The Questionable Tom Sachs
Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth, to see it like it is and tell it like it is.
All right, I’ll say it: Tom Sachs is a fool. And I mean that with the utmost love and respect. There are fools for Christ. Fools for love. Fools for money. What we have here, though, is a fool for trouble.
The dictionary says a fool has a “propensity” for something, a “fondness” for it. Unquiet, impolite, excessive – the kind of person I’m talking about has some excited, unconventional sense of purpose we can’t muster, an enthusiasm that may step over our line of what’s weird and embarrassing. And then we get left behind, feeling that our respectful, pseudo-respectable lives have been dismissed or considered irrelevant.
It’s in this discomforting way, holding a cracked mirror up to our conformity and safety, that Tom Sachs – a brilliant, difficult, aggressively creative fool for trouble – is one of the more unlikely moralists of our time. He is a visual Thoreau for the consumer age – but funnier. William Burroughs would have thought he was cool. He could have gotten Truman Capote and Bob Marley in the same room.
It’s interesting that people often dismiss Sachs as a provocateur. Not to split French hairs with an American blade here, but that definition would make him someone who provokes others into causing trouble. I think Sachs is quite happy being a troublemaker all by himself. Provoked or caused, though, “trouble” has definitely become one barometer of contemporary art’s supposed relevance. If work disturbs people in any serious way, or at least gets people talking and makes them look twice, if it has form or narrative yet still leaves some doubt about what just happened, then a jaded, complacent world says “Art!”
Tom Sachs has been making work that fits this definition for the better part of a decade. His paintings, sculptures and participatory installations come with more than a whiff of notoriety. One of his art dealers spent the night in jail because Sachs wanted handgun bullets given out to gallery visitors. Sachs has offended Christians and Jews. He has offended department store executives and luxury goods manufacturers. Sachs has offended his critics, his collectors and his friends. He’s probably offended his own family.
And Sachs has certainly offended that politically-correct, meek and unimaginative breed of self-important individuals who call themselves curators. This is a crowd that doesn’t believe some upper middleclass white guy whose work involves toilets, guns, Hello Kitty, dj booths, McDonald’s, video games, duct tape, condoms, Gucci shoe boxes and surf boards could possibly be serious. (Despite years of success and critical attention, Sachs only had his first museum show in 2003 at the Berlin Guggenheim. There’s been nothing yet at an American museum.)
Seriousness does have its place, of course. If we’re not careful, associating art with trouble can quickly land us in morally dangerous company. Long before 9/11, art was getting hijacked by propagandists and theorists who like to give first class seats to the aesthetics of violence and the “art” of terrorism. But when art takes a ride with killers, we’re in the presence of another kind of fool altogether: the intellectual, the fraud, the admirer of the likes of Stalin or Plato, the kind who actually end up killing artists.
And yet … what about art that seems to stop just short of actual violence? What about the fetish and glamour of violence in our culture? What about the glorification of its perpetrators? Go back to the Marquis de Sade. Fast forward to Leni Reifenstahl. Push play and watch Quentin Tarantino. And how about Tom Sachs who makes shotguns that work and displays a death camp fashioned from Prada boxes? Where is the line between trouble and evil – or even what’s simply wrong?
The death camps are examples of amazing German engineering and design.
Several years ago, Tom Sachs made a black and white silkscreen that still hangs in his studio. It’s a large handgun in profile with the caption “Kill All Artists.” Another time, Sachs made small red stickers with white crosses and the text “Nuke the Swiss.” The stickers actually left his studio and found themselves plastered on trolley cars, street lamps, doorways, car bumpers, trash cans and elevators throughout Zurich and Basel. (Perhaps Sachs was thinking of Oscar Wilde’s dislike for Switzerland: “It has produced nothing but theologians and waiters.”)
But as far as I know, Sachs has never killed anyone. No one has (yet) nuked the Swiss. And certainly no one can disagree that marvels of engineering and design have been built for perverse and evil use – and hardly by one nation alone. So does Sachs just spout glib sentiments about violence? Are they irresponsible? Are they a joke? Is Sachs?
