An Interview With Tom Sachs: The Michael Jordan of Screwing Plywood Together
Tom Sachs’s studio is located only blocks away from Opening Ceremony, so it was only natural that we would be dying for an interview and a tour with the great artist. Tom is a master at welding, woodworking, and practically anything crafty; he mixes these talents with lots of creativity and produces amazingly unique and sometimes controversial art.
He is known for making pieces integrating brand names such as: Hermès, Prada, Chanel, and Tiffany’s by mixing these labels with anything from weapons to McDonald's happy meals. He has also recreated giant sculptures of Hello Kitty in bronze and remade Canon cameras with wood, clay and other materials. Sachs has done huge pieces that take up entire galleries, like 'Space Program 2007,' and 'Nutsys.' He has even made art using bikes, such as my personal favorites, the 'Waffle Bike' and 'Lance's Tequila Bike For Girls.'
As soon as Tom and I met up he saw my white camera and decided to remake it into a ‘NASA’ camera by putting tape over the Pentax sign and copying the red NASA logo on the tape. He also put a piece of tape that NASA uses for space missions on the side. After that, we sat down for a long and detailed interview, with a couple of unfortunate distractions from video artist Van Neistat, employees carrying in a sink, an adorably smart and outgoing 3rd grader named Sasha, and Tom’s cat, Monkey. I finished up my time at the studio with a tour given partly by Tom and partly by his wonderful assistant Jason.
Paris Starn: Over a decade ago, you made art appropriating luxury brands. For example, you made Tiffany glock, Chanel guillotine, Hermès hand grenade, Chanel chainsaw, and the most controversial of all, Prada death camp. Why in your early work did you appropriate these high end labels to make weapons? What’s behind the violence? You seem to be drawn to the dark side of humankind, even with more humorous innovations such as the Prada toilet...
That’s a great question… Combining luxury brands and violent iconography is a way of synthesizing two very different things. One plus one equals a million in the right combination, that’s my math. When I was preparing for my bar mitzvah I would learn all about Hebrew and the history of the Jews and we’d always wind up on the Holocaust. As a twelve year old boy that was way more interesting than learning impossible letters that didn’t make sense, and it was like another course that was making me miss soccer practice, because it was after school. But around the dinner table at night we’d have conversations about dad’s new car or mom’s new dress, and every night we’d talk about some consumer thing. I realized later on, much later on of course, that the ritual activity in our family wasn’t spiritual discussion but consumer discussion. It became very clear to me that our religion was consuming things, and only because that’s what we did ritualistically. Later on, when I was working in New York and I was involved a little bit in the fashion business, I saw how obsessed people became with brands like Chanel. I thought back to my time as an adolescent and my bar mitzvah preparations and the thing that really stuck with me about Hebrew school was the Holocaust. It was fascinating; it was very contemporary. I studied with survivors - there were survivors in my family and people in my family were killed by it. It was this real thing that was really happening with us, it was much more emotional than Mosada or some ancient story. It was this story of biblical proportions that was happening now and I thought, ‘Wow that really was the thing, that’s really what it meant to be a Jew. To be a living Jew is that you, or your people, or your family survived this genocide.’ That’s one of the ways Jews have defined themselves in the 20th century. When I combined that with my own spiritual upbringing with consumerism, it seemed like a no-brainer to put them together. So what you ended up with is an object that had the power of both these things: a combination of them that was very provocative. You could attribute all kinds of other things to it, like the loss of identity that happens in a situation like the Holocaust. Loss of identity that happens when a mom and pop restaurant is replaced by a McDonald's. Those are the kinds of ideas and themes I was thinking about a lot at the time I was making those works.
PS: Were you criticizing the brands in any way through doing this? Or meaning to?
: Some people sort of suggested that, and have said, "Oh, this is great brand critique." Others have said, "This is great, I love anything Chanel! Anything Prada! Even a death camp! I love it because I love the brand." I wasn’t thinking specifically as a critique of any of this, but I was thinking that if you decide that you have a political view like, 'Fashion is bad,' you become a propagandist because art in service of a political agenda is propaganda. I think art is much more powerful when the idea, the emotion, the concept, is a little more open. So that it isn’t all negative or all positive; it becomes more provocative when it’s a platform for discussion and helps you decide for yourself. I mean, I have my opinions of these things and you have yours and we're different people so we’re going to think about it differently. I think that if any work of art is successful it can prod you a little in one direction or another but its got to be open to be successful.
PS: I understood that you were criticizing the high prices of brands like Hermès, Prada, Chanel, and Tiffany’s, all of which are all well known for their expensive prices, yet last year you sold a Tom Sachs bag for $12,000. Is this in any way hypocritical?
