by Lawrence Gipe
Around 3 a.m. on July 20, 1969 my parents woke me up to watch television. I was six years old. I remember the sensation of my sleep being interrupted, then sitting between my parents as we watched Neil Armstrong descend the ladder onto the Moon. After a few minutes we had hot chocolate and they tucked me back in. It was a good night for humanity.
This childhood memory was revived courtesy of Tom Sachs as I wandered through the gallery chambers of his Space Project: Europa installation at the YBCA that features a full-sized replica of Apollo 11’s iconic spacecraft. This nostalgic embrace provided insulation around my deeply held suspicion regarding Sachs and his earlier work. In Cultural Prosthetics (1995) and his breakout show at Mary Boone called Haute Bricolage (1998), he created sculptures that
hybridized expensive designer brands with violent or lowbrow objects. Examples included guillotines and chainsaws with Chanel logos, a Glock pistol by Tiffany, Hermès hand grenades and McDonald’s meals (Hermès Valuemeal, 1998). Then, he turned a Prada hatbox into concentration camp model (Prada/DeathCamp, 1998), and I deliberately lost track of him after that. For me, the only attractive element was the process: each piece was constructed out of a lo-fi combination of hardware store materials, like cardboard and thermal adhesive, which gave them an undeniably charming DIY look.
Sachs made his name in the art world with just the right amount of provocation and “biting the hand that feeds” that has always been attractive to collectors and the galleries that cater to them. What could be more market-savvy than tweaking brands that appeal to the 1%? The text in the accompanying brochure for YBCA’s Space Program: Europa distills Sachs’ project down to “an intentional mash-up of branding identity protocols and conceptual rigor.” The latter claim is highly debatable: From Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and Ashley Bickerton, and from Haim Steinbach in the ‘80s to Jonathan Seliger in the ‘90s, the critical issues surrounding branding and fine art have been fully litigated. “[Sachs] holds a unique vision of the universe”, says the same text, ”a realm where significant artifacts and events from the
history of science hold the same cultural value as Barbie or L’il Wayne”. Is manifesting a clash of high and low culture really a “unique” view at this late date? It’s the same old dialectical battle we’ve witnessed in the art world for decades. Sachs even described this “formula” as “one plus one equals a million”. That’s a Home Depot full of wishful thinking.
There are contradictions in any given artist’s work that illuminate, and there are contradictions that are simply louche. Sachs, like Jeff Koons, fashioned himself early on as an unrepentant entrepreneur/artist. He was comfortable collaborating with Nike on one hand, while interviews capture him bemoaning inequities in labor originally caused by the African diaspora on the other. He observed how sad it was when a Mom and Pop restaurant was displaced by McDonald’s, but (perhaps ironically) he quotes McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc in the epilogue of the video Ten Bullets (2010), one of three motivational films produced with longtime collaborator Van Neistat that are being screened at YBCA. In an interview from 2009, Sachs was confronted about how his DIY philosophy squared with his more mercenary actions in the market:
Interviewer: “Yet, last year you sold a Tom Sachs bag for $12,000. Is this in any way hypocritical?
Sachs: “I don’t see how it’s hypocritical because quality costs.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.”
Fortunately for his present-day audience, Sachs’ desire to “confuse” and “offend” in this manner is not on the agenda at the YBCA. I was surprised to find myself captivated by Space Program: Europa – and not just because of the aforementioned nostalgia. Apparently, over the course of the last decade or so, Sachs has made an extraordinary pivot from glib one-liners to visionary
maturity. He initiated the space work in 2003, with a quarter-scale replica of NASA’s shuttle constructed out of foam core (Crawler), and after that his personal Space Race was on. A full-scale Apollo LEM (2007-2012) was first constructed in 2007 for the inaugural “mission” at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills; this show stopper now serves as the monumental centerpiece of the current exhibition. In 2009, Creative Time provided a booster rocket to get the program to Mars in a 55,000-square-foot-version at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and the current iteration in San Francisco crosses into sci-fi territory with a highly implausible voyage to the Jovian moon of Europa.
Over the course of these escalating exhibitions, Sachs has accrued and re-cannibalized scores of sculptures related to the theme, which also function as props for his performative “missions” where live actors participate in a simulated landing. A gigantic “Mission Control” of multiple monitors is command central for these live interactions, and that piece is more stage set than compelling sculpture. But, in these installations, the whole is more important than the disparate parts, of which there are many: Seventy-four discrete objects appear on the exhibition checklist. They include boxes filled with "synthetic Mars rocks," two space suits, a Training Kit (containing hand tools), a full-scale scissor lift, a "shoe library," a bronze bonsai tree, a non-functioning boom box and ATM machine (both made of wood), and a Mobile Quarantine Facility to name but a few. This last is a 1972 Winnebago designed to combat biohazards. It's stationed
on the Mission Street side of YBCA, above the steps leading to the lobby. It's in this sheer mass of detail that the installation manages to open windows onto both our culture and the artist’s personal obsessions. Like his studio practice (where 10 assistants work full-time to crank out his “merch” and sculptures), a moon mission succeeds or fails on organization, protocols and routines. Sachs addresses our collective fear of chaos, connecting all the fragments with the NASA logo – which is stuck, scrawled or embossed onto many objects. Some of the latest work cross-references NASA with Japanese traditions, with an emphasis on tea ceremonies – a seemingly incongruent train of thought until you acknowledge that Space Program: Europa is about mysterious rituals and procedures. Unlike his erstwhile Prada/Death Camps, there is a feeling of playful reverence to the entire enterprise, a genuine grasp for a connection with the public, and a twisted optimism that through our scrappiness humanity will prevail and continue to explore.
Tom Sachs is 50 years old, which means he grew up watching with the real moon landings. Not so, for the mainly millennial crowd I saw attending the exhibition, as manned spaceflight has had a long hiatus. I wondered, is Sachs assuaging a mass case of fear-of-missing-out for this generation that woke up bleary eyed to 9/11? After all, what has science offered them to wake up in the middle of the night for? Very recently, President Obama raised the challenge to NASA and private agencies, to send a mission to Mars. I’d like to think in 30 years that my daughter would wake up her daughter to watch a woman walk on Mars. When that happens, we can say Sachs did his part to keep imagination alive.
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Tom Sachs: Space Program Europa @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through January 15, 2017.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.