How Tom Sachs's Space Program Sublimates Post-industrial Disillusionment

Tom Sachs, "Ishidoro" (2015), mixed media, 44 H x 26 W x 31.5 D inches. (Photo: Genvieve Hanson)

Tom Sachs: Space Program: Europa
YBCA, San Francisco
Sept. 16, 2016 - Jan. 15, 2017 


Tom Sachs’s constellation of assemblage constructions that forms Space Program: Europa evidences, mourns, and pays homage to romantic ideologies of exploration and discovery — whose roots were anchored in the colonial exploits of the Age of Discovery, the Renaissance, and Age of Reason, and led to 20th-century industrialization, engineering, and applied science.

Here, guided by a practice of bricolage, Sachs’s Space Program: Europa, may be thought of as reflecting a post-modern era marked by spent post-industrial illusions of grandeur, reconstituted as a projected “space” fantasy that alludes to rituals of social reproduction and technologies of exploration and occupation.

Space Program: Europa, whether consciously or unconsciously, comments on and disavows the destructive nature of capitalist development, industrial societies and, indirectly, the secular valorization of individualism, commodification, and identity-defining consumption.

The staged universe on display is comprised of heterogeneous remnants of previous historical cycles of production, consumption, and destruction of artifacts, (re)presented from their past lives in an anarchic world of commodity production.

The diverse assemblages and installations are formulated and condensed from materials that are constructed and utilized to engage in complex interrelationships and structures of meaning.

Tom Sachs, "Daisu" (2013), mixed media, 69.5 H x 27 W x 16.5 D inches. (Photo: Genvieve Hanson)

Here, an aesthetic strategy of recuperation, assemblage, and the reformulation of objects, can be thought of as re-signifying products of modes anarchic production and consumption, appropriated to create, from discarded utilitarian objects, new realities and symbolic forms.

The aesthetic re-signification of the material artifacts that constitute the individual works flows from the transformation of common-sense associations bound to the previous utility of objects through modes of creative recycling that re-contextualize their “use-value” as elements in the sculptural assemblages.

The “spatial” constructions that occupy the galleries can be thought of as projecting a manipulated, humanly-formed landscape where the values of individualism are exposed and reduced to romantic ideology, undermined by social integration and globalization, and where the individual is confronted and psychically colonized by the inundation of merchandise, images, and brand logos.   In this aesthetic universe, the mission and anarchy of capitalism are normalized, made palatable, entertaining, appearing desirable, and even democratic.

In the exhibition, the cultural “space” that was historically constituted by hierarchies and distinctions — between art and ethnography, art and craft, fantasy and reality — is blurred and equalized by assemblages presented as objectified material texts that are rendered legible by our familiarity with the cultural terrain they occupy, in a world we share.

Here, the past is present in the form of the sculptures and installations that evidence intellectual, scientific, and technological history, and relate social genealogies through vehicles of fantastic allegory and allusion.  In the space of Europa, the viewer encounters sculptural condensations that conjure associative meanings through materials and devices that include transmitting equipment, video screens, common tools, and household items.

Tom Sachs, "Mission Control Center (MCC)" (2007), mixed media, 117.375 H x 193.125 W x 59.875 D inches. (Photo: Josh White)

"Mission Control Center" (MCC), an installation comprised of a huge bank of video monitors, hovers above a desk area. It is framed by two large cabinets and speakers, above which are placed a globe, digital readouts, and a large screen with an image of a planet. The structure and mages are easily identifiable by audiences who are steeped in modern visual vocabularies of film, television, and images associated with science fiction, since it is through the daily bombardment of photographic and film images that much of the public’s familiarity and experience of popular genre is situated.

Similarly, in many of the “sculptures,” multiple components derived from diverse sources are congealed and co-exist simultaneously in dialogue with one another, in order to transform the pre-existing materials through a mode of re-articulation that uses object collection and saturation as a means of artistic creation and allusion to comment on a world cacophony of image production.

Thus, "Daisu" (2013), a fabricated structure comprised of a range of elements such as a broom, golf club, tape measure, and various familiar “ready made” materials, “stands in” for some sort of transmitting device or surface rover that references and reinforces the theme of space travel and exploration.

This strategy alludes to historical and social interconnectedness, and to a semiotics of art making as a cultural practice that is rendered coherent through recognizable objects and inherited conventions used to structure meaning in the work.

In Space Program: Europa, the formal strategies that define and give coherence to the presentation — the collecting, juxtaposing, and melding of disparate objects and materials — seem to signify cultural contact, economic social reproduction, and environmental exploitation, constituted and relativized as a free-flow of visual symbols that are equalized and, to a certain degree, divested of overt critical social agenda.

Interestingly, here it becomes possible for audiences to recognize the cultural significance of the work in a world characterized by the dissemination, inundation, and popularization of images and objects, and to recognize the limitations of science, industry, and exploration of the environment as defined by the dictates of profit over the needs of humanity and the planet(s) as a whole. WM

Anthony Torres

Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).   

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