get back to the capsule after driving around, we could talk.” Which earns her the response, “You’re not being very professional.” And then — boom! — they have an accident. They run into something because they’re distracted. The first astronaut fixes the situation and bails out the other one.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do your astronauts have names?
TOM SACHS — Yes. One is Captain, and the other one is Lieutenant.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And over here, what’s this a sketch of? — A plan for the seating of the audience.
TOM SACHS — Because the audience isn’t actually allowed to walk on Mars? — No, except on Saturday night when we have a demonstration of our systems, and on Friday night, when we show the whole thing. The thing is, our systems are very complex. If we were actually to do the whole thing, it would take 20 hours.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s this little cage?
TOM SACHS — The teahouse. When we go to Mars, we’ll bring what I believe are some of the best and worst of human experiences: interpersonal and interstate conflict, social resolution — and poppies, which we’ll involve in a tea ceremony. The astronauts will do a tea ceremony on Mars. We’ve ripped the front and one side off the building so people can see inside. We use four rocks — one big one and three smaller ones. The astronauts walk on them before entering the teahouse. Traditionally, there are always four rocks. The Japanese have a preference for odd numbers, so it’s three plus one.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s this military-looking tent?
TOM SACHS — It’s used for sleeping — we’ll be in the space for five weeks in May.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the Armory?
TOM SACHS — Yeah. You walk through the front door into the exhibition. You exit through Robert Irwin’s clean air scrim room, where you’re bathed in light.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve curated a memory of California. It’s a psychological experience.
TOM SACHS — It’s a decontamination room, to bathe your body in light and air to readjust you to the world. But even after that, you’re not totally out — there’s a barrier that feeds visitors into the museum of the moon, where we’ll have other artifacts, models, things on the wall, etc.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A moon museum.
TOM SACHS — And a gift shop with books from our website, special shoes for walking on Mars — made with vectran, the same material used to make airbags — and maybe a Ten Bullets t-shirt.
And just when you thought graffiti couldn’t get any lamer, these are graffiti pens for rich kids. My friend Craig Costell makes them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re very fancy.
TOM SACHS — They’re like a handmade tool. Now that graffiti’s not a crime anymore — it’s almost like skateboarding. This is the layout for the Sperone Westwater catalog.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the catalog a work in progress?
TOM SACHS — The tape is already printed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the Sperone Westwater show is a part of documenting the process of this other show?
TOM SACHS — Well, actually, the Sperone Westwater show is about James Brown and sculpture. Only one or two things overlap. I bought some things from his estate — from his family — like his hair products. He died in 2006. That’s a Polaroid of him. I put them all in the display cabinet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It reminds me of an Ashley Bickerton sculpture from 1999.
TOM SACHS — Ashley’s my uncle. He’s the best. In this case is a detail of James Brown’s last supper. You have to put 25 cents in a slot, and then the light comes on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Food seems to be important in your work.
TOM SACHS — Very. Anything that goes in our bodies — food, drinks, vodka, drugs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And sex.
TOM SACHS — Of course. These are the fundamental things in the universe that connect us.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have handcuffs here, too.
TOM SACHS — Yes. Decorated and engraved police handcuffs. I did the engraving.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It would make a nice tattoo.
TOM SACHS — It would. This is a sweet cream pitcher. It’s cream from a woman, or from a cow. And this is a bukkake, cream from a man. These women are gang-bang champions. They sleep with hundreds of men in a day. Here we measure the sperm in ounces and in grams. We’re not interested just in America and England — we love Europe, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you research the James Brown project?
TOM SACHS — Well, the Internet is great for anything related to science or porn. Both things are about obsessions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s this?
TOM SACHS — It’s a pitcher set I bought from the James Brown estate. It’s like a lemonade pitcher. It’s called Please, Please, Please. I bought glasses that were decorated with “JB” and then added the case to go around them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is the best condom I’ve ever seen.
TOM SACHS — You like Magnums?
OLIVIER ZAHM — The golden ones.
TOM SACHS — Large.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is it displayed in the show?
TOM SACHS — Well, it’s a painting, but I think of it more as a flat sculpture because of the way it’s built. The paint is burned onto the surface, around the gold-leafed letters. — How many pieces will you show? — Well, this book includes four years of work. I haven’t had a show in New York in four years. It’s all about my way of looking at the world, my filter. James Brown is the saint of Work. He worked until the day he died. I work seven days a week. I have a great time when I come to Paris, but I’m frustrated, because I can’t work there. It’s physically impossible. I’ve tried.
OLIVIER ZAHM — No vacations for Tom Sachs.
TOM SACHS — No. Well, I surf a lot, but that’s like work because it’s so hard. This is a lamp I made when I lived in Jodie Foster’s building. I found it in her trash.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even when someone is visiting you, every second counts, like on the clock.
TOM SACHS — Come with me… this is my studio. No one is allowed in this room, ever.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a collection of old LPs.
TOM SACHS — I’ve put them all on an iPod.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this where you do your research?
TOM SACHS — This is my hardware store. I have all my welding equipment here. I still make things. My ideas come through my hands — they’re my antennae. When I have a problem, I solve it in my hands. I teach everyone here my way of doing carpentry and welding, so it’s more like a school than a factory. We all have a lot of work to do. Open any drawer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — OK… everything’s in perfect order.
