SEOUL — By now, the artist Tom Sachs is used to people suggesting that the way that he runs his studio has some parallels with the operation of cults. “A cult just means — when you look it up — it just means a group of people with idiosyncratic and shared values,” Sachs said in an interview here one recent afternoon. “Everyone’s welcome to leave whenever they want.”
Sachs, 55, was taking a break from putting the finishing touches on his show “Tom Sachs Space Program: Indoctrination” at Art Sonje Center, one of three solo exhibitions he was readying in the South Korean capital. To get it all done, he had flown in five members of his 25-person New York-based team, who were identifiable by their Sachs-branded apparel and Nikes (he just designed a sold-out model; a rerelease arrives in August).
Visitors to Art Sonje have the chance to learn some of the studio’s guiding principles (called “the code”) — be on time, keep to-do lists, pay fines for various infractions (toward a party fund) — and to be tested on them. After completing a quiz about such rules, passing students become members of the Sachs “Space Program”; those who fail can view a 10-point video and other re-education materials (all quite entertaining) and try again. “We are indoctrinating Korea to the values of the studio,” Sachs said cheerily.
The tight cohesion that Sachs fosters has allowed his cult to embark on wildly ambitious projects for many years, like a series of mock space missions that he has staged at museums and galleries. They went to the moon from Gagosian in Beverly Hills in 2007 and to Mars from the Park Avenue Armory in 2012, always with a zealous attention to detail. (The Martian landing sculpture was made mostly from plywood and screws.) Many people have “built their own lunar module,” Sachs said, “but I’m the only one that built it without a central column,” which requires precisely assembling its cantilevered landing gear.
At Sonje, there are spacesuits, models of spacecraft, and ingeniously jury-rigged dioramas that use cameras, monitors, and the odd fog machine to simulate rocket launches and segments of the trips that his group has made throughout the solar system (in earthbound performances). These intricate works awe, not least because they have obviously been fashioned by hand.
Lurking beneath the charisma of Sachs’s inventions is a nostalgic wistfulness. Emblazoned with American flags and NASA logos, they nod to a time when the country could pursue grand goals, when it could dream. Their sturdy, do-it-yourself construction is also a tacit riposte to the built-in obsolescence of so many products today. “His criticality is not really direct,” said Sunjung Kim, Art Sonje’s artistic director, who organized the show. “It’s a detour, and also there’s humor in it.” (Asked about the source of his D.I.Y. sensibilities, Sachs mentioned a grandfather who grew up during the Depression whose own father was “a rag-and-bone man” on the hardscrabble Lower East Side. “He would get home with four flat tires,” Sachs said; his grandfather helped patch them.)
Billionaires have been embarking on their own space programs in recent years, but “I’m not interested in their small-penis contest,” Sachs said. His interests are terrestrial and forward-looking. “You don’t go to other worlds because you’ve ruined this one and you’re looking for a new home,” he said. “You go to other worlds so you can better understand your resources here.”
Sachs’s art celebrates what people can accomplish when they come together, roll up their sleeves and refuse to quit. “The reward for good work is more work,” he is fond of saying. Recently, he has been embracing NFTs with gusto, inviting collectors to conceive three-part digital rockets with each component bearing the insignia of a brand like Budweiser, Tiffany or Campbell’s Soup. They’re sendups of how identities are formed, or aspired to, via consumerism, perhaps. Sachs and company assemble the toy projectiles, launch them and ship them to buyers. “If you have any doubts that it isn’t performance art, building 500 rockets is endurance art,” he said, using an expletive to emphasize the labor involved. (Paintings of his Pop rockets are on view through Aug. 20 at the gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac’s Seoul branch.)
Mainline art types have lambasted the aesthetic value of many NFT creations, and Sachs has, too, but he was rhapsodic about his experience in the field. “I’ve finally found my people,” he said. “This is the first grass-roots art movement where I’ve been an active participant.” In Oil Tank Culture Park in Seoul, his team launched about two dozen rockets for a sizable crowd.
