in the artistic realm 2021: an interview with tom sachs

Jul 20, 2021

designboom spoke with US artist tom sachs, ahead of being awarded with the golden madonnina trophy 2021 of milan’s THE DESIGN PRIZE. born in 1966 in new york, sachs recreates various modern icons with his distinct bricolage aesthetic, which has gained him a unique position in the field of contemporary sculpture. meanwhile, his longtime fascination with space exploration has led him to create an entire body of space-related works, including his immersive space programs, as well as his longstanding creative collaboration with NIKE (see designboom’s extensive coverage here).

during our interview, sachs talks about his creative process, shares advice for the young, and goes deep into his current exhibition, ‘ritual’, at gallery thaddaeus ropac in london (previous coverage of ‘ritual’ here). ‘as I create, I meditate, and the lust of acquiring a product is replaced by the love of making it,’ reads a quote from the exhibition’s description. the new works on view draw from new york city’s corner shops, known also as bodegas, and their reflection of the diverse civic and cultural demands of modern city living. the artist replicates commonplace industrial objects using everyday materials including plywood, cardboard, resin, tape and paint. the sculptures bear traces of their making, becoming vehicles for reflection on the creation of value and human labour.

all images © tom sachs, courtesy thaddaeus ropac, london – paris – salzburg

photos by genevieve hanson

designboom (DB): why is the exhibition at at thaddaeus ropac called ‘ritual’?

TS (continued): those photographs in the zine are part of a series that I’m working on called, ‘things that are too big, dirty or expensive to fit in my apartment’. things that I want, like, I would love a new york city garbage truck, but the idea of parking such a thing, I just can’t manage the expenses. it would literally be bigger than a white elephant. but they are beautiful objects, right? the noise, what it does, its part in the waste cycling system. one of my dreams is to have one and have the inside carved out to be an office, and just park it wherever the fuck I want. and just have that be my urban office. no one can tow it, because it’s so big, and that also comes as a response to the daily combat that I experience in my moments of insanity when I try and drive in new york city with a regular car. it’s a punishable offence just to drive, every possible thing, from parking tickets to potholes to traffic, you shouldn’t do it. in any city, you don’t need cars, and those of us who have them are rightfully punished severely.

DB: maybe it’s their own ritual though.

DB: do you follow certain rituals in your daily work, or life in general?

DB: you often use symbols that are familiar to us, like cars that we’ve seen on the street, as source material in your works, but the outcome is rarely an exact replica. the process behind it feels almost like a ritual; you work on the sculpture again and again, to the finest detail, but still making it different to the initial reference. is it more about the process of reproducing these symbols, and what comes out of that process, rather than having an absolutely identical object as a final result for you? and, when in the process do you know that it’s done, that you’ve got what you wanted and the work is ready?

TS (continued): I started by talking about cleaning my studio, I clean my environment and I clean my head and then I can really trust what is going on in my heart and my feelings and then I go at it, sort of without a plan. although I’ve been planning the whole time because while I’m sweeping, I’m thinking – sorry to use this word – but I’m meditating on the van, I’m meditating on the idea of ‘I want to make this van, what do I like about it? well, the old one’s nice and square, the new one’s kind of curvy, and gross, it looks like it was computer-designed, the old one was probably drawn by hand, maybe it was the end of cars being drawn by hand. and now they’re all drawn by computers. and maybe I don’t really understand that, but I can sense it on some level, because it’s a little rougher.’ I don’t know, I’m guessing, I don’t know if that’s true. but I guess the main thing is understanding and trusting and accepting yourself so you can trust to do it the wrong way. and then trust that not only you do it the wrong way, but you’re going to commit whatever thousands of hours to this way of doing, versus having a plan, drawing it out, talking about it, scheduling it, and doing it. at the end it will be perfect but anyone could do that. I’m the only one in the whole world that can trust my own intuition and do it my way. what I’m trying to articulate isn’t just my creative process, I think a lot of artists work this way, I don’t think it’s that special. this way is special to me, but if you make things and you apply these techniques, that will be your voice. I think that’s the most important thing that any artist can do, is find and amplify their own voice.

