Artists

To Space and Back: Tom Sachs and His Triumphant Failure to Make Shoes Fit for Mars

A page from a zine made for the occasion of Tom Sachs’s “Space Camp” on Governors Island in New York.

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Five hundred dollars will allow for the purchase of many goods, among them a number of pairs of artist Tom Sachs’s Mars Yard Nike sneakers now up for sale on eBay. Not all of them, though—some pairs are tagged with prices much higher, moving from $700 to $800 and, not especially rationally, up to $2,999.99. (Other pairs in various sizes can be had for around $150.)

Many of the auction listings do not seem ashamed about their betrayal of the sentiment behind the limited-edition shoes, with some explicitly showing photos of writing on the official product box that says—in Sachs’s handwritten font over top a sleek Nike swoosh—“These shoes are only valid if worn and worn to death by you. Posers need not apply.”

Many posers applied. But they had to work to get their wares, or at least that was the idea. Access to the shoes was available earlier this summer at an interactive Sachs-styled “Space Camp” installation on Governors Island in New York. Sneakerheads and assorted others took ferries there to make the scene, which surrounded an obstacle course arranged inside an abandoned building. Initiates on the day I went were greeted by the sounds of Wu-Tang Clan booming on stacks of speakers outside. Once in the hovel, orientation began with a screening of The Hero’s Journey, a new film made by Sachs and his frequent collaborator Van Neistat that traces the path of an apprentice in the artist’s storied SoHo studio. The indoctrination process is harsh and unstinting, with physical as well as mental endurance a topmost priority. “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion,” Sachs has his aspiring studio hands repeat in a sort of mantra in the film. Another one intoned: “Power tools are a privilege, not a right.”

After the film, the group of “Space Camp” trainees was ushered into a holding area wherein workout clothes were provided, with silver strips on which to write one’s name in Sharpie for the purpose of identification. Once outfitted, activity commenced. The obstacle course itself, hidden from view and thus a mystery to anyone for whom neither sneaker-buying nor art-experiencing typically involves much in the way of ordeal, was, in no small way, intense. The first stage called for climbing up and ringing a bell suspended from the ceiling, reachable only by way of rope. (That is, if one chose “hard” as opposed to “easy” when asked for a preferred course of action; the “easy” way offered use of a ladder, but what’s the point of not even trying?)

A chart in the “Space Camp” zine.

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It is not easy to climb a rope, and failure, it turned out, was very much an option—in that and then also other stages that tested different feats of physical ingenuity and the workings of the mind. One scenario involved piloting a miniature remote-control helicopter to pick up a would-be space capsule from a would-be ocean with a hook, moving it onto a platform, and then landing safely on another deck. Patience and finesse were required, in high supply.

Another stage played as a ramshackle take on a Sol LeWitt wall drawing: on a wood plank marked with squiggly etchings on the wall, course-goers had to lean over and trace the shape of the lines while maintaining close proximity and without letting their pencils leave the surface for any reason. It might sound simple; it was not—especially with arms already tired and sore from rope-climbing, plank-holding, weight-lifting, and more.

“We’re marking a big red X”—at points where lines touched or pencils disengaged—”and owning that, so it becomes a field of failure,” Sachs said of the wall drawing, which would remain in-the-works until all of “Space Camp” was broken down and carted off the island. We were sitting outside after a run through the course was complete, sweat still dripping, while workers in “Space Camp” paraphernalia milled around. “This is an obstacle course and, in a way, a consumerist intervention because I’m heartbroken to see all those fuckboys lining up to buy sneakers at Supreme on a Saturday instead of skateboarding, playing soccer, doing math, or whatever inspires them. I didn’t like that these kids were lining up and waiting, so I thought, Well, if they’re going to go stay up all night waiting for sneakers, let’s make them really work for it.”

Like the aspiring apprentice in the film screened earlier, a participant in the “Space Camp” program navigated a journey of sorts. “There is always humiliation and failure in the beginning, and we wanted The Hero’s Journey to accentuate that,” Sachs said. “No one who has had success hasn’t also had a humiliating beginning with lots of failure.” It’s a tale as old as time, he noted: “This is the story of Luke Skywalker and Odysseus and Cher Horowitz in Clueless.”

Another page from zine depicting Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole in 1908.

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Exercise is integral to an art practice that, for Sachs, could not be more holistic. “We do this to make our bodies stronger so that there’s a more solid foundation to make difficult decision with our minds,” he said of himself and his acolytes at his studio. “If you have a strong body, you can flow better, think better, sleep better. If you know you have to show up in the morning, you may not have that last drink, you might get to bed a little earlier. It’s a lifestyle. To me there’s nothing more important than work. This obstacle course prioritizes work itself over [getting to] the end.”

As for the art of shoe design, which he first engaged with Nike around the time of his four-week inhabitance at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2012 for his sculpture/performance installation “Space Program: Mars,” Sachs said he was intrigued by the notion of the foot as a point of contact. “It’s a connection to the ground,” he said. “Something I learned from Brancusi or David Smith is the way an object connects to the earth is important: it communicates the formal structure of the whole thing. If you’re talking about a physical body, look at anyone and there are these curves and shadows underneath as the object—the person, the figure—floats on the surface.”

He was interested in the shoe-design project as a way to stage a kind of insurrection as well. “A lot of this has been my way of trying to come to terms with the issues of an artist working with a company like Nike,” he said. “I approached this collaboration with some apprehension because, in doing a cultural intervention with the culture of Nike, what is a way to make a product 100 percent Nike and 100 percent me? Of course I want to change them, but me and 100 Noam Chomskys couldn’t make a dent—it’s so big. So this was my way of trying to mitigate my experience with storytelling, not about the way Nike is or should be—but the way it can be in some small way.”

The patch one received upon completion of “Space Camp.”

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The Mars Yard 2.0 sneaker, with updates on the original model made five years ago, features a preponderance of Sachsian flights of fancy. Custom eyelets and aglets do duty next to special “donning straps” and elements that have been designed to age with grace. The idea for the original shoe was that it could be worn and re-soled and worn again, for the rest of time. But it turned out that the high-grade Vectran fabric employed, though strong enough to be used for airbags to land contraptions on Mars, turned to tatters when subjected to much different use in the integrated structure of a shoe. So adjustments were made, all of them almost superhumanly specific and, in typical Sachs fashion, invitingly home-spun. “I was really trying to work with Nike to make something built the way I would build it,” the artist said.

The project also allowed him to engage audiences different than the ones that make the circuit of museum and gallery shows. “The sneaker-fetish thing is big—so much bigger than our little weird white art world,” Sachs said. And then there is a cousin of his that he has kept in mind: “I made these duct-tape paintings [years ago] and he said, ‘Can I ask you a personal question, Tommy? What does it mean?’ I found myself in this horrible situation trying to explain the history of postwar painting to my cousin Marty, the car salesman from Long Island. I was like, Fuck, I’m not doing something right. That’s when I stopped making things that needed an explanation. I love abstract art—you know, Judd is my Christ figure, personally.”

But rarification is not part of the Tom Sachs mindset, which seems to revere all objects and regard them as equals on the highest plane. “A Judd is an everyday object the way an Air Jordan or a fighter plane is an everyday object,” he said. “It’s a real object in our world, as is a Barnett Newman, and we have to take them all seriously because they all relate to each other. It’s about finding the Venn diagram where a stealth bomber and a Nike sneaker interact.”

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