Radical creativity connects Tom Sachs with 'makers' across the globe

Radical creativity connects Tom Sachs with 'makers' across the globe

The Curse of Creating — Tom Sachs is a sculptor, probably best known for his elaborate recreations of various modern icons, all of them masterpieces of engineering and design. With his new show now open in New York City this month, we look back at our interview with Tom back in 2013.
Tom Sachs caught the attention of the art world in 1994, when he created ‘Hello Kitty Nativity’ – a Christmas window display for the department store Barneys, in which he replaced the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus with Hello Kitty dolls, the three kings with Bart Simpson figures, and crested the stable with a McDonald’s logo. Since then he has made a slew of memorable pieces. For Cultural Prosthetics, his first major solo show, he created a Hermès hand grenade, presented in a cute little Hermès box.In ‘SONY Outsider’ he made a full-scale model of the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. In Space Program: Mars he performed an imaginary manned exhibition to Mars that included a twenty-three-foot tall plywood version of the Apollo Lunar Module and an elaborate ‘Mission Control’ complete with over three-dozen computer screens. Through his elaborate sculptures, Sachs has become a highly skilled builder. Allied Cultural Prosthetics, his studio, operates as a buzzing, well-oiled machine. He created a series of videos, one of which is called Ten Bullets, that serve as a kind of Ten Commandments for his employees. I watched them before interviewing Sachs over the phone. Had I been going for a job interview, I’d have shaved, gotten my hair cut, and tucked in my shirt.


Your videos gave me a window into not only how your studio works, but your artistic process as well.
Yeah, I’ve seen many artists’ autobiographies, and even my favourite, the Dutch art collective Atelier Van Lieshout, did this book called The Manual, which is about how they build their sculptures, and I always felt that an art book was a demystifying process, which is always a big risk for an artist, but ultimately I figured he was making it for his interns so it would be less frustrating for him to teach them the basics. Any time you teach something it’s an opportunity to define it in greater depth and seriousness for yourself. So the movies are and continue to be a way for me to understand my practice in depth.

There’s a kind of Germanic rigour to them. They could have been issued by the Army Corps.
Sure. The authoritarian or perfectionism of it all. It’s sort of like the Buddha. You never really achieve Buddhahood, but you spend your life meditating on the idea and trying to improve yourself. So no one’s perfect all the time, including myself, but if you have some rules to live by you can aspire to something, and why not self-invent that and make it what you need and what is good for you.

Tell me about your studio. Allied Cultural Prosthetics is a catchy name.
Yes, that’s one of its names. That’s a twenty-year-old name I used before my given name had profile. It was used when I was getting materials, or asking questions to engineers — it was a way to make my brand seem more serious. It was always really confusing, people never understood what it meant, but I would always get more reverence than I deserved because the word ’prosthetics’ was in there and it kind of made me into a pseudo-doctor in some situations. Particularly useful when getting medical-grade fibreglass.

How does a typical day at the studio go?
Well, the studio right now consists of ten people. A workday starts at 8:30 with ’Space Camp’ and then breakfast, and then we’re sort of working around 10:00. People usually eat lunch in the middle of the day, around 12:00 or 1:00 or 2:00. On Mondays we have our staff lunch where it’s red beans and rice, Louis Armstrong’s recipe, New Orleans-style, traditionally. And then it’s building, and for me it’s building and these days more reviewing and drawing and researching and planning. If I can kick everyone out of my side of the studio, shut off my computer, and pop an Adderall, I can make a sculpture myself, occasionally.

‘Space Camp’ is a sort of fitness regimen?
It’s five core exercises. We call it ‘The Five’. It’s a push-up, a dead-lift, a sit-up, a chin-up and a lunge. It’s all about strengthening the core. If your core is strong everything else works better. This is good for any athlete.

In your Ten Bullets video you state that, ’Creativity is the enemy.’ What does this mean exactly?
Well the idea of ‘creativity is the enemy’ is to do the work that is set out before you and not to improvise unless it’s absolutely necessary. I think there’s a capriciousness that happens in art that’s very indulgent, and I like to make the innovations and creative acts within my work incrementally. There are some cultures that worship innovation, and I believe in innovation, and I believe that innovation is one of the characteristics that define my work.

However, it only works when it’s on a really solid foundation. And I think this is largely a reaction against the perceived obsolescence that is perceived in consumer products, and a reaction against the capriciousness and indulgence of artists in my community who I love, but am frustrated by the quality of their work because there isn’t enough backbone to it.

1994 3 HK Nativity 1 forPradaBook

Cultural Prosthetics, your first big solo show in 1995, conflated fashion and violence. You made a Hermès hand grenade, a Tiffany Glock…
The formula that I use in art is ‘one plus one equals a million’ and the hard part of that formula is deciding what those two ‘one’ things are. I know that Mark Gonzales is the subject of this issue [of Huck]. Mark’s formula is a little different than mine, or I don’t even know if you would call it a formula, but he’s more an advocate of ‘any two things in the world are connected by a third’, it’s just finding out what that ‘third’ is.

