The sleek, sun-lit galleries of the Nasher Sculptor Center have been transformed into a Japanese tea garden. The alterations were made by New York sculptor Tom Sachs. I got a chance to talk with Sachs for Art&Seek and explained how his oddly clunky artworks celebrate ceremony and ritual.
At first glance, the structures and the koi pond on display at the Nasher look cobbled together, even unfinished. You can see globs of dried glue and duct tape on the plywood constructions.
“Everything matters,” explains Tom Sachs. “It’s always a choice. And I’m very careful about how I put every piece together. We show all the screws and pencil marks. It’s all left there.”
The 51-year-old is a well known sculptor. He’s also made a splash in pop culture. There’s a collaboration with musician Frank Ocean (video here). A line of Nike sneakers. And even Kanye West is a fan.
What he does is called bricolage (see Sachs’ way of working in the video below).
“Bricolage is the act of making or repairing something with available, limited resources,” Sachs says. “So you may not know the word, but you definitely know the action, because you’ve done it yourself or seen it.”
Sachs says he doesn’t really care about making things look pristine. He’s fascinated by getting the most out of his materials, whatever they may be.
“Duct tape is kind of the ultimate bricolage material,” says Sachs.
Sachs, and his 12-person team, typically work with plywood, ceramics and found materials like wine bottles, PEZ dispensers and boom boxes.
“I’m really interested in materials that are every day,” Sachs says. “And then the objects that I make are every day like a mop bucket or a skateboard ramp or in this case a tea ceremony.”
Sachs likes making tools. He says his sculptures come alive when people use them.
“Ritual is everything. Without ritual the sculptures in this show and the things that I make don’t have any value,” says Sachs.
That respect for ritual is why he became fascinated with the 500-year old Japanese tradition of preparing, pouring and relaxing with tea. It’s called chanoyu and Sachs studied it for four years.
Then he created his own tea garden, with a tea house and funky ponds to contemplate. He made new versions of the tools, the bowls and the food. And he wrote strict instructions for making tea.
“[If] some rich guy buys the thing that I made and hangs it on his wall… that’s his problem. That’s fine,” Sachs says. “But while the thing’s alive, I want it to work. That’s why I always say that museums are the place where art goes to die.”
Sachs or a colleague will perform the tea ceremony for a few guests at a series of public demonstrations. Even if you miss them, Sachs thinks there’s a lot to take in.
“I hope that they would take a little time to look closely at any thing. Whether it’s the most humble bowl or a big sculpture look closely at it. Look at the surface. Touch it if no one’s looking,” he says.
Paying attention to the details in this exhibit might just make you think more about your own things — and the rituals you perform every day.
A Conversation with Tom Sachs
Interview Audio Below. (Language alert: some expletives):
Tom, this is going to be a popular exhibition. And I think people are going to love hanging out here at the Nasher, because they’ll enjoy viewing “Tea Ceremony.” But I don’t think many people are familiar with how you create your sculptures. Can you talk about bricolage and your practice?
Bricolage is the act of making or repairing something with available, limited resources. You might not know the word, but you definitely know the action, because you’ve done it yourself or you’ve seen it. Duct tape is sort of the ultimate bricolage material. I employ this practice in making sculpture. It’s the foundation of what I do.
I am self-taught, so I am really good at wielding and carpentry. But I have a lot of bad habits that’ve been extending [into my sculpture] for 30 years. A lot of the materials [I use] are found or they were once found. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while I use the same materials over and over again. I’m really interested in materials that are every day. They’re normal. They’re not exotic. And then the objects that I make are every day, like a mop bucket, a skateboard ramp or in this case a tea ceremony.
During my research process for this interview, I learned that you studied architecture and furniture design. How do those experiences help you to use everyday materials in building sculpture and installations?
Well 30 years ago – when I was in college – I was studying architecture and sculpture. I didn’t think that I was talented enough to make it a sculptor, so I went to architecture school and architecture school is kind of like the Navy Seals – they do everything they can to make you quit. And I was one of those guys who rang the bell and dropped out.
