Credit: Genevieve Hanson
Artist Tom Sachs is selling Swiss 'passports' for €20
In March 2019, the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union, and while politicians are still arguing terms for the divorce and many people disagree about the full implications of a post Brexit world for all sides, one common question among many has been: Will I be able to move as freely as before?
All passports are not equal; the rights yours offers, such as the ability to stay or even work in other countries without the hassle of first obtaining a visa, depend on the global standing of the issuing government and as such some passports are more coveted than others, and whether the new British blue passport will be seen as more or less powerful than the current EU burgundy one remains to be seen.
To make us ponder this issue and consider what the world could be like if we were global citizens, American artist Tom Sachs wants to make one of the most coveted passports in the world available to all, with a new installation called simply "Swiss Passport Office."
Only Euros accepted
On Friday, London's Galerie Thaddeus Ropac will remain open for a full 24 hours as part of Sachs' art performance. For just €20 (and after having their photo taken and answering some probing questions about education, income, and sexual promiscuity) visitors will be able to get their hands on Sachs's version of the coveted Swiss passport. No other currencies will be accepted.
With national passports treated as the antithesis of freedom of movement across borders that Sachs regards as artificial, "Created by governments and the corporations who control them," his installation is a denunciation of the enforcement of this artificiality. "I chose the Swiss passport because it is the most prestigious and difficult to obtain. I make it available to everyone and that way, you remove some of the elitism and status of it," Sachs explained.
"The extended opening is really part of the performance that Tom envisaged, and the experience of coming into the installation and the process of having the Swiss passport issued will remain in a time capsule of 24 hours as a very memorable happening. It absolutely reflects how Tom always wants to make his work accessible to a broad audience," said Polly Robinson Gaer, executive director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. After that first 24 hours, the Swiss Passport Office will remain on view until Nov. 10, but will no longer issue passports.
Echoes of Brexit
The art installation is an expanded version of one that he presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2016, the same year the British voted to leave the European Union and Americans voted to elect Donald Trump as US President, two momentous political moves that focused worldwide attention on citizenship. "The work means much more now that these issues (which have always been there) are being brought to light through new politics and expanded media coverage," Sachs noted.
While the installation encompasses various concerns about immigration and raises questions of identity and belonging, the focus is Britain's strained relationship with Europe. "England never truly embraced the EU, by never adopting the Euro. It hedged its bets by keeping the pound. Now leaving the EU, the pendulum swings in the other direction 45 years later. It's a tragedy to see. It could be the unravelling of the European Union," the artist said, adding, "But while the piece