Read what a New York critic had to say about Tom Sachs recently:
As usual in the art wars … there is too much trivial art and too many extravagant excuses for why that is the case … [We] treat as significant what hardly deserves our attention in the first place.
—Michael Kimmelman, New York Times
I didn’t know that art was a war… Whatever. But there’s something oddly futile in such arrogant dismissal of popularity, claiming that we shouldn’t give our attention to the things that actually grab our attention.
Some people’s disgust with our decadent consumer culture leads them to withdraw – back to the farm or the monastery or the computer screen. Voltaire, remember, essentially told us all to take up gardening. Some people are hypocrites: they criticize culture from the cell phones in their Mercedes or with their feet up comfortably in the offices of the status quo. Others scream or throw bombs or write manifestos and pretend there was a better time they could lead us back to, or one coming they’ll gladly herd us toward. A very few, of course, are models of sane, dignified engagement with a world they respect but think they can make better.
But most of us waffle. We complain. We vote. We go to church or the occasional protest. And then we go to Gucci in our SUVs. Finding ourselves both confused and comfortable, we weave our criticism into the habits of living day to day. We hope for the best and attempt the occasional good deed to wake ourselves up in time for a New Year’s resolution. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
And then there are the laughing moral guerillas like Tom Sachs. Sachs is the kind of artist who scale fences from all sides, making fun of everything, attacking us with spitball, having a good time at the expense of both decent people and evil ones. What Sachs does with his art is to look the world in the face, warts and all. And then he tells us to get used to it. Don’t pretend it will go away and come back all pretty and safe and organized. Don’t hide from it behind some fancy merchandise and somebody else’s guns.
Sachs is a do-it-yourselfer who makes objects and creates performances for his own impulsive needs. Since he’s social and argumentative, his own needs involve a public stage. That’s where the trouble comes in. Sachs will take the stage even if he’s not offered it: endless scavenging, party-crashing, storytelling, hot-rodding, improvising and stylish hell-raising. It’s the middle finger and the ass out the window on the way home to dinner with Mom in the perfect car.
Yes, the car. The American dream machine. It’s hard to imagine Sachs’s project without this locus of trouble, mobility and obsession for the American male. It’s never just about having a car, though. It’s all about the specific make, model, year, color, interior, stereo and after-market modifications. Like the police, Sachs has no use for the bland, generic category. Cops never call something a car, a truck, an SUV; it’s always the more technical-sounding “vehicle” followed by exact description: “Vehicle is proceeding southbound 25 miles per hour on 495. 1998 white Ford Bronco, four-door, California plates. Driver is black male, 40 to 50 years of age.” We don’t forget.
Most recently Sachs turned his attention to grubby little remote-control cars on a dirty, white model racetrack called “Nutsy’s World.” People filled the galleries of the Berlin Guggenheim to race these toy cars, to drink beer, smoke, compete, eat greasy hamburgers, hang out, listen to dj’s – all in a museum. (The guards freaked out.) “Nutsy’s World” was a microcosm of the Sachs mythos: a miniature white slum, a white, perfect-scale model of Corbusier housing, a white drive-through McDonald’s, a white art park and a skid-marked white road with curves, loops and fire hoops. White, white, white. Had Sachs gone white with surrender?
Reducing things to small-scale and bleaching them out has been Sachs’s way of saying that “Nutsy’s World” is our world. The sickly white color (or lack of it) is the skeletal hue on which the meat of our individuality can cling – if we have any. White is the generic brand, the substitute for something with an identity and a name. But making something personal out of anonymity has always been part of the Sachs agenda – to start with something ordinary and unmarked and make it one’s own, to become one’s own brand even if that is just plagiarizing and stealing (“appropriating” in art-speak) from the slickly styled brands we lust after. Even Sachs’s studio bears the same kind of anonymity and generic blankness: it’s called “Allied Cultural Prosthetics” – generic materials handmade into personal things that can substitute for mass culture.
