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Tom Sachs
Photograph: Teddy Wolff

Tom Sachs talks about his Brooklyn Museum retrospective

New York's bricolage artist Tom Sachs talks about his work and his life-long fascination with boom boxes

Written by
Paul Laster

A master of bricolage, a style of art created from whatever’s on hand, Tom Sachs has been creating do-it-yourself versions of boom boxes since junior high school. Assembled from audio equipment combined with found objects, Sachs says his sound systems are the hardware equivalent of dub music. We recently spoke with the artist about his art show, “Boombox Retrospective,” which turns the Brooklyn Museum’s lobby atrium into a nonstop party.

How did you decide to use bricolage for your work?
It’s something that I have been doing my whole life, but I didn’t know it was called that until college. My initial experience with it was when I lived in Bogotá, Columbia, as a preteen and discovered our gardener’s radio. He’d made it from scratch. Later in life, I visited Jamaica and was impressed by how ingeniously people got by on limited resources.

Which were your first works to grab the art world’s attention?
That would probably be my fashion-related stuff, like my Glock handgun made out of Tiffany packaging or the working guillotine I branded with a Chanel logo. I was trying to synthesize the iconography of fashion with systems of institutionalized violence.

You’ve been working on your boom-box pieces for a long time. Do you remember the first one you made?
Yeah, it was in eighth grade. I hooked up a Walkman to self-powered speakers attached with Velcro to a piece of plywood I’d cut in shop class. It had a handle and knob that stuck out and held headphones. A kid in class said to me, “What’s that knob for, your mama?” I didn’t really understand what he was implying, so I replied, “No, my mom doesn’t listen on headphones.” It took me a couple of years to figure out what he meant. That piece isn’t in this show, though it probably should be.

So which one is the earliest you’ve included?
Guru’s Yardstyle, from 1999. Guru was the name of a sno-ball stand near B Bar on Lafayette Street. On Thursday nights, DJ Hova and I would wheel out this stereo system on a hand truck and have a yard-style party on the street. It morphed over time to include an amplifier, turntable, tape deck, CD player, speakers, umbrella and box of records. You could throw a rave with it.

What music do you normally play?
If I had to pick one genre, it would be heavy dub. But I like all genres, including country. I believe that every genre has its greats, but dub music is the closest thing philosophically to bricolage. It’s made up of other things. It’s got the vocals removed and then the drums and the synthesizers enhanced. Dub music—or any music, for that matter—is the best creative expression of ourselves.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the Brooklyn Museum in NYC

See the exhibition

  • Art
  • Contemporary art

A lot of artists transform ordinary object into art works, but Sachs’s pieces evince a funky swagger mixed with crowd pleasing populism. This show, which takes up the museum’s glass entryway, surveys a series of sculptures created over the last 17 years that are based on that icon of street culture, the boom box.

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