TOM SACHS — This is called a coupling nut. It’s a kind of double-penetration lesbian. These are fender washers. They’re really wide — great for a sculptor because you can be a total idiot and they still work. A fender washer is a bricoleur’s friend. Tape is another one.
OLIVIER ZAHM — These drawers of things are like your palette.
TOM SACHS — When I was a child, I was forbidden to use tools because my parents didn’t understand them. But both of my grandfathers did, so I was always making things with them. Like any other kid, I was always working on my bicycle, painting things, and so on. But it wasn’t until I was 22 that I understood that it was art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you build robots?
TOM SACHS — I made models. I painted my skateboard. I took my bicycle apart, painted it red, and put it back together. I put different brands on the frame. In Jamaica people invent their own brands, or copy others, for status. I did that when I was a teenager.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So this part of the studio is for your research.
TOM SACHS — Sometimes people help me, and sometimes I move everything around, but I try and keep it orderly and quiet. This is a drawing station.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your studio itself could be a piece. It’s very relaxing, with all the wood. We don’t hear the sound of the street. Is this your bed, for when you’re working late at night?
TOM SACHS — Yes. I moved to New York 20-something years ago. I had a roommate upstairs. This was my bedroom. It was an extension of the studio, then a kind of storage space, and then I moved here. Here are the parts of a human skull — all named.
OLIVIER ZAHM— Your handwriting is a signature now.
TOM SACHS — I know, and I feel good about that. When I was a student, my father told me that when my handwriting got better, he’d give me this very nice German mechanical pencil — a $100 pencil. He’s a businessman, and he had this really nice pencil I always wanted to play with. He finally gave it to me about three years ago. He just turned 70, and I just turned 45.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He remembered it.
TOM SACHS — I remembered it, too. My handwriting was a problem for me in school. I still don’t have good handwriting, but when I draw, I diagram. I go slowly, and I’m very deliberate. If I were to criticize my handwriting, I’d say it’s overly deliberate. But that’s how it came to be a signature. This is a piece about James Brown, called King Heroin. It’s a gold-leaf panel, six feet by six feet. I’m just burning in the words. They’re from “King Heroin” — his anti-heroin song from 1972, which isn’t very well known.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve never moved away from here. You’re a part of the community, of the block.
TOM SACHS — Someday I’ll move away. But for now, we’re staying.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your studio is like an intricate composition of different spaces with different materials. What’s this?
TOM SACHS — Annabel Chong. She invented the competition gang-bang of, like, 200 guys in ten hours. There’s one that’s, like, 700 guys.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a little abstract.
TOM SACHS — Let’s go downstairs. I’m going to take you the long way. We have skateboards, wetsuits, paint, adhesive, electronics, rope, wire, tube, hose… Tomorrow morning at 8:30 we’ll do our workout routine. Everyone has his own locker. We do it every Wednesday and Friday. You’re welcome to join us, if you like. This is the basement. And this is for the Sperone Westwater show: Sèvres porcelain done in foam core, resin, and plywood. These are models of Sèvres porcelain, which was made just before the French Revolution. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour: the crazy 18th century. It was a decadent time. The factory is still there, outside of Paris, but it kind of peaked in 1880 or so. The Revolution was the height of it. But it’s still a thriving porcelain factory.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There are animal images in the models.
TOM SACHS — There are often animals in them, like fish. We’re working on swans. This is Marie Antoinette’s breast cup. A friend of mine was a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader — this is her breast.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s one big breast. No plastic surgery involved?
TOM SACHS — Well, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s just so perfect. Our intern is making NASA cups — paper that’s been wrapped and resin-reinforced, so it’s like porcelain.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do use you use the real NASA logo? There isn’t a legal problem?
TOM SACHS — I don’t think about that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This ostrich is chained to a cup.
TOM SACHS — Yes. The lid wraps around its neck. I believe in being very cruel to plastic animals and very kind to real animals. This one’s made to look like a real ostrich that’s running off. This is a peace shrine for Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Both were killed when they were only 25 years old.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s very young to die.
TOM SACHS — They were the best. This is about the two of them trying to make peace. Ah, here’s Evan. He’s working on another Sèvres piece. Can you hold the elephant head up?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Aristocratic Africa. Did you recycle this police barrier?
TOM SACHS — We stole it. I like the structure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about rockets? It is about NASA, after all.
TOM SACHS — We’re working on a few. I’m not sure which ones will survive. This is a stalker piece about Lindsay Lohan and her family.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that her Mercedes?
TOM SACHS — Yes. This one will be about Satan. We have a lot more work to do on it. We need to fill up the space.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Resin and paper are like your trademark, right?
TOM SACHS — Yes. I look for different materials. Resin and paper are both disposable, but combining them is unusual. We get a cheap inside and an expensive outside when we do that. There’s a history of conflict between the two materials. This piece is made entirely of toilet paper. This is a Donald Judd chair made out of recycled Ikea furniture. We also use carbon fiber and particleboard, which are generally used for really expensive racing vehicles. We’re the only ones who combine carbon fiber and particleboard. In every city tons and tons of Ikea furniture are thrown away. We collect it, cut it up, and reconstitute it in our pieces. This wood is reconstituted from trees — we go one step further.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe your way of working?
TOM SACHS — We encapsulate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. I guess that about says it all.
[Table of contents]
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