In the end, Sachs seems to say, there’s only one thing that matters: for me, it’s what’s mine; for you, it’s what’s yours.
Mono mean one heart, one thought, one love, one destiny, one aim, one alternative.
So I defend only the one.
The things Sachs makes he often calls “dub versions” of something else. The idea of the “dub” is Sachs’s way of emphasizing how the skeletons of other people’s work and ideas are frequently the foundation for his own. He takes the idea from music, particularly ska and reggae. But we can look further back. In its English and French roots, a “dub” is a screw up. To dub something means to give it a name. (Fool? Troublemaker? Artist?) Closer to where Sachs goes with it, “dub” means to copy or add sound from one medium to another – like foreign films with dubbed dialogue. In German “dub” means to hit or strike – like a drumbeat. The track of a song without the vocals, its beat and basic structure, came to be called “the dub version.” Early reggae musicians used it to steal songs without worrying about copyright, and soon it became a musical variation and compositional style in its own right.
Okay – so off to the races. Why the name “Nutsy’s?” It could be an inside thing – someone’s nickname; you had to be there. But it’s an easy a riff to do other possibilities: Someone who is nuts? Some obsessive artist? Some Rasta man under a coconut tree in a mild reefer buzz? Sounds a lot like Nazis, doesn’t it? It could also be some racecar driver or some Ayn Rand master-builder.
Whatever the name conjures up, “Nutsy’sWorld” is an obsessive tour de force for the adolescent male in all of us, alternatively competitive and desperately needy of looking cool. But more, it’s a world of play, freestyle and independence, a place where friends have nicknames for one another that the outside world won’t understand.
And it’s a world because Sachs created a full fantasy life that would actually take place in a museum – with a functioning McDonald’s selling burgers and beer, with djs, furniture, club kids, games… it’s a variation of the tree hut, the playground, the suburban house; it’s a do-it-yourself slice of Vegas, Disney or the Indy 500. It’s also like Alice stepping through the looking glass—but into the contemporary interior of video games and television. With “Nutsy’s” Sachs invites us to step over any lines drawn in the sand of possibility, to open the locked bedroom door, to sneak past the guard house, and to crack the glass wall that’s dirty with the fingerprints of those who think they have to be left out looking in.
Nutsy’s World isn’t defined or bounded by the curved and looping racetrack that surrounds it. The huge, mesmerizing stack of television monitors – even Nutsy’s set-up in a museum – may represent the glass walls that keep us out, but there’s a greater seduction calling us in. Sachs has toyed with this “Do Not Cross” boundary in many other works – whether they use stolen police barricades or a velvet rope and “hot chick” nurses/security guards. Like the lottery or “reality” television and game shows, enough people actually get inside Nutsy’s World to play and compete that the fun of a few becomes the hope – and frustration – of many.
Sachs often listens to the music of ska and reggae legend, Lee Perry. “Scratch” Perry was famous for having many nicknames; one of them fits Sachs pretty nicely himself: Perry said “I am the Upsetter. One take onto himself what he think he is. And I think I know I art the Upsetter, so I am the Upsetter.”
Why not? Be the fool who doesn’t suffer fools.
The spirit of Sachs’s work is summed up by the three famous words William Shatner said on a 1987 “Saturday Night Live” episode to the millions of Trekkies who tuned in to see him. He turned to the camera and sneered: “Get a life.” The expression itself took on a life that night, of course, even landing a comfortable home in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a challenge both glib and unforgiving, with a nice wise-ass ambiguity to it – no more serious than Rilke pleading “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”; no less serious than Biggie Smalls shouting “Get a grip, motherfucker.”
In the credo of “Nutsy’s World,” there are three other words, just as final: play to win.
Fair warning: A writer and former art dealer, Tom Healy is a friend of the artist and collector of his work. Healy gave Sachs his first New York gallery show in 1995.