Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

tom sachs space program: mars, 2012


space program: mars, 2012

the japanese tea ceremony performed as a cosmic ritual — a fictional clash of hospitality and gravity, symbolism and nothingness, humanity and isolation

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by JOSHUA WHITE

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tom, have you always been a space enthusiast?
TOM SACHS — Yeah, because I was born in 1966 — although I was two years old and don’t remember “man on the moon.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was ’69?
TOM SACHS — Yeah. Actually, I’d just turned three because it was in July. It was around the same date. We were in Central Park with a big TV projection and everyone watching it. But the story is really more about the myth of the space program and the promise of the future — and the utopian vision. Because 1974 was the year when the gross national product of the USA shifted from an exporting priority to more imports.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And what’s the connection with space?
TOM SACHS — Well, the space program is the apotheosis of Western civilization. The US is the ultimate realization of the European expansion, and the Industrial Revolution became real in the US.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s part of the American myth: the final frontier.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. And the moon is the real target. As scientists were looking at Mars and Europa, they said, “We’ll find life on those planets or die trying.” [Laughs] But the moon is so much more important because you can see it with the naked eye, and because it’s more connected with art and our souls. And yeah, we might be able to go to these other planets to prove what we suspect — which is that we’re not alone. But we also suspect with a pretty high degree of certainty that there might not be meaningful life in those places, just microbial life. There’s this thing called the Drake equation. Carl Sagan was a big promoter of it. Drake looked at all of the variables of what it takes to have life on a planet, and all the possibilities of all the planets in the known universe that could have developed life long enough to have radio communications without destroying themselves with atomic energy. He did the math, and in the known visible universe, it’s something like 8,000.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The number of possibilities is massive.
TOM SACHS — It’s smaller than you think, but it’s still likely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were one of the first artists to consider this space odyssey as a global story. And you’ve worked on it almost since the beginning, no?
TOM SACHS — Yeah, I think 2007 was our first Space Program — to the moon — at Gagosian Gallery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Then there was the Mars one…
TOM SACHS — It was 2012, at the Park Avenue Armory. And then Europa was in 2017 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco. And we’re working on the next one. I can’t say where, but it’s Space Program four, and it’s called Seltenen Erden, or “rare earths.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a code name?
TOM SACHS — No, it’s German. I’m really interested in the Berlin Conference of the 1870s, where the Europeans all got together and decided how they were going to divide up Africa — and they were talking about “rare earths” then, and the Congo.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How has your vision of space and space exploration changed, now that it’s not so much about NASA, but more about private programs like SpaceX?
TOM SACHS — Well, you know I view SpaceX as my competition. I’ve already been to Mars. And it might sound a little arrogant saying that, but my Space Program has all the same components. We have engineering, life support, fundraising, politics, public relations, storytelling. The reason why I say that they’re my competition is because when we went to the moon — the Apollo program — it was a storytelling mission. It was the only military-scale operation ever made for theater. Yeah, we really went there, and it really happened and everything, but we didn’t specifically get anything out of it. Sure, the result is we have the microcomputer in cell phones from that technology.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because they developed the technology for this?
TOM SACHS — Yeah, because we needed it. And we probably wouldn’t have gotten that if we didn’t have this imposing Cold War.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it Motorola?
TOM SACHS — Motorola was important, but also IBM, Silicon Valley — you know, all those people worked together. And what’s interesting is that the navigation computer of the Apollo spacecraft is the exact same size as the Mac Mini.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a prototype?
TOM SACHS — No, Apple did it as an homage. And to this day, it’s still the same shape, but it’s, like, a billion or several billion times more powerful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a competitor in the sense that they also use a very low-key technology compared with the very expensive European program, especially the rocket that they use for the satellite. I read somewhere that Elon Musk [head of SpaceX] said to his engineers, “You do the same, but 10 times cheaper.”
TOM SACHS — Yeah, well, they’re using old technology. And they’re economizing it, using computers. And also, they’re not burdened by government bloat. What’s great about this new space program is that we have real competition among real businesses, not people mired by bureaucracy. They’re only held back by…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ambition? Money?
TOM SACHS — Yeah. Real things. Not bullshit things like bureaucracy that controls us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But why do you think the space dream is back? Is it because we want to abandon this planet because it’s already so fucked up?
TOM SACHS — I don’t believe we want to go to other planets just because we fucked up this one and are looking for a new home.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s what Elon Musk is saying — that it’s too late for our planet.
TOM SACHS — He’s maybe right in saying that. By the time pollution gets truly legislated, it will be too late. I think we’re already on that road. It’s the same issue with AI [artificial intelligence] — there will be accidents before it’s legislated… We have plastic all over our oceans…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And carbon in the atmosphere.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. It’s fixable. But it doesn’t seem like there are forces in play toward the fix… But the idea of going to another planet as a solution is completely outrageous.

