“To be hybrid is to be the future.”
Inside Tom Sachs’s studio on Centre Street in Manhattan's Chinatown, the artist is quoting Isamu Noguchi in an effort to explain how all of his many multi-disciplinary projects are connected. Currently, he’s juggling quite a few: There’s his tea ceremony installation at the Noguchi Museum, in Queens, the first solo exhibit there by anyone not named Noguchi. Tomorrow, a retrospective of his well-known boomboxes—reimagined but working stereos constructed partly from objects like video game consoles, animal horns, and umbrellas—will open at the Brooklyn Museum. A documentary-style film about his fictional “Space Program 2.0: Mars” recently premiered at the new Metrograph theater in New York, before heading to San Francisco and Seattle. And come May, he’ll open a solo show at Jeffrey Deitch called “Nuggets,” where he’ll present his versions of Modernist masterpieces, beginning with Brancusi’s Le Coq, but done in plywood, resin, and sheet metals instead of bronze.
“It’s kind of crazy,” said Sachs, who admitted that while he’s been busy since he moved into the studio in 1990, the current pace is particularly frenetic. “We have a lot going on. I mean, we haven’t done a show in a couple of years and we’re always working, but you don’t always get to choose. And when it rains it pours.”
His bricolage-style work, which consists of cobbling together found materials to create something new, might look a little jerry-built, but his studio is run with the precision of a factory. The entrance is home to an “indoctrination center,” where interns sort loose screws into bins. Materials are organized into boxes, and everything is labeled: “mutilated animals,” “skateboarding stuff,” “esoteric hardware.” Even in the communal kitchen, where his employees meet for breakfast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before team workouts (called “Space Camp,” it's a routine devised by trainer Pat Manocchia), everything is meticulously, if unnecessarily, labeled: “knives,” “coffee,” “freezer.”
Asked if he sourced from the neighborhood, Sachs said, “When I moved here 25 years ago. But now it’s fake sunglasses and stuff. I just buy everything online. I love eBay. I love Amazon Prime. But it’s harder to stumble on the Internet. I have my secret Army Surplus places, but their online listings are great so I don’t really need to go there anymore. Usually what you miss is in the trash because it wasn’t deemed worthy of scanning, describing, and uploading.”
Throughout the space, stations can be found with grab-bags of tools including drill bits, sharpies, and measuring tapes (on which, under the yellow "Stanley" brand lettering, someone scribbled “Kubrick is dead”). A dry erase board lists all of the tasks that need to be completed for upcoming projects, including the third iteration of his space program series, “Space Program: Europa,” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, opening this fall. Under “Search and Destroy" are filed projects very near completion.
In fact, his artworks are just as meticulously put-together as his studio. “When you look at the work, sometimes it looks a little bit messy, but it’s also really tidy in a way. The main thing is that you see how it’s made and the evidence of how it’s constructed,” he said. “Always try to tell the story of the making. In the same way the studio has all the scars of having made everything in here.” He gestured to a wall. “I painted this wall 25 years ago”—and hasn’t repainted it since.
It’s for this reason that Sachs will paint his plywood before he cuts it so viewers can see the incisions, and lets dripping glue harden in place. With any piece, it’s as much about the process as it is about the final product—and the story.
“Scientists make a big effort to scrub their spaceships and their probes when they go to other planets so that there’s no bacteria on it,” he said in reference to "Space Program: Mars." “From an ethical standpoint, they don’t want to contaminate another world with bugs from our world. But in my space program, because I’m self-driven—I’m not paid for by our tax dollars—I don’t have the same ethical guidelines as NASA. And even more than that, I kind of have a responsibility to tell our story, as Americans, as cultural imperialists, as people who go to another part of the world or another planet and bring the noise.”
As the various orbits of his practice cross paths, the Tom Sachs universe begins to come into focus. To “bring the noise,” he sent a boombox up in his spaceship. And the tea ceremony was also sent, in "Space Program," to Mars—whenever a conflict arose between astronauts, it was resolved by serving each other a cup of tea.
“We took that one small but important part and expanded it into a major museum exhibition,” Sachs explained. “In a way, the tea ceremony is sort of the bridge. The tea ceremony comes out of the space program; and when you see the Noguchi show, you’ll see elements of the space program.”
Another recurring thread through his many projects is Sachs's new interest in ceramics, which he started experimenting with a few years ago. “I had gotten used to myself and I stopped hating myself, so I needed a new part of myself to hate. Ceramics is really the most demoralizing material to work with,” he explained. “It takes 5,000 tries to get it right, and there’s no going back, because it’s not a material that likes to be overworked. It likes to be done once. But the other side of that, which is fantastic, is that it’s forever. A ceramic bowl lasts 5,000 years, whereas a piece of steel will rust out in a couple hundred. When this building is rubble in the dirt, they will find one.”
The same goes for the Noguchi Museum, where he’s made over 400 tea bowls, as well as kimonos, fountains, whisks, and a tea house made with Con Edison excavation barriers and foam. “People are into tea ceremonies for different reasons: Some are into it for the zen. Some are into it for the drugs, like the caffeine. And then other people are into it for the architecture, for making stuff, for appreciation for the collector,” said Sachs. “Some people are into the tea bowls not as a vessel but as the object. In the same way the boombox show, of course, music is the priority, but I’m not a musician. I’m someone who makes musical instruments.”
“I’m not James Bond," he added. "I’m Q.”