Vito Schnabel Gallery is pleased to announce its fourth collaboration with the New York-based artist Tom Sachs, whose exhibition Helvetiaphilia will open at the gallery’s St. Moritz space on April 2.
The new paintings and sculptures on view find Sachs in the throes of his ongoing love affair with Switzerland as not merely a place of exquisite natural beauty, but a concept– a fantasy that frustrates attempts to pierce its illusions, a global brand that obscures the desires and efforts driving it. References to the Alpine nation began appearing in Sachs’ art in the early 1990s. Three decades later, his “Swiss obsession” has matured into full-blown helvetiaphilia. That the name for this self-diagnosed malady was invented by Sachs himself, is something of a skeleton key to the exhibition’s intentions and feints: from its legendary romantic charm, geographic mystique, its international reputation as the ultimate model of wealth and economic prowess, and its vaunted neutrality in global affairs, Switzerland figures in Sachs’ art as a powerful personal Oz whose opacity invites evaluation.
As the contemporary world reels from crisis to crisis, an uncertain Sachs nevertheless holds on to hope and wonder in order to materialize his vision of Switzerland into objects that question what it really means to “be Swiss”. With Helvetiaphilia, he suggests that nostalgia and wit, fantasy and knowingness, and love and cynicism can co-exist in artistic narratives about the national culture and societal system he has deconstructed and poignantly reimagined in an effort to make sense of our times.
Tom Sachs: Helvetiaphilia is the third iteration in the artist’s Swiss series, following the installation Swiss Passport Office (2018) at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, and Heidi & The Pack (2018-2019) at Vito Schnabel Gallery, St. Moritz.
In the new works on view in Helvetiaphilia, Sachs deploys his signature bricolage technique, assembling collected and found materials to construct objects that critique modernity. A centerpiece of the exhibition is Matterhorn (2018-2022), a sculptural homage to the famously near-symmetric mountain that has come to represent the monolithic perfection of Switzerland. As the nation’s most iconic peak, rising 4,478 meters in sublime isolation above the glacier-carved region below, the Matterhorn straddles the border between the canton of Valais and the Aosta Valley in Italy. Sun-scorched or shrouded in snow, with a strikingly monolithic, pyramidal silhouette, the mountain’s summit has become a universally recognized brand icon of Swiss and non-Swiss products alike. In his sculptural representation of this natural wonder and commercial idol, Sachs presents a Märklin sub-miniature z-gauge train chugging through tunnels carved into the mountainside. A drawer on the side of the sculpture reveals a mini mezcaleria equipped with two Glock pellet pistols, while a soundtrack of classical music plays on. Chiseling out the interior of the Matterhorn like a vault for storing riches, Sachs stashes away out-of-print pornography magazines from the 1970s and ‘80s that he elevates to the status of art, along with a reserve of model gold ingots. Each bar is emblazoned with a swastika, drawing associations to a dark chapter in Switzerland’s past when the nation’s praised neutrality provided a complicated pretext for the actions of the Swiss banking industry’s financial involvement with Nazi Germany during WWII. The sculpture’s preposterously tiny toy train of linked boxcars, which evoke the Gornergrat railway and the transfixing panoramic views its lines offer en route to the majestic Swiss town of Zermatt, can likewise stir thoughts of the Holocaust trains that deported millions of Jews to Nazi concentration camps and ghettos.
Appropriating idyllic icons and clichés of Swiss heritage and spirit in his sculptures, Sachs offers up Cuckoo (2018-2022), refashioning the skilled craftsmanship of carved wooden chalets and the mechanical precision of a hand-assembled clock into a decidedly American version: Sachs’ cuckoo clock is synched to U.S. Naval Observatory Time, a standard of precise timekeeping that is considered absolute, and the expected chalet is replaced with a tiger’s head. Comparatively modest and coursing with the artist’s signature wit, this sculpture, with its do-it-yourself aesthetic, exposes the process of its making. Silver-hued screws reveal the construction of the tiger’s face, from which leaded weights resemble droplets of saliva as a tweeting yellow bird emerges from the beast’s mouth every hour on the hour. Similarly, Model Eighty Two (2022) re-contextualizes the blonde, pigtailed braids of the young, orphaned Heidi within Sachs’ ongoing boombox series. Visitors can hook-up their phones to the functional auditory stereo to play music, an activity that supports Sachs’ interest in ritualized consumption.
Helvetiaphilia also debuts six new paintings that, like Sachs’ sculptures, deliberately draw attention to how they were made. In the artist’s oeuvre, this approach is a form of literal and metaphorical deconstruction, a reminder to viewers that they should question the carefully constructed brands, cultural icons, and symbols to which they swear fealty. In a series of candy bar canvases that evoke a childlike sense of nostalgia, Sachs takes on the subject of Swiss chocolate. Swiss Miss (2022) rebrands the U.S.-based company’s artificially sweet and watered-down hot cocoa mix with a new Swiss identity, employing the blonde, pigtailed star of Hollywood’s 1956 film classic The Bad Seed as its advertising agent. Likewise, in Toblerone (2022), Sachs appropriates the story of a Colorado man who, when infuriated by the local municipalities of his city, created a “killdozer” vehicle to exact revenge upon his town. The rampage ended when the man took his own life and was supposedly found dead in his armed tank with a bar of the beloved Swiss chocolate Toblerone. In Kinder (2022), Sachs reinterprets the packaging to depict a light-complexioned, blonde-hair, blue-eyed Aryan boy, and uses an obsessive yet brutal photorealist technique in Lindt (2022) to render the “perfect” milk chocolate bar by the Swiss chocolatier.
Unraveling the character, quality, and illusion of Swiss “perfectionism” through his deliberately imperfect, crude, and unruly painterly and sculpted surfaces, Sachs appropriates and alters familiar, trusted commodities and imbues them with new values in his parallel Swiss universe, where anything or anyone can aspire to “be Swiss”. In a world raging with political storms, global health crises and war, Sachs invites all viewers to reflect on the rituals, icons and cultural references of the Alpine nation and claim an enchanting, comforting piece of its utopian Oz-like wonder as our own– but at our own risk.