TOM SACHS — Absurd and impossible, yet it’s an absolute necessity that we try — for a multitude of reasons. The main one is so that we can better understand our resources here on Earth… I think that this dream of space that’s reinvigorated now is because people are starting to understand the importance of our planet. And the biggest, most important thing about the space program — if I could pick one thing — is that photograph that became the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog. It’s the first time that you have the whole world in one photo. And you had to get pretty much to the moon to get that picture with no distortion. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was that catalogue important for you?
TOM SACHS — Yeah, it was the proto Internet.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In what sense?
TOM SACHS — Well, it was a catalogue of all available building materials that were not just the things from the hardware store. It had a complete perspective on a do-it-yourself culture, and it had all the sources and possibilities and ideas — just like the Internet. And it was big! The next closest thing to it was the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue, which was like the frontier. Sears is the catalogue that made America great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve never heard of it.
TOM SACHS — You, of all people, need to know about this. [Googles it to show Olivier] Like, during the California Gold Rush you bought this catalogue, and they’re this thick. And it’s everything. You buy your seed, your horses, your Levi’s 501s. You buy your house — and it comes in a box, and you reassemble it. California’s built out of this catalogue.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s Internet-by-mail-order. It’s Amazon.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because the do-it-yourself culture is the program of your art.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. But it’s the American experience, too.

TOM SACHS — Because you have people going West and building their fortunes. They’re not mired by aristocracy and land ownership and kings and that whole history — there was nothing here to stop them. They just came and fucked over and killed all the local people, and then started up from their own. So, everything here was built by people who came and just did it themselves. Like building California — or, even after the war, people came home, and they fixed their own cars. And there was a whole culture of that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And we’re losing this culture.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. And I feel really old and anachronistic because even the art that I make isn’t particularly trendy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, you’re different. In a way, the knowledge starts by doing with your hands. We lost this knowledge, so we buy.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. And that’s part of the cynical downward spiral that Musk talks about — where we aren’t fixing things; we’re buying more and creating more waste…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly. It’s a vicious circle. We’re becoming more and more ignorant.
TOM SACHS — But it also takes great resistance to fight it. Think about getting through your day — the choice of this [holds up a water bottle] versus this [gestures to a cup].

OLIVIER ZAHM — The plastic Evian bottle versus the ceramic cup that you made yourself.
TOM SACHS — Yeah, it’s the extreme. And when I offer guests water in a cup versus water in a bottle…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Everyone goes back to the cup?
TOM SACHS — They go to the bottle. It’s safe. You know, I’m dirty — they don’t know if the cup’s clean. It’s natural. And I, on purpose, serve Evian in this eight-ounce bottle because it’s the most wasteful possible way of consuming water. There’s more plastic per ounce in this small bottle than in a one-liter bottle. I purposefully do the maximum carbon footprint.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So that you can judge the person in front of you? [Laughs]
TOM SACHS — Yes. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to go all the way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The way you use do-it-yourself culture is as a kind of political resistance.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. I think there’s politics to every art. And almost to every gesture. It’s important that we use and reuse materials. Or if it’s a new material, we work to show the history of its making. I always paint the wood before I cut it, so you can see that it was cut — instead of cutting it and then painting it — because it tells the story of its making. That transparency is connected to its longevity. And you can see the fingerprints with the porcelain. You can see that there’s a repair on the bottom in gold. I made a big deal about it. You can see that “I was here.” That a human being made this, versus this incredible object that you’re holding — the best thing that they’ve ever made, and they’ve worked so hard to remove the humanity from it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re speaking about the cellphone. So, to come back to the evolution of space exploration, it’s very clear for you that exploring new planets is not a solution to the ecological catastrophe that we’re facing?
TOM SACHS — There’s no way it’s a solution. It’s a solution 10,000 years from now. But we don’t have that long to wait.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We have maybe 50 years? Or one century?
TOM SACHS — I don’t know how to measure it. Did you ever see that movie Children of Men?

TOM SACHS — It’s a science-fiction movie about the future, and there are no more children — we stop making children. It’s a dystopian future, and it’s just like it is now except that everything’s even more fucked up. The rich live perfectly in an ivory tower, and the poor are fighting in the streets. It doesn’t seem that far away. But I don’t know what life will mean in 50 or 100 years. I think that we’ll exist, we won’t all be dead, but there will be horrible problems daily. Right now, we live in cities voluntarily. And you live in the city for a reason: because you’re working and that’s what your life is and your passion. I think there’ll be more cities, and the country will be more like cities, and you’ll have all kinds of problems. I mean, I’m not a scientist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you don’t see the future as a safe place, right?
TOM SACHS — I don’t think it’s going to get better unless we make some hard decisions and stick to them. And make those demands on our government. Because there’s no individual leader who’s so powerful that he cannot be overthrown by the people. It’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have a big problem, or a series of big problems, where people take notice. And then we’ll fix them, but it’ll be too late. We’ll fix them a little bit, and we’ll fall back. It’s the way problems tend to be addressed with regard to industry. This is an industrial issue. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”?

