Over the past few years, the battle to get to space has been fought primarily between two men: Jeff Bezos, the Amazon overlord who hopes to regularly propel civilians into suborbital space with Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, the Telsa baron whose SpaceX hopes to one day colonize Mars. (Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is in the mix, too.)
But what about Tom Sachs?
The American artist may not own a rocket company, but he has spent over a decade exploring an all-consuming passion for space, starting with the Moon at Gagosian in 2007, and onto Mars at Park Avenue Armory (2012) and Jupiter’s moon (2016). In September, he opened Space Program: Rare Earths, an experience at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen Museum that leads visitors through a series of tasks mimicking the mining rare minerals on earth’s closest asteroid, which are needed to continue to manufacture iPhones. More recently, he launched a capsule collection with the Canadian retailer Ssense, a sponsor of the Deichtorhallen show. The selection includes mottled ceramic mugs, folding chairs, T-shirts, a Casio watch, and more, and released last week on a microsite that allows visitors to get a sense of the project remotely. Concurrently, the Montreal store is hosting an installation of Sachs’s works, and distributing a limited edition zine.
A compelling contrast driving Sachs’s space projects is that while space exploration is aesthetically defined by technological innovation, Sachs’s art is characterized by an obsession with handwork and human imperfection. Those with even a passing interest in fashion and art will recognize his handwriting, which covers his studio, films, and fashion collaborations, and pieces in a recent exhibition are made of materials like foam core, plywood, and hot glue. “The best made thing ever is clearly the thing we’re using right now—this phone, the supercomputer that, If it’s in the palm of your hand, can do endless things,” he said over video chat last week. And yet “the phone has no evidence that it was made”—there’s no sign of the hand, no sign of its construction from human work. It is utterly automated. Or, as Sachs put it, “One of its greatest achievements is that it’s miraculous. There’s no seams. Even the software is designed to make it look like it’s there without even knowing it.”
Sachs likes to show the seams, which is what separates art from the machine. “Artists have an advantage over industry, in that Apple could never make anything as flawed, and as personal, as my sculpture,” he said. “It can’t do fonts. [Artificial intelligence] can’t do music. It makes noise that sounds like music, but it can’t do it. It can’t make soul. And the artist has this advantage. The artist can say, I am somebody. I exist. And that’s a quality that I’m always trying to amplify in my work.”
That quality is further amplified by the pieces created with Ssense, which is known for its unorthodox collaborations but envisions the Sachs project, and its attendant website, as a first-of-its-kind digital counterpart to an art exhibition. “I’m interested in making things that last,” Sachs said. “The $10 T-shirt you wear once is the most expensive T-shirt you could own. And the $100 T-shirt you wear a thousand times is the best value you could ever make. And I think all the products we made with Ssense have that quality.” Everything, he pointed out, is made in the United States; he’s particularly proud of the quality of the shirts. His favorite piece is a Leatherman, the Rolls Royce of pocket knives. “I hope that everyone who gets one uses it,” he said, “[and] doesn’t have it on a shelf, but they use it and they fuck it up, and if they break it, they fix it.”