John Kessler: Your work is very populist, and I wonder if that’s the main reason you haven’t been given the critical attention you deserve.
Tom Sachs: I find it disappointing. I read October and Arts and Artforum in college, and I always thought that when I moved to New York, I would be engaged in conversations like that. But there was never a movement toward the real. People didn’t go all the way. It’s too threatening to the art world system to have art that works, because part of what makes it so strong is that it is insular. You need to be a little provincial to keep your things tight. That’s partially why I’m not as interested in art as I am in media and technology.
JK: There are so many ideas in your work, like failed utopianism, functionalism and design, high and low culture, surveillance and globalization, that I would imagine critics could really bite into. That is, if they don’t want to talk about hot glue and duct tape.
TS: Well, it’s like Barnett Newman said, it’s what ornithology is to the birds.
JK: You’re talking about criticism?
TS: There is a lot of art that has its pants down, so to speak, and gets the critical attention. I think the popularity of my work doesn’t leave a void for critics to fill. It’s a very complete world; it’s anti-elitist. There might as well be a sign on it saying, ‘This doesn’t need anyone to explain it.’
JK: How did Nutsy’s change when it went from the studio to the Bohen Foundation?
TS: I don’t think it’s as interesting. It’s the difference between being at home and being a guest in somebody’s house. The original plan was to make it a home for us to move into, but that wasn’t realistic. A gallery is not a studio, and a public space has different constraints.
JK: I became aware of the interactivity of your installation when I went to one of the Tuesday night races. The drivers are smoking bongs and there’s a DJ spinning records and you’re all in your Tyvek jumpsuits running through the installation with your remote controls.
TS: The performances give the installation more life. All the functional aspects of these things, like the boom box and the repair station, are evolving as we get better. Sculpture for me has always been about developing a language. The actual making is a big part of that language. That’s what building it, operating it, and constantly developing it is-developing a language.
JK: Despite the fact that you have a studio full of assistants, the work doesn’t feel fabricated: your hand is all over it.
TS: Well, it’s all real.
JK: What does that mean?
TS: It’s not made up to look like something other than what it is. All of that stuff is built by me and my crew, and we have a very specific ethic: make the effort to show your work rather than hide it. We have all these great people who start out as studio assistants but wind up making really personal contributions. We maximize everyone’s natural skills.
JK: Your studio reminds me of an architect’s.
TS: The manner in which we do things is always based on a triangle of good, cheap, and fast—you choose two out of three. I always say make it good and show how you made it. Don’t hide the screw, show it. Always show the glue mark. Let the tape show the dirt that it picked up while being handled. There are other rules too. Writing is always in Sharpie, and if something needs to be written and I’m not there, there’s a chart of my handwriting so it matches. When it comes to making the logos, sometimes it’s just a question of using a projector and tracing the letters. Duct tape is generally done in cross-hatch pattern, and if it’s laid horizontally it must go on in a shingle-like pattern so that dust doesn’t accumulate on the ridges. Mending plates should always show the price tag from OK Hardware, which indicates that the thing was built in Soho.
JK: There was so much in the show, so many pieces, so much material and so much process, that it was easy to miss a lot. People were walking around with a kind of glazed look.
TS: Maybe I should be more manipulative. I often think about Robert Gober, who hides all the details of how he makes things. That restraint is what’s so exciting about his work. But I could never do anything like that. All I can do is what I do.
JK: I know you know Richard Wentworth. I see the influence of those English artists—Woodrow, Wentworth. Richard Deacon, especially in this show. You must have seen their work while you were living in London.
TS: Yeah. That generation, for sure. Bill Woodrow is a big one, Tony Cragg, there are even a couple of younger artists that are right out of that, who I think are just as good. Like Rachel Whiteread and Stephen Pippin. What I like about all those English artists is that they’re process-oriented. I always used to say that what I do is process-oriented conceptual art. The concept is really about the making. That part of it is really un-chic right now. People don’t obsess over that aspect of Rachel Whiteread’s work, do they? It’s more about its monumentality.
JK: Most people are out of touch with how things are made.
TS: People always say to me, Where did you get this stuff? And I’m like, I made everything. There’s nothing I like more than talking shop.
Read the full interview in BOMB Magazine here.