I believe that his philosophy on skateboarding and art-making and poetry and all these creative activities all stem from the same approach. And the creativity in Mark’s work is excusable because he’s a genius. But I would argue that you have to be a genius at the level of Mark or Louis Armstrong to be able to pull off creativity like that and get away with it. To answer your question, putting Chanel and a guillotine together is that rare combination that just kind of makes sense.

You grew up skateboarding. Do you still have a strong connection to the skate culture?
I always felt like an outsider to skate culture. It was the first activity that I did that had a culture that was steeped in individualism. But my skateboarding skills never matched my ambition towards making things, so it was always frustrating to me to not be at that level, and I always struggled with sports when I was young so I wasn’t able to really excel or get to a level of mastery over the basics to where I could innovate. And strangely I think that’s true of some of the top people in skateboarding right now, is that it’s a very conservative, rote activity and there are very few people out there who are expressing themselves.

It just seems to be a game of matching the last guy’s tricks and only very rarely is there something new, and even more rarely is there a new approach. I was at a bar with Mark [Gonzales] once and there was this young kid and he said, “What do you do?” and Mark said, “I’m a skateboarder,” and he said, “Me too,” and he was like, “Show me a trick,” and Mark was like, “No, I don’t want to,” and he was like, “Show me a trick. Come on!” And so Mark went outside and he did a firecracker. And of course you or I do it and it sounds like a clack, Mark does it and it sounds like a gun going off.And, you know, this kid wasn’t impressed, and he’s like, “Show me another one,” probably thinking of some super complex kick-flip ollie combo or whatever. And Mark throws the board ten feet in the air over his head and, like, it lands on the ground, and right as it lands on the ground Mark traps it with his feet the way a soccer player would catch a ball with his feet. And it lands on the ground without making a sound.

The kid didn’t really get it, but to me it was profound in that only someone with total mastery and also the Zen-like refusal to be embarrassed by playing skateboard monkey could do this. He was simultaneously able to show his mastery, put this guy to shame, and invent something that I’m sure he just thought up and did on the spot.

Creativity just gushes out of him. He’s so childlike and pure.
That’s the place where I think creativity should be encouraged, because he has such a strong foundation. I always think it’s so frustrating that some of these top pros are so uncreative, yet they have all this ability. I also think that’s sort of where the experience of my work comes in because I spent so many years mastering wood and metal work that it’s now an expression of what I choose to do or what I choose not to do in technically finishing something. I don’t necessarily do the most traditional craft because some of that erases the evidence of my work so I go up until that point where I start erasing it, so that’s my line, that’s part of my formula.


You skated through the whole ‘birth of street skating’ era. Did that have an influence on your artistic practice?
There’s this concept in Japanese called ‘mitate’ and it means something like, ‘Using the wrong thing for the right purpose.’ And I thought that street skating, or whatever that’s called, really is the same kind of approach, you know, skateboarding on a car, or a curb, and the world is your skatepark, it’s not just a ramp, it’s not just a hill. To me that was very influential.

When did you become interested in building things?
It’s been gradual. It’s thirty years of this, so it took a long time, and it continues. I remember the moment that I sold my skateboard to buy a wrench. And I felt bad about it, but I had to choose, and it was almost as if I was choosing the focus of my life away from skateboarding and more towards making things.

2007 LEM

Who are your heroes?
Well, we talked about Mark and how he transformed skateboarding, and we talked a little bit about Louis Armstrong and how he certainly had great mastery but then invented all these things like the solo, and the idea of leaving out notes so your brain could connect them. And Sen no Riky?, who was the first guy to sort of make it cool for rich people to dress like poor people in the sixteenth century.

The myth of him is that he eventually offended his boss and had to kill himself. I don’t know the whole story because I wasn’t there but the idea of living with that kind of integrity… These are the heroes for me. I’m interested in these figures of transformation — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King — these guys who transformed their lives and, through their example, helped others to see how to do it themselves.

That’s super interesting. God knows there are many gifted artists whose personal lives are not so noble.
Yeah, myself included (laughs).

Tell me about your Space Program.
Well, only that it continues, and we just had a successful mission to Mars that we’re following up with another mission to Europa, where we hope to find life. Europa is the icy moon of Jupiter. It is surrounded by ice and beneath the ice is liquid water. And what we know about life on Earth is that where there is liquid water there is life. So we’re hoping to go there soon and bring back some evidence of that.

Tom Sachs’ new exhibition, Tom Sachs: Nuggets, will be on view at 76 Grand Street, New York City, from May 5–June 4, 2016. 

This article originally appeared in Huck 37 – The Mark Gonzales Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.