Not so far from Basel (the real town of Basel, not the metastasized art fair), the haute ski town of St Moritz is quietly becoming its own art destination.  Painter/film director Julian Schnabel’s son Vito Schnabel has chosen St Moritz for his own eponymous Swiss outpost, which is currently hosting an exhibition by artist Tom Sachs.  Sachs’ deep digs into his personal obsessions, like his years-long Outsider-esque variation-and-theme play on NASA imagery, makes his work among the most intriguing of all contemporary artists, on par with Grayson Perry for his widely variable expressions and air of sincerity in all the mad things he builds.

Tom Sachs and Van Niestat chronicled their Alp/Transalp journey in 2004 with a photocopy ‘zine, detailing their meals, routes, VIN number, and other minutiae [Allied Cultural Prosthetics]
I’d missed that Sachs is also a motorcyclist, and had, in 2004, made an art project around a motorcycle tour he’d taken through the Swiss Alps on a Honda Transalp, with filmmaker Van Neistat. Sachs published a limited-edition of 100 photocopied ‘Dollar Cut’ zines about the trip (this is on my Christmas list, if you really love me), and even made tee shirts of the hand-drawn cover, including the Honda’s VIN number, license, and other minutiae he typically incorporates into his work.

The Transalp Tee: a rare, affordable Tom Sachs artwork…if you were lucky! In his typical manner, dwelling on the details is Sachs’ method of exploring cultural meanings typically overlooked [Allied Cultural Prosthetics]
This month Sachs opened a new body of work at Vito Schnabel Gallery called ‘The Pack’, as an homage to the work of seminal conceptual/performance artist Joseph Beuys.  The German Beuys shamanically transformed his life story into his art, particularly his ‘origin story’ of a plane crash while a Stuka tailgunner in the Luftwaffe, where his life was saved by independent Tatar tribesmen, who healed his body by packing him in fat, wrapping him in felt blankets, and dragging him by sled over the snows to medical attention, using flashlights to navigate through the night.  Beuys’ most famous performance/art included felt, fat, flashlights and sleds, as well at other elements he considered magical, like coyotes… he famously had himself locked in a cage with a wild coyote, covering himself if a cloak, hat, and cane, while ritually negotiating with the frightened and aggressive animal: it was tense, dangerous, and magical at once.

‘The Pack: Kinshasa, Lagos, Mogadishu’, mixed media (2018), with ‘Flag’, polymer paint over steel and plywood (2018) [Genevieve Hanson/Tom Sachs Studio]
Sachs, in an homage to the master, has himself transformed Beuys’ talismans into his own obsession with Switzerland, for his exhibit ‘The Pack’.  He considers Switzerland an iconic brand, and even opened a ‘Swiss Passport Office’ for 24 hours in London, from which he issued his own version of the world’s most coveted travel document.  His interest in Switzerland is on full display in St Moritz, and includes three electric motorcycles dubbed ‘Kinshasa’, ‘Mogadishu’, and ‘Lagos’ (all 2018).  Each ‘sled’ is equipped with Swiss blankets, a flashlight, and symbolic weaponry (a BB gun, a machete), plus snacks(!), all displayed in front of a giant Swiss flag…modern versions of Beuys’ work, transformed via Sachs’ particular obsessions.  There is some discussion of associating these bikes with a 500-year old military outfit, the Swiss Guards, who were created in 1506 by Pope Julius II, and now famously guard the Vatican City.

‘Heidi’, mixed media (2018). The most robo-erotic-Helvetic coffee dispenser ever. [Genevieve Hanson/Tom Sachs Studio]
Other works in the exhibit reference NASA and the moon (staples of his imagery), plus an erotic/robotic X-rated coffee machine called Heidi.  Sachs’ work is always worth pondering, and his assemblages are consistently crafty, reckoning with culture and its machinery through hand-made totems, which typically become squint-your-eyes simulacra of ‘real’ objects…like full-scale lunar landers. His art plays both anthropologist and Outsider at once, ignoring the history-book narrative surrounding things, and focussing on their details instead, giving a propaganda-free and openly curious take on our cultural totems.

‘Training’ (2011-16), plywood, latex paint, steel, vertibird, yamazaki, mixed media. It’s all in the details. [Genevieve Hanson/Tom Sachs Studio]
‘Moon’ (2018), polymer over plywood, mixed media. Flags and NASA as branding, unpacked. [Genevieve Hanson/Tom Sachs Studio]
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