Probably because I saw that it was just as hard to make it as an architect as it was to make it as a sculptor. The world doesn’t love architecture. It likes engineering and per square foot valuization of occupation space. And the architects that make it – someone like Frank Gehry – are really sculptors. They’re medium is just architecture.
But at some point – in my early 20s – I was living in England and I was really taken by how dystopic the place felt already. It was poor. That affluence was extreme in small pockets. And it really just felt like we were going to hell in a handbasket. Thirty years later, the problems are the same. There’s more affluence there, but there’s also more poverty everywhere else in the world. The world’s become more and more at risk as our natural environment and resources have been exploited and wrecked. But I think there was a moment when I saw the demise of western civilization and I thought ‘instead of making really nice banks, ATMs and hospitals, I’m just going to make good sculpture and enjoy the ride.
The things you’re making – a Japanese tea house, a replica of a NASA launch site – are costly structures. You’re making them with found, everyday materials. Does that allow you to flex your architectural muscles?
I think so. It’s in my blood. I like building things and I’m obsessed with how we interact with the materials in our lives – the clothes, the cars, the buildings, the foods we put into our bodies, the way organize natural resources – so I love the tea ceremony, because it represents all of the things that man can do. It’s got spirituality with Zen. It’s got architecture with the tea house and with all of the tea bowls and scoops. It’s got poetry and painting with the scrolls. And it’s even got performance with dance and movement with the way that the hand gestures work when pouring tea. So it’s really got all the classical parts of art in it. And it’s really got all the armature foundation for me to explore all of these things. And so yes, architecture is a priority because it’s how materials go together to support our action.
So we’re going to talk more about “Tea Ceremony,” but I want to ask more about your art making. I watched your short film “10 Bullets.” which is a sort of new hire video that describes how things work inside your studio. Can you describe the vibe and processes for us?
Let me share our URL first. Go to www.10bullets.com. If you go there you can watch all of our movies for free. And I would start with “10 Bullets.” And if you like that, watch “A Love Letter to Plywood.” “A Love Letter to Plywood” shows our building code; how we make things in plywood. It’s not the right way or the wrong way, but my way. And that’s important because by following my way of making things you have the quality and idiosyncrasies and consistency of how we make things.
But “10 Bullets.” is the code by which we live and die. Kind of like the 10 Commandments or the 11 satanic rules of the earth. All good guidelines to aspire to, but impossible to adhere to perfectly. It’s just like a compass to point you in the right direction.
The studio is a cult. There are 12 of us. We worship plywood as our main goddess. And we violate her daily with a table saw. And we have the most respect for the materials around us as we abuse them and beat them into the form that our will dictates.
We’ve talked a bit about why you make sculpture. But I’m curious about why you make art?
Well the secret to success in any field is doing what you love and getting so good at it that people pay you to do it. Cause if you consider the alternative – getting really badly paid or really well paid for doing something you don’t love – that’s a living hell. Then you’re just working for money.
And I’m very privileged and lucky that things lined up for me. But it was a couple of dozen years of working on what I loved for no pay with total dedication before I was able to organize my life enough that I could make a living making sculpture.
But in that time I made my living making other things for people. And I was always pushing the limits of making that experience of working for other people as rewarding for me by doing the best work for others.
My big breakthrough happened while I was working as a janitor and I had to clean this room and I was working with a team of other people to clean the room and I made the decision that I was going to be the best at cleaning the room. One of the other guys – the most senior guy in the group – said, ‘Hey, man, you’re making us all look bad.’ And I said, ‘Go [expletive]yourself. I am going to do the best job that I can here, so that this room gets cleaned faster and better and so that we do a good job for the people who need this room cleaned.’ And he was really mad, because he didn’t love the job, but he was senior. And after years of doing that and other odd jobs, I was able to slowly make a higher percentage of my hours of my day go toward making my sculpture. But I guess the secret is taking the same attitude toward both. The only thing that you own is your time and your thought. Even if you’re working for somebody else by the hour, how you thinking about it is the one thing that you control.