TOM SACHS — The first one is air. I don’t remember the exact order, but sex is pretty close to the top. It’s way more important than food or love. And when they say air, it doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful, perfect, crisp air. You can still breathe the air in Shanghai. It just sucks. People are very resilient and are willing to put up with terrible things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But exploring, as you do as an artist, these possibilities of new planets in space — it’s a mirror for the beauty and the value, or the preciousness, of our own planet’s resources. Because, as you said, when you study how we can survive on Mars, you recreate life, and you become highly conscious of how everything is a given here.
TOM SACHS — I think the biggest thing we learn by traveling — whether it’s across this world or to another world — is how precious our homes are. You know the story of the Holy Grail, where the guy travels around the world to find the grail, and then he comes home and is sitting in his backyard and he’s, like, drinking a beer. [Laughs] Right? That cliché is so apt for space travel.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But after 20-odd years of working with space and now preparing your fourth mission, you’re still optimistic?
TOM SACHS — Yeah. I think it’s probably the best armature for my bricolage or my sculpture.

TOM SACHS — Philosophically, it’s the ultimate art project — to go to another world. It’s a lot like a camping trip: you gotta bring everything with you. If you’re lucky, you’ll find water on the way because it’s the thing you need most, and it’s very heavy. So, you look for in situ resources. And there’s a whole art called “in situ resource utilization.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your program?
TOM SACHS — In all space programs. It’s like the Holy Grail. Go to Mars — set up a machine that can take the abundant carbon dioxide and turn it into rocket fuel to go home, or water to drink, or air to breathe. If you can make that machine, you can go anywhere.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re free. So, your art’s also the biggest contrast between the object and the reality.
TOM SACHS — Yes, I use simple, everyday things, so that it’s accessible and easy and cheap. So much of my Space Program, versus Elon Musk’s space program, is that…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It costs very little. [Laughs]
TOM SACHS — Yeah, but it’s the same in that it’s all study. He may never get to Mars. But he’ll spend his life learning about it and how to do it. Same with me. There’re so many things to learn about. Isaac Newton was the last man on Earth to know everything there was to know. After that, we all became specialized… For the Space Program, my greatest privilege is that I get to study the world. And that’s like what Glenn O’Brien said: “My job as an artist is to educate and entertain myself.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] It’s what I do when I create a magazine, actually.
TOM SACHS — Yeah! That’s why you do it. And I think it’s a beautiful thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your space exploration plus your DIY is a way to study the possibilities, and it’s the same for Elon Musk?
TOM SACHS — I think so. And when you watch this video about the Drake equation — it’s very easy to understand and makes the possibility of life on another world rare, but more imaginable…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that help you understand life, at the end of the day?
TOM SACHS — I think so. Or it brings you closer to a connection with life, which is the unimaginable — because coming to terms with the short amount of time between our birth and our death, if you really contemplate it, is maddening. It’s gotta be one of the biggest causes for anxiety and neurosis and drug abuse and all that shit: how little time there is for us, compared to the cosmos or to the life of a piece of architecture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re like butterflies…
TOM SACHS — Or a mayfly who lives but for a day. And we get so caught up in our cocks — you know, getting laid and the importance of our love and our broken hearts and all that — that it’s hard to have perspective. There’s a question that I want to ask myself, and I’ll give you the answer. It’s a question that I’ve been working on for a while: “Why do you go to space or do the tea ceremony or anything?” And there are three reasons: spirituality, sensuality, and stuff.

TOM SACHS — Hardware.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Spirituality?
TOM SACHS — Spirituality, like: “Are we alone?” “Where do we come from?” The same questions that religion asks. Science and religion are on this parallel course to try and answer the same question, “Are we alone?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — And sensuality too.
TOM SACHS — Yeah. Sensuality is climbing the highest mountain, being in a rocket that takes off, the g-forces, stepping foot on the moon — that’s got to be the most exciting thing, being in space with zero gravity. The physical senses… In the tea ceremony, it’s drinking the tea, the smell of the tatami, the sounds, the touch. Like sex, stuff that makes us feel is the biggest motivator. But the third is stuff… All the hardware. And because I’m a sculptor, I’m really into making rockets and the Space Program, the physicality, the suits that the mission-control guys wear and the haircuts and everything. But the stuff doesn’t mean shit without the spirituality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, in a way, your space exploration and your space trips are rituals?
TOM SACHS — Yes! That’s the exact word that I was thinking. And I think that’s everything because when you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the best shit is the African stuff that’s used in rituals. Everything else is made by someone like me for a dead, rich white guy. Or, you know, like for a pope or a pharaoh or, like, a hedge-fund guy. And those are great artists… But the things that are in the African department were made by the same guy who used it for himself and the people in his community. And for me, in the studio, the idea of a cup is the base of a ritual — you’re having a cup of coffee.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I never thought about that: how you connect space and ritual.
TOM SACHS — If I could project what I want for the rest of my career, it’s that I can focus my sculpture toward more meaningful rituals in my life. And so, there’s a great integration. And that’s why I’ve been working on these cups. It gives me such pleasure to watch you, and I’m thinking about when I’m making it, your lips, and, like, the physicality, so that it flows. You know: “Is this a good cup?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s also funny if we speak in terms of sculpture because sculptures have always been heavy objects and gravity. And you create sculptures that are made to pull out of gravity and go into space. You do anti-gravity sculpture.
TOM SACHS — It’s a supernatural thing. It’s like contempt for nature making something fly. Things don’t want to fly — they want to stay on the ground.




[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

Table of contents

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