These are exciting times for the art world in New York City, to be sure. Not every artist interview is conducted just before the artist's dealer is busted for showing their work, but sometimes one just gets lucky. It happens that I had traipsed along to artist Tom Sachs' Chinatown studio in early September, a few days before his show opened at the Mary Boone Gallery. On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 29, Mary Boone, the art world's favorite tiger lady, was hauled off to the cells for possession of firearms and live ammo, which was part of Sachs' show. Boone, absurdly, remained in custody until Thursday afternoon.
What follows is a tidied-up version of my Q and A with Tom Sachs. Plus an afterword from the artist on the increasingly bizarre situation in town these days.
Q. You began as an architect?
A. After college I went to work for Frank Gehry. I did these chairs. I was like the carpenter who built the prototypes of these. Gehry was great. He's a genius. And he's the most unpretentious person you ever met. However, the other people working around him all wanted to be Frank Gehry. And most of the people I met there are such arseholes that I decided to join the greedy ranks and become an artist, and give up the altruistic society-benefiting job of being an architect.
Q. You came to New York to be an artist in 1991. Poor timing. Wouldn't you say?
A. Because the Boom was over? I was at school reading about it, when all that stuff was happening. I was learning about Jeff Koons and Brancusi on the same day. They had equal weight in my understanding of art history. It was all new. Sherrie Levine and Duchamp -- they could have been living at the same time. It was also exciting then. That was why I loved art at that time. Now I say "Kill All Artists!" Ruthlessly. And for every one you kill there will be ten new ones, cropping up next month. So I wasn't at all intimidated or daunted by it. At the time, it was very exciting, because there were all these people proving you could make a career out of being an artist. And shortly after that, it was all over. But the ideas were still alive.
Q. You began showing at Morris Healy in '95. What was in your first shows?
A. There were fashion packaging things. Like a Tiffany box and a hand grenade and the Gucci bag … and guns. The Tiffany Glock was a model of a Glock, which is the police gun of choice. Tiffany and Smith & Wesson did a collaboration which you can see in the Arms & Armor department of the Met. They made one out of silver and turquoise inlay and stuff. Tiffany's would never make anything out of plastic and a Glock is a plastic gun. The Gucci was a Beretta, because Count Gucci was shot to death with a Beretta. So I made a model of a Beretta.
Q. Why the interest in weaponry?
A. Thematically the idea is that weapons are made without planned obsolescence. Like the first cars were made to military standards because they didn't know better. Now that we have the luxury of decadence -- they design failure into their products. The things that we make are usually things that are designed to be thrown away, disposable things, like fashion and junk food. There's a hierarchy of construction. At the bottom you've got domestic goods, then commercial-quality things, and industrial things … and then military and nautical … and then aerospace … and the higher you go the farther you are from home, because the farther you are from home, the more vulnerable you are to the elements. A lunar module, to me it's a superlative. It's the ultimate art project! I mean going to the moon. It was like the coolest thing you could think of. So it was a lot like art.
Q. This object that is a complete airplane lavatory. With walls, and everything. Is it functional?
A. It's a full-scale model of a toilet from a Boeing 737. Model 300. It's made out of foamcore and steel. Just like this. Everything on it works. The toilet flushes. You get hot and cold running water. The waste goes into the vacuum. Then you change this white tray that pulls out, and you dump it. On an airplane, this is meant to have blue liquid in it -- it's changed the way it's changed in a motor home.
Q. It's like a real-life sculpture. Why would you choose this particular object out of so many?
A. Probably because it's the only private space in a public space. It's the only place that you can shoot up … or have sex … or be alone.
Q. You can't smoke, though.
A. You can actually. I am producing a fanzine. These are all the pieces that are in it, and it includes How To Smoke On An Airplane Without Getting Caught. Various instructions. But again the idea that this is a bathroom with no planned obsolescence. I mean, per square foot a bathroom is the most expensive place in your house still. The idea is that it is a private space that has domestic references in an airplane. And airplane interiors have been designed, since Raymond Loewy anyway, to remove the experience of space travel from the passengers -- as a form of pacification.
Q. Is this what I think it is?
A. Yeah. This is the electric chair. It's real. It delivers 42,000 volts. That's a very fierce transformer here.
Q. Why the bucket?
A. There's a sponge and saltwater in there. Just like with a real electric chair, you have to take the briny sponge and stick it in the helmet. It makes the connection, the conductivity. Otherwise the head will explode. It's a way of transferring the energy. The TV is here just to pacify the subject. He can watch the Superbowl.
It's clear that Tom Sachs has put his finger on the cutting edge, and there is a history to this, of course. It would include Dada, the Surrealists, Tinguely's "Homage to New York", the Destruction In Art Symposium at London's ICA, Warhol's "Disaster series," Mark Pauline's "Survival Research Laboratories" and Gregory Green. It's also clear that the NYPD has dealt Tom Sachs what could easily be seen as a pretty hot hand.
Nonetheless, when Sachs called following the Taking of Mary Boone -- a hit here for David Bowie, I think -- he sounded somewhat dazed. Did he see any relation to the other peculiar goings-on in the city? "Well, it's impossible not to draw parallels, to make connections," he said. "But I don't know. It's a bit creepy. It's a conservative time on this issue. These people don't know their history. It happens every time. This could be about Duchamp."