I don’t see how it’s hypocritical because quality costs. If you look at a Hermès bag, or a Chanel bag, maybe it’s overpriced, most of it goes into advertising and a lot of it is mystery money. I think there’s a lot of anger and resentment towards these brands for being so elitist, but that is justified because the same bag from Coach is one quarter of the price and still delivers value. It also doesn’t have the brand identity, the advertising, the fashion campaigns behind it - it doesn’t have the style. I don’t have a problem with things being expensive on their own. The things that personally offend me are when laborers are exploited, and that tends to happen more on lower-end brands and products than the higher-end ones. On the other side of that you could definitely say that there’s something offensive about a $12,000 dollar handbag, because you could say that $12,000 could be spent to feed people and be spent on things much more wisely than a luxury brand. I mean, of course if you look around the studio you can find the finest tools money could buy, I don’t skimp on equipment. And if you ask a beautiful woman that had expensive clothes she would tell you without missing a beat that it’s her equipment and it's what she needs to look sexy and get men to buy her more stuff or be powerful or whatever it takes for that person. So if me making a $12,000 bag is confusing and offensive then I know I’m doing something right. I say that also because it is a contradiction.
PS: In more recent years, you’ve moved on from using high-end brands to making objects with more universally accessible brands, from Hello Kitty and Canon cameras to Nike shoes. What’s behind this change?
Well I don’t see it as a change. I just see it as being different places of investigating. We could say they're investigating the same kinds of things, but just different aspects. Like consumerism, commercialism, and production; not necessarily about the market but how things are made. I’m sort of a hobbyist student of modernism and manufacturing and how things have been made since the Middle Ages when people didn’t have pockets because they didn’t own things. They ate with their hands and they didn’t have money because they traded. I mean, what would you put in those pockets?
There was nothing to put in them. The notion of the pocket is in a sense a modern idea. If you move a little farther into the guilds, where people started to organize their trades into guilds so that there were standards of quality, like a goldsmith, or an iron worker, or a wood worker. So people could trust like-minded craftsmen in other communities. And then of course, the invention of money. In terms of trying to make a product, a shoe [for example]: I make things one at a time but Nike makes things thousands at a time. It's for sure the most innovative athletic equipment company, sneaker company, or shoe company. I think it's the largest apparel company in the world, half the business is clothes. So it’s an important force in understanding what we buy as human beings on the planet. It’s the first time I’ve ever collaborated with a brand and I feel vindicated that I want to work with them and they want to work with me on this. The thing I love about Nike is that it's relatively cheap and most people can have it--- (here we got interrupted and forgot what we were talking about, and moved on to the next question)
PS: A few years ago you made the Waffle Bike, and Lance's Tequila Bike for Girls. What inspires your interest in bikes? I know you ride bikes a lot and I’m sure that has something to do with it.
I ride bikes because they’re the fastest way around, from point A to point B there’s nothing faster than a bicycle in the city. You can take it on the subway if you need to go even faster, and it's fun. I also feel like they represent perhaps one of the greatest inventions of the modern time: this machine that’s very inexpensive that anyone can have, that’s very very fast, can cover great distances, and changes the way we navigate a city. I mean, an airplane changes how you navigate the globe, but having a bike means you can cover a lot of ground very quickly. Bikes are a whole business. If you look at technology it can be dehumanizing. You can be sitting having a conversation with someone and they could be text messaging and could not really be paying attention and I can feel like I’m being neglected. Or you could be watching too much TV, or even traveling the world and becoming jet lagged. All these things make our lives worse in a way: radiation poisoning and all that stuff. A bike is something that’s only good for you. Its going fast in a safe way, outside, and it's thrilling. Also, a bike is the solution to a lot of our problems. We can reduce emissions in cities by half using bikes. Also, bicycles have been a great form of expression: you can understand a culture by the type of bike it has.
PS: When did you move to New York and has the city or neighborhood inspired your work at all?
I moved to New York 20 years ago. I moved to this street, Centre Street, because it was the machinery district. Because I love hardware and tools, and I was a welder for a living before I was a manager of a sculpture team. This whole street was all places that sold industrial stuff. I was the only artist on this street. But slowly they all left and I became the most industrial user, I mean I’m the only person on Centre Street with a welder. It was really frustrating to loose that, but at the same time that’s when all the fakes on Canal Street started to happen, like fake Gucci sunglasses and all that nonsense. I think that’s one of the things that inspired me to do all the McDonald's value meals and all the brand packaging. I thought, 'You buy a pair of Gucci sunglasses for $5 on the street, they’re real Gucci sunglasses, they’re not authorized, but they’re still sunglasses and you can still look cool in them. They may not be made in Italy, they may be made in China but they’re not, not sunglasses.' The experience of Canal Street really opened my mind and I felt very lucky to shift. Now this community is rather frustrating, not only is it very expensive, but it’s lost a lot of identity. You can’t buy a beer but you can buy shoes everywhere.
PS: What project are you currently most excited about?
Well the space program
is what I’m really most interested in. In 2007 we went to the moon
. Then we’ll be going to Mars in '2012 Space Program 2.0' with Anne Pasternak and Creative Time
PS: Do you ever shop at Opening Ceremony?
I have tried to a bunch of times; I just never have found the exact right $1,200 windbreaker. There’s this one I really wanted to get but I couldn’t justify it so instead of buying it, I gave raises to the kids who work here. I mean, I wanted the windbreaker, it was really really nice, but then I thought, 'Not only do I have three windbreakers already, but that money is better spent on helping someone on our team.' As much as I wanted it…