Tom Sachs insists he doesn’t cry in interviews, but is sobbing openly in this one.
We’ve been sitting in Mayfair’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac for an hour, discussing his playful pop-up Swiss Passport Office installation being assembled downstairs, and what he means by it. It has taken us on to Brexit, borders, Donald Trump — whom he pointedly declines to call by name, instead calling him ‘the guy who’s in office right now’ — and racial tensions in America.
‘I’m sorry,’ says the New York artist, 52, drying his eyes, his self-designed £150 Nike ‘space sneakers’ parked under the table (he worked with the brand and former Nasa engineer Tommaso Rivellini to create the shoes). ‘It’s just so f***ed up.’ He adjusts his wire-frame glasses and ruffles his shock of greying hair like a forlorn, professorial Mark Ruffalo.
Sachs isn’t usually easy to ruffle. The sculptor’s work has been hailed as cool, sometimes serious, often controversial.Although a secular Jew himself, he once said in The New York Times Magazine, before presenting an exhibition in New York’s Jewish Museum, that he found the engineering of the Nazi death camps ‘amazing’. His installations have featured Prada toilets, guns (one of his art dealers spent a night in jail because Sachs wanted handgun bullets given out to gallery visitors), a Chanel guillotine, a McDonald’s food stand, a Nasa space launch, Japanese tea rituals, duct tape, Gucci shoes and condoms. Fans range from Kanye West and Frank Ocean, with whom he has collaborated on music and films, to acclaimed director Werner Herzog. Sachs’ works, reinterpretations of ‘modern icons’, sell for ‘more money than I could afford’. (His Chanel Guillotine sold at Christie’s for $134,500).
He has been called everything, from the occasionally unprintable to ‘the Michael Jordan of bricolage’. But even this master of assembling, dissembling and reassembling finds the pieces of modern life too disparate to put back together. That hasn’t stopped him trying. Anyone who visits his Swiss Passport Office here will, in exchange for €20 (no Sterling accepted here) get ‘the most prestigious passport in the world, arguably’. Switzerland has always been the ‘golden ticket, the escape from Nazi Germany pass’ and the place where ‘the good guys and the bad guys all keep their money together’. (Sadly, the Sachs passport won’t actually get you anywhere.) It’s a transitory installation here in Mayfair: interactive for 24 hours between 6pm on Friday 5 October until 6pm the next day, and on view at the gallery from then until 10 November. A smaller version of the installation was presented in 2016 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.
‘I make art not about the way the world is, but the way I want it to be,’ says Sachs. ‘Everything great starts with an idea and I believe in a world without borders.
‘With Britain pulling out on one side it’s easy to see this thing [the European project] that really was utopian for 30 years disintegrate,’ he says. ‘And as an American, as a US citizen, we’re seeing that political pendulum swing that way at home with things like the Mexican wall, with the xenophobia and intolerance that the current administration is representing.’ It’s this which has upset Sachs.
Self-discipline begets disciples. Now, he has dozens of his own assistants who share his passions and philosophies, including ‘knolling’, an important aesthetic for arranging tools (and furniture) at right angles; a health triangle of ‘diet-rest-exercise’; ‘sympathetic magic’, the idea that if ‘you believe that you will succeed you might, even if not in the way you think’. The theme of contrarian ideas being simultaneously true — that ‘the opposite is equally valid’ — will form the base of a new film, Paradox Bullets, starring Werner Herzog and his friend Ed Ruscha. From five to 12 assistants help him at any one time, but his own work rate is manic.
Sachs met his wife, Sarah Sanders Hoover, in 2007, when she was working at the Gagosian Gallery, fresh out of Columbia, where she received a master’s in cultural theory in addition to her bachelor’s in fine arts from NYU (Hoover is 18 years younger than Sachs). They married in 2012 and have a one-year-old son. ‘I have his first drawing back in my hotel room. It’s... abstract’, says Sachs.
Sachs’ work-life balance leaves him ‘destroyed’; it used to be ‘mostly just New York, LA and Paris’, now it can be Indonesia to Shanghai within a week. ‘I get in fights with my wife because I want to stay late [in the studio] until 3am to get into this exhausted, restive... I don’t want to say a trance, but you have to be rested and worn down in the same way.’ Does he get work done on the plane? ‘There’s no way. People don’t make good art on planes,’ he says. ‘Life can be divided into active or passive. You’re either watching TV or your writing a story that could be TV. You’re either eating food or you’re s***ting it out. You’re consuming or making. That’s a duality I like. It’s hard for me to output in those environments. It’s easier to be passive. Because if I start outputting I want to punch a hole in the side of the plane. Which obviously I can’t do. But that would be my instinct. To escape. And that’s death.’
‘Swiss Passport Office’ is interactive from 6pm-6pm on 5-6 Oct. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 37 New Bond Street, W1 (ropac.net)