The rocketeers take pride in their odd line of work. Sachs’s studio manager, Erum Shah, noted that they had recovered every one they have blasted into the air. “There is one rocket that is missing a part,” she said. “It was the Chanel nose cone, and it’s in the Seine. I think that’s kind of poetic.” During a launch a few weeks ago in Chicago, one got stuck in a treetop; the four-hour rescue mission included drones and tree-climbing attempts.
“In the end, we went to Home Depot, got a ladder and a saw, and sawed off the branch,” Sachs said last week.
After some 16 launch events in the last year, Sachs is ending them, “so that we can focus on the next chapter, which is world-building,” he said. “We’re building planets in Mona.” On that metaverse platform, collectors will be able to convert NFT Mars rocks made by Sachs into digital worlds, a process that he termed “transubstantiation.” (The cutoff to create a physical rocket is July 24 at midnight; digital ones can still be assembled after that.)
The crypto universe’s naked commercialism is a feature, not a bug, for Sachs. “I believe that the smart contract — or Web3 — is really about money, and it’s about, If everyone’s an artist, and that includes bankers, it’s the art of faith,” he said. Lately, that faith is being tested. Sales of NFTs are down and the prices of Bitcoin and Ethereum have plummeted. The downturn, Sachs said, “will weed out all the garbage. Only the artists that are willing to do it for the doing of it will prevail.”
In the meantime, reports of crypto scams and thefts have continued to proliferate. “The negativity is so easy, and delicious, and fun,” Sachs said. But that is not his worldview; he comes across as a true believer. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “I’m interested in making the world the way I want it to be. It’s the only way we can survive.”
Sachs clearly relishes the opportunity to work beyond the borders of the contemporary art industry, where “there is an elitism that is really offensive to me and meanspirited, and I even believe is there to cloak unformed, badly formed ideas,” he said. A teenager in Connecticut in the 1980s who frequented hardcore punk shows, he now has a zest for populist crossovers, which generate productive friction. He has designed an unsanctioned Chanel guillotine and the very real Nikes; the athletic company billed his stripped-down new shoe as “a do-more sneaker. An own-less sneaker.” Sachs described it as “a sculpture that’s on your foot,” and he wants his space sculptures to be similarly accessible. “You don’t need a wall text to explain” them, he said.
What may be Sachs’s most crowd-pleasing production in Seoul, through Sept. 11, is a survey of 13 homemade boomboxes (of many more he has crafted) at Hybe Insight, a museum space at the headquarters of Hybe, the self-described “entertainment lifestyle platform” behind BTS. They are striking devices, built with wood and paint, and adorned with Hello Kitty figurines and other accouterments. In some cases, markings for their dials are drawn by hand, and their wiring is visible, proudly revealing how they were made. “I named them sculptures for the ear,” the show’s curator, Yeowoon Lee, said.
Most of the boomboxes play a mix of about 24 hours that was compiled by the multimedia artist and the DJ Nemo Librizzi. It amounts to “a story of the way freedom was found in American music, mainly by the marginalized classes,” Librizzi said by phone from New York. There’s blues, gospel, jazz, rap. The day after the show opened, Little Junior Parker’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” filled the space as young people poured through, posing for photos and just maybe becoming Sachs fans.
Sachs first began building speaker systems in his youth, which is also when he got into firing off rockets. He traded a copy of Led Zeppelin’s album “Physical Graffiti” for a stolen car stereo, which he wired into his family’s old Plymouth Volare station wagon. “I just figured it out myself, just out of desire,” he said. That resourcefulness has developed into an art of exhilarating bricolage, of functioning objects that are greater than the sum of their pieced-together parts.
At one point, Sachs got to talking about how “bricolage is in everything, if you’re just a little more open about defining what that can mean,” and mentioned the concept of kluge — using mismatched items to engineer an unlikely solution. It’s the scientific community’s term for bricolage, “when something doesn’t go as planned,” he said. “But there’s a fine line between kluge and just doing the best with what you got, and I think that’s what we’re all trying to do.”