Let’s go back to 2012 for a little bit and talk about “Space Program: Mars.” I believe it’s maybe your biggest installation. Anyway, during that time you had done an interview with WNYC in New York and you said that you create art in order to learn about the world and to entertain yourself. Can you talk about how tackling something as abstract and in your face as a space program fits into that goal?
So that quote was said to me by the late, great Glenn O’Brien and I’ve taken it as a mantra for my entire practice and my way of living. I was a terrible student. I did ninth grade twice. I had to do summer school. I had tutors, child psychologists, I got in trouble with the police. I was really a mess and I was bad at sports, like really everything that could go wrong kind of went wrong mentally.
And at some point when I found sculpture I found a way to work. And in that the world opened up to me, because I was finally passionate about something. Then I became successful in school. But like I said, it was a couple dozen years before I was able to parlay that into a career, but the feeling of satisfaction and success was immediate – even if my job was still cleaning toilets.
And over the years I’ve looked to certain things – whether it was the space program, the tea ceremony or before that modernism or architecture – the greatest privilege for me as an artist has been spending time educating myself. I was a bad student, so I have a lot of resentment about education built in, but after a dozen years of bad training I found a way to love learning. And when I built my own space program I was able to learn all about rocket engineering, astronomy, physics, and most importantly about biology and genetics. Because the reason we go to other planets is to start learning of philosophical understandings about where we come from. Are we alone? What is the origin of life? And so the NASA space program is an investigation in to our DNA and who we are and where we come from. It becomes very philosophical really. It answers the questions that religion has been trying to answer. Again, ‘are we alone?’ ‘Where did we come from?’ And we’re getting close. You know we got to the moon in the 60s. We killed god. We proved he doesn’t exist. And now we’re starting to dig those questions up again. We’re asking things like, ‘Well if he doesn’t exist, where does life come from?’ And we’re getting closer to potentially finding another sample of life in the universe. Doctor Kevin Han from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories – he’s an astrobiologist – and he says if he cannot find life off of earth in the next 30 years, he’s going back to organized religion. And that’s something I am interested in.
So whether it’s the Space Program: Mars or the Tea Ceremony (which is a 500 year old tradition) it’s a place where all of the arts come together with architecture, poetry, hospitality and even religion or philosophy.
A few years back I got to talk with astronaut Chris Hadfield (the spaceman who became popular for covering David Bowie’s songs in space) and he talked a little bit about the rituals needed to do his work. A lot of repetition and a necessity for understanding the repetition in order to conduct safe missions. And you just brought up the 500-year tradition behind the tea ceremony. Can you discuss your fascination with ritual?
Ritual is everything. Without ritual the sculptures in “Tea Ceremony” and the work that I create don’t mean anything. I had this revolution when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and I saw all stuff that was made for dead rich guys, like paintings and sculptures made for popes, things made for pharaohs or things made for hedge fund guys like paintings or whatever by people like me – makers. And then I went to the African sections and I saw things that were made by makers for people within their community. And those things tended to have more of a utilitarian nature or they were used in a ritual – like a mask or some other object of devotion – and they were used in activities. Those sculptures really excited me and I thought, ‘I wanna make art that works like that in my life.’ That’s the strategy. I don’t wanna make some thing that hangs on a wall – if some rich guy buys a thing that I made and hangs it on a wall that’s his problem. That’s fine. But while the things is alive, I want it to work. That’s why I always say that museums are where art go to die. It’s alive in your hands or on the street.
And that’s why for us, the tea ceremony is real. Our space program is real. We go to Mars at the Park Avenue Armory or we go to Europa at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. And when we take rock samples out of the ground and have them analyzed, those are real rock samples. The first time we did that was in 2007 at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. We jack hammered up the floor. We brought those “rocks” to Brooklyn College and had a petrographic analysis made of them (You can download the report at my website). And Brooklyn College found that evidence that our “moon rocks” were concrete and they had evidence of floor wax on them. This might sound like deadpan humor, but by taking that extreme degree the experience becomes real and authentic.
So yea. That’s where my focus lays – in the making. But it doesn’t mean anything without the spirituality, sensuality or the concepts behind it.