Here is the full transcript of my conversation with artist Tom Sachs. I had a great time during this talk, Tom is a really interesting artist/visionary/explorer — he's easy to relate to... and has many things to say about LIFE! Read on...
(Link to Whitewall at the end of the post)
Whitewall’s Creative Minds is an ongoing conversation with visionaries in the fields of art and design that focuses on the unique drive behind today’s top thinkers. For this issue’s installment, we talked with the artist Tom Sachs for an intimate conversation about the new Mars mission, psychedelics, alchemy, life, and the “universal formula for growth.” by Guillaume Wolf
WHITEWALL: So, Tom, what’s going on?
TOM SACHS: Right now we’re working on our Space Program 2.0. In our first Space Program, two and a half years ago, we went to the moon — which is Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. We jackhammered the floor and took back some samples of lunar soil and moon rocks from the gallery floor, and have been analyzing those in our laboratory, here in Manhattan. We’ve got the results we were looking for, plus some surprises, and now we’re retooling the same spaceship and astronaut delivery system for a more complex mission to Mars. This is the first announcement of this.
TS: Some of our Mars mission features include a roving vehicle, based on the lunar roving vehicle built by Boeing in the seventies. We’re making it a full-scale, functional electric car. We’re developing more elaborate food systems, human-waste disposals — which is going to be a part of the demonstration — that’ll be an interesting thing to witness.
WW: Are you taking cigarettes this time, too?
TS: Yes, our flight has a smoking section, definitely.
WW: Why did you choose to call this a demonstration versus a performance? To me, it’s a performance.
TS: Sure, it is a performance. The reason we call it a demonstration is because the things that we make are sculptures. We use these performances to demonstrate the elements of our sculptures that exist in time. For example, if you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you see a samurai sword, but it’s in a glass case. It’s only when the sword is being used in combat that it becomes functional. So in that same way, we try to demonstrate how things work.
WW: You just picked a samurai sword as an example; you talk a lot about weapons. You made a comparison between guns and high-end handbags, and you said they were both symbols of status and power.
TS: In the hierarchy of manufacturing goods, things like aerospace are the highest quality, and things that are made for your bedroom and bathroom are the lowest quality of consumer goods. I’m interested in the things that are the highest caliber of manufacturing quality, and the military equipment has always been in that category.
Furthermore, I’m interested in optimizing conditions like the human body. I use the best food, and the best exercises, and disciplines that I can to make sure [my body] is healthy and it functions well so I can continue to make the best sculptures.
WW: Your body is at service to your art? There is this fantasy of the artist who endures all kind of abuses (such as drugs) as a part of the experience. You need a good body to do good art?
TS: Yeah [laughs], but the opposite is also true — I also have to be very indulgent and explore. But I don’t think drugs are an escape; I think they are an exploratory tool.
WW: They can be both.
TS: I certainly explored them in both ways — but now that I’m old, I look at it as two separate experiences. One is about using as a social lubricant, as an escape, or to eliminate pain. But then, more rigorously, I use drugs as an exploration tool, as an opportunity to go deeper inside, or, most radically, to help see the different dimension of the reality I’m used to every day.
WW: Are you talking about psychedelics like mushrooms?
TS: Mushrooms and LSD. Psychedelics are the most dangerous, effective, and quickest ways to get to those places.
WW: They’re a shortcut. It’s funny that we’re talking about different dimensions, because while preparing for this interview I had the insight that in some ways you are like a modern alchemist. Alchemists are people who can transform lead into gold, inside and outside. Is there some sort of alchemy in your work?
TS: I’m honored by your analysis, because it’s a word that I use very often when I’m explaining what “bricolage” means [Note: Sachs often describes his work as “American bricolage”]. It’s common in French, but it’s not an American word. When people ask, “What does it mean?” I say, “It’s like alchemy meets do-it-yourself but it’s not just do-it-yourself because there’s an element of spirit or tradition to bricolage.” There’s a spiritual quality to it. It’s about showing resourcefulness and love. It’s also a word for a culture that repairs rather than replaces. I come from a culture that replaces . . . when you save something, there is a little bit of magic in it. When alchemists were trying to find gold out of lead, they found other things along the way.
WW: Real alchemists are looking for inner transformation.
TS: The ultimate creation is life. To make a baby is the most magical creation there is. Everything else, whether it’s going to the moon or building a bridge over a giant valley, is impressive but . . . technology is a shadow of natural technology — nature.
WW: Let’s talk about digital versus analog. In the art world you’re the opposite of someone like Jeff Koons — the obsession with high polish, high gloss.
TS: I believe that for me the magic is about showing the glue, the screw, the materials — the evidence [in the work]. That’s where the magic is for me, unlike Jeff — whose work I admire — who seeks to eliminate the evidence of his work’s making.
For me, I came to that through trying to make very sleek work, through difficulties . . . [it ended being] a disaster. In a sense, it was a very inexpensive lesson — it helped me find my voice.
WW: It seems that in your career obstacles, catastrophes, and dramas are the building blocks of who you became.
TS: I think that’s a universal formula for growth. We learn best through our failures, and we all have failures. The people who are the most successful in life — and by that I mean personal growth — are the ones who can learn from those failures, and mainly so as not to repeat them. The losers are the ones who keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Which we all do! [Laughs] And it’s just a matter of to what degree do we do this — repetition. These mistakes that we repeat have been programmed into us by our experiences from a very young age, usually. It’s hard to eliminate them, but one of the best things we can do in life is to identify them.
If you have something like that and it doesn’t work, let’s cut that out and try to find something that is you — something that does represent who you are, something that makes you feel good about yourself. There’s this great quote from David Foster Wallace that goes something like this: “You have to believe in one of the conventional religions like Christianity, Wicca, Hindu, Judaism . . . because if you believe in the nonconventional ones like beauty, power, and money — if you believe in beauty, you’ll always feel ugly; if you believe in power, you’ll always feel powerless; if you believe in wealth, you’ll always feel you never have enough money.” These things that live outside of who we are can be very destructive. So finding what is you is so important. Sometimes it can be a tiny, humble thing; it’s like a flower that must be cultivated. It can be very small, but it can be beautiful and very inspiring.
WW: You also often quote Dale Carnegie and his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
TS: Yeah! [Laughs] It’s a great book!
WW: In that regard you embody the American artist’s spirit — a bit like Andy Warhol with his integration of popular culture and popular wisdom. It’s very gutsy. Some people are very highbrow and despise that.
TS: This is a condition of the modern age — an over-intellectualization of things. Now, I love that stuff . . . but you have to have equal parts, because there is some great conventional wisdom and there is some great intellectual stuff, too. I think you’ve got to have it all. The simple things in life are the best — right?
WW: I think so, too. You said, “I enjoy the ultimate luxury — I get to be a student my whole life.”
TS: Yes, it’s all about learning.
WW: Maybe you get to be a student of your own life at the same time.
TS: [Laughs] That’s part of it, too — for sure.