Tom Sachs

Tom Sachs by Katherine Satorius
Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills CA
September 8 – October 13, 2007

Originally published in ArtUS 21

Declaring the moon landing “the art project of the twentieth century,” Tom Sachs assembles for his first Gagosian show a handmade, re-imagined version of the Apollo 11 mission using foam core, wood, flatscreen TVs, a nitrogen tank, a scissor lift, a refrigerator, fans, ladders, vodka, propane canisters, lab coats, and countless other materials—an itemized list would fill pages. Included in “Space Program” are a full-scale lunar module complete with toilet, sleeping nook, reading material, stereo system, and a Jack Daniels-stocked bar; a three-layer spacesuit brilliantly crafted out of Tyvek, long underwear, tubing, a snowsuit, and yellow rubber boot inserts produced by Nike; several scaled-down, functioning dioramas depicting various stages in the sequence of historical events; and a mission control station represented by a metal desk beneath a grid of thirty-odd monitors, each linked to a camera trained on a different point of the installation. All of these elements are both prop and sculpture: prior to the show’s public opening, Sachs and team performed a rendition of the landing from start to finish, beginning with liftoff and culminating in the collection of “moon rock” samples (actually, chunks of concrete mined from a hole drilled in Gagosian’s floor) as the scenes unfolded on the control room’s bank of screens. Most of these props were deactivated during the actual exhibition period, but the incredible level of detail, the sheer technical genius of the assemblage, the surprises and moments of humor that seem to crop up at every turn—the earth image displayed on the control room monitors that is really a beach ball hanging from the ceiling of the LEM, the L.L. Bean tag visible on the spacesuit’s underlayer—made exploring the installation an enthralling, immersive experience all the same.

“Space Program” is nothing less than a dazzling spectacle, a virtuoso display of bricollage. But is it anything more? While much contemporary art is spun around ideas, carefully defining and preserving reservoirs of conceptual space for viewers to tap, Sachs’s work lacks this porous quality: it begins and ends with matter. This makes the work hard to connect with in the usual way—you can marvel at its construction, admire its intricate surfaces, but it resists contemplation. To be sure, the installation links up to a world of associations—the idea of a “faked” moon landing; man’s quest to extend the boundaries of knowledge; the alchemical power of branding (a favorite theme of Sachs’s, which here assumes the form of a handmade, wall-filling NASA logo). But all of this ultimately seems collateral. More than anything else, the whole moon landing conceit serves as a handy armature around which to assemble materials. The artistry of NASA, which values function infinitely more than visual elegance–and recently even enlisted America’s basement tinkers to redesign a problematic space glove—is a natural fit for Sachs’s DIY aesthetic, which flaunts seams, wires, and other evidence of construction. A replica or model on a monumental scale, “Space Program” is on one level a vastly more elaborate version of Warhol’s 1964 “Brillo Box”—but, of course, coming four decades later, it lacks that work’s philosophical force.

In his work, Sachs makes a rather impassioned case for the concrete, reasserting the primacy, in art, of physical form over abstract ideas. In fact, the entire installation can be read as an ode to matter, such that the stand-in moon rocks enshrined in a glass case at the far corner of the second-floor gallery, where the exhibition culminates, represent little more than the artist’s fantasy about actually laying his hands on one of the most otherworldly materials humankind has ever found. But brilliant form and brilliant content aren’t mutually exclusive: great art has both, even when the form is intentionally formless. You might consider his active eschewing of a navigable conceptual loop—in effect, a challenge to the currently accepted model of art—as a radical concept, if you wanted to tie yourself in knots. But that might be attributing too much to Sachs, and missing the point for an artist who adores the act of collecting, manipulating, and repurposing matter for its own sake.