At this year’s Bangkok Art Biennale, which runs until February 23, 2023, American artist and sculptor Tom Sachs is one of the biggest international names to take part. Interestingly, however, the project he presents is firmly rooted in Thai traditions.
(Hero image: American artist and sculptor Tom Sachs, photographed by Mario Sorrenti)
On the morning of October 22, the official opening day of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) 2022, I found myself wandering Bangkok’s majestic Chao Phraya River while munching on caviar blinis and sipping prosecco. costs. This exclusive boat ride, organized in collaboration with The Peninsula Bangkok, gave the seven lucky passengers on board a chance to fully experience the “Infinity” experience; a custom-built 11-meter long Thai longtail boat, which is artist Tom Sachs’ contribution to the third edition of the BAB.
Two days earlier, over lunch at the Peninsula’s waterfront pool, I had the opportunity to chat at length with the famed American sculptor about his involvement in this year’s biennale. We were accompanied by Chomwan Weeraworarit (PhD), a BAB 2022 curator who has been friends with Tom for many years and helped bring him to Thailand…again.
Tell us about the piece you will exhibit this year at the Bangkok Art Biennale?
This is the debut of the “Infinity”, a traditional Thai seagoing longtail powered by an Azusa two-liter diesel truck engine. It is painted in the color of the Thai navy, the same gray, which is a form of marine camouflage. This is our boat to explore different dimensions, in this case the Chao Phraya River. We performed a ritual blessing, asking the river goddess to protect us in the boat, and we work with two local boatmen who are the pilots of our exploration.
I understand that this project took a long time to do?
Yes. About 10 years ago, Chomwan and I were stranded when our motorcycle broke down on the island of Koh Yao Noi. And while we were trying to get back to town, we talked about a lot of things, and one of them was [Thai] long-tail boats and how, in many ways, it’s a dying tradition. We are in the age of making beautiful things perfect, like an iPhone, but things that are handmade and show the individuality of the craftsman seem to be evaporating. So we wanted to preserve some of that and find a way to collaborate that was authentic.
So, this is not your first time in Thailand?
No, rather the third. I learned about Thai culture over many years, and for 30 years I worked in New York and Thai food was the food for many long, all-night work weekends (laughs). Thai culture is very dear to me, because it is this holy grail of seriousness and humanity. I feel like the Thais do it well. There is a greater sense of civility here than anywhere I have been.
It must be an extra thrill then, to be involved in the BAB 2022?
Yes, it is also a great honor to be invited to participate in this prestigious international exhibition and to have a project created especially for it. This is a conversation that has taken place between Chomwan and me over the past decade. And then the Biennale was a bit of a moment. Chom called and said, “Tom, it’s now or never, because I’m one of the curators this year.” So that was it. It was the little boost we needed to do something we will cherish – and regret – for the rest of our lives (laughs).
Can biennial visitors board the Infinity?
It will have different stages. This week, we offered people small tours on the boat. We had lunch and coffee there, and cocktails, and it went through the canals and around town. But a few days later [the BAB opens] we will take it out of the water and expose it on land [in front of Museum Siam] so that more people can access it, and see its shape. Because when he’s out of the water, he really becomes a sculpture. I don’t distinguish between a boat, and a cathedral, and a painting, and a sculpture, and a sneaker. It’s art for me. I don’t believe in hierarchy, although I know the world does.
In what other ways have you customized the boat?
She was about eight years old when we bought her from a fisherman in Krabi. We added a gang top house and the new truck engine. It has the standard cooling system, some bilge pumps and a 220 [volt] electrical system with high-end solar panels. And there’s a fully solar-powered workshop on board. It has a sculpture-making station with fixtures and drills, a grinder and engraver, as well as a mapping station with maps of Thailand and Bangkok, as well as larger manifestation maps of surrounding countries, such as Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Singapore. , as well as in Scandinavia, because we believe that this boat will make other trips to other cities. It has a traditional crown of marigolds, which we change regularly to be fresh, and we have had special crew uniforms made – t-shirts and drawstring fisherman’s pants. These are made in collaboration with designer Philip Huang. They are made right here in Thailand and dyed in the northeastern province of Sakhon Nakhon using ebony berry dye, which is the earliest and oldest way to derive a gray or black from nature.
How does ‘Infinity’ reflect BAB 2022’s ‘Chaos: Calm’ theme?
Well, a boat is all that, isn’t it? There is nothing more calming than the sea, and there is nothing more chaotic. For me, that is exactly what this project is about. By the way, the registered name of the boat is “NASA Infinity”, because Infinity had already been taken. And we just withdrew our “space program” [series of exhibitions] after 17 years, so in many ways it’s the next iteration. It’s another vessel to take us to other dimensions.
With your great interest in outer space, what did you think of the recent success of the “asteroid blaster”?
Oh, that was kind of fun. Any demonstration that communicates how fragile life is on earth is worth it.
What about projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket?
Well, I appreciate the democratization of space, even if it’s only run by oligarchs. And I think it’s interesting that it’s demilitarized. I also think it’s very important for artists to go into space. And I mean, really in space, not just in low Earth orbit. The military forces that have gone into space are not storytellers, but artists, so it is important that we go there. I actually apologized earlier this year for the SpaceX mission I was training for because it really didn’t feel like something about understanding how precious life is on earth and how our natural resources are precious. It felt more like a simple muscle flex.
Speaking of rockets, I saw your “Rocket Factory” project recently described as “the coolest NFT in the world”.
It is the first Web 3 project. It uses blockchain to bridge dimensions. We call it a trans-dimensional manufacturing facility. We manufacture rocket parts as NFTs that you can assemble – nose, spinner and body and tail – into your NFT rocket. Then you hit launch and that gives us the cue, the message, to build a physical rocket. We launch it then send it to you, physically, after having collected it. And your NFT contains a video of the launch as part of the metadata. Then, when you have the physical rocket, you can decide if you want to display it in your home or donate it to the museum that we are the guardians of. Or you can have the physics rocket shredded.
I notice that you and your team are all wearing the versatile Tom Sachs shoe that you created with Nike. How did this collaboration come about?
Nike makes those shoes that we all wear in the studio. We are professionals – a sports team, and our sport is sculpture. We’ve been working with Nike since 2005, and we’re working to create a more accessible, gender-neutral shoe. It’s for everyone, it’s not an elite thing. But, perhaps more importantly, they are meant to last. They are a bit more durable. The best way to keep something out of a landfill is to make it last longer. And make it look good when a little worn, like your favorite jeans.