DB: your creative process is very much related to bricolage, a technique that you have been using for many years now. did you start with it or did you get interested in it later on?

DB: you do very different things, from sculpture to the collaboration with NIKE, and even films. how do you make sure that your voice is present in everything? is there a common thread that ties everything together?

TS: you would laugh, because some of the things that I have to say and do, it’s all these tricks. like, I’m constantly saying to chris, who I’ve worked with, at this point, longer than anyone else is in the studio, ‘can’t you make it worse?’. he’s very precise, and he’s very methodical, and if he makes it, it will never break. he’s very consistent and reliable, and he’s also very slow. actually, he’s not that slow, he’s probably a little faster, but it looks slower. you know, I’ll have to redo something four times. but by doing it four times, you get that accretion of resin, like the inside of the van with all that texture.

DB: the sculptures on view at thaddaeus ropac combine commonplace industrial objects with modernist-inspired pedestals. how do these two coexist? what is the connection between them?

DB: so the pedestal itself becomes a sculpture, right?

DB: what is the significance of these everyday objects for you, and how do they relate to each other, if they do?

DB: so it’s a lot about things that you want, or wanted, and then by making them, you find a way to fulfil that desire, right?

TS: I think that’s called sympathetic magic, and then what winds up happening with sympathetic magic at its highest form, is that you get the girl, you get the iron axe. people who use stone axes graduating to iron axes, getting the magic of a culture’s technology that’s more evolved. and any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. it is truly magic, because maybe you don’t fully understand how it happened, but you can certainly understand the difference between a stone axe and an iron axe. so a lot of these things that I’m making are forms of my way of engaging with sympathetic magic, of getting the girl, getting the van, finding a way. tide’s a pretty dark subject, because it’s a fucked up thing, but to me, when I look at a title, it’s an andy warhol because of the orange and the blue, it’s a painting. I’ve tried painting it a few times, and it doesn’t turn out right, it had to be a sculpture.

DB: there are also some objects, like for example, ‘ice’, which has these cameras on top. can you tell me more about it?

TS: so those ice boxes are in front of bodegas and delis everywhere, and there’s one that’s just that shape near my house. it’s actually really near the bakery that I go to, so sometimes I’m waiting outside in the hot sun, annoyed, and that’s my buddy who’s always there 24 hours. so I got looking at it and it kept haunting me, like that person that you run into on the street that you can’t get away from, but then it’s part of your community. and then the surveillance cameras on top are a panopticon. they are ever present, watching, and I just wanted to put them together. I mean, bodegas have surveillance, it’s part of it, it has to because they’re 24 hours of dangerous environments. if you run a bodega, you gotta treat it right. I wanted to bring those two things together in a transparent way. I always think it’s interesting, there’s two kinds of surveillance: there’s a hidden camera, and then there’s the panopticon, the camera that says, ‘hey, you’re being watched’. but is someone watching the camera? I don’t know, but it evokes the fear because the thing about the modern police state is not that you’re being watched, it’s that you could be watched. I’m forever interested in this concept, not just from the crime-policing, political state, but from my own sense of observing others and being observed myself. all of those feelings, all those fears and desires are brought to our present in this time, and, to me, those are all the things that the camera represents.

DB: I also get the same idea, whenever there’s a camera, whether it’s working or not – in this case it’s even made of wood – it still evokes that feeling of having to be self conscious and behave in a certain way around it. so it’s very interesting to see it in sculpture, and, if I was there, I would probably still experience it in this way.

DB: you said you just sent out an exhibition or some works. what are you working on at the moment?

THE DESIGN PRIZE is an annual award program that celebrates excellence on a global scale. initiated in 2017 and curated by designboom, with patronage by the city of milan, THE DESIGN PRIZE recognizes both the extraordinary achievements and little sparks of beauty and delight that have emerged over the past 12 months.