© Tom Sachs Studio 2018. Photo Mario Sorrenti.
Tom Sachs Said I Never Have to Go Back to America
Sachs issued Swiss passports in his latest installation during Frieze London.
Tom Sachs, Swiss Passport Office, 2018
© Tom Sachs Studio 2018. Photo Mario Sorrenti.
I’ve been on the road for three weeks. My sistren of the fashion flock have returned to New York; the art dealers have come to Frieze and largely already left. But on Friday, my 20-second day in Europe and the day before Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, I decided to make my European sojourn a little more permanent—I became a Swiss citizen. Kind of.
I have Tom Sachs to thank. His artwork, Swiss Passport Office, was a 24-hour installation at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac that concluded just before the American artist debuted another project, the newest iteration of his Mars Yard collaboration with Nike. In Ropac’s Dover Street space, arguably the most beautiful commercial gallery in London—Ropac keeps an aery apartment on the top floor that I would jauntily die for—Sachs set up a makeshift border control office staffed by studio assistants and friends, among them Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, Half Gallery’s Bill Powers, and Virgil Abloh, who, of course, deejayed the party for the Nike collaboration at the Tate Modern on Saturday. Even the notable “officers” seemed anonymous in their Dickies-looking workwear shirts as they interviewed “applicants” for imitation passports to Switzerland, which the artist described in a statement as “the ultimate status nationality, representing wealth, neutrality, and freedom.” (Sachs’s wife, Sarah Hoover, made for a fitting American ambassador to Switzerland, at least for one night.)
As an Abloh-worthy queue stretched several hundred feet into Mayfair, the officers methodically screened applicants with questions, the cheekiness of which was matched only by their deadpan delivery. My own session went like this:
Why are you applying for Swiss citizenship?
I told you I was American, right?
You have 17.4k Instagram followers. How many did you pay for?
All of them.
How many sexual encounters have you had in the past month?
And how many of those encounters were actually masturbation?
What’s the last racist thing you said?
I commented that there were too many white people at the Kerry James Marshall show. I was one of them.
White guilt: check. Do you love your country?
Last question: Has your hair always done…that?
A minute later, I was the bearer of a fairly official-looking document supposedly issued by the Confoederatio Helvetica. (Never mind whether or not it violated EU counterfeit laws.) The pages that would be watermarked in a US passport with images of Mount Rushmore and the Liberty Bell were populated in this booklet with pictures of large-looming Swiss culture figures: Le Corbusier painting standing up naked; Giacometti accompanied by his quotable line that, “Some people are so poor, all they have is money”; the painter H.R. Giger represented by his most iconic creation, the namesake alien of Ridley Scott’s 1979 modern classic (her mouth-within-the-mouth just visible).
Time flies when you’re having fun with installation art, and the point of the Swiss Passport Office could easily get lost in its own theatricality. But actually, the silliness of the exercise was part of the point. Nation states are as outdated as duchies, and borders are as artificial as the bloodlines they once separated from each other—Sachs would probably say that citizenship is the ultimate branding—and yet these arbitrary demarcations often make the difference between life and death. It’s all ridiculous until families are separated at the border.
It was appropriate to see this project, the joint venture of an American artist and French art dealer, take place in London at a moment when Europeans are leaving London in hordes (the threat of Brexit-related taxes has made this something people are actually doing, unlike the empty threat to move to Canada so common at American dinner parties last year). To that point, applying for a Sachs-made Swiss “passport” cost 20 Euros—no GBP were accepted. The Swiss Passport Office is the art world equivalent of standing with one foot on either side of the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, taking a piss, and contemplating whether you’ve committed a Czech misdemeanor or a German one, and whether double jeopardy comes into play. (There is, of course, is a Reddit thread devoted to this subject.)
This morning, flipping through my new passport, I noticed on the front page a quote from Elie Wiesel, who was Romanian-born, died an American citizen, and, as far as I can tell, had no Swiss connection: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” It’s a cri de couer that runs counter, of course, to the principle which has always been Switzerland’s geopolitical and economic lodestar. If we’re going to have nation states, and the borders that divide them, it’s time that we at least start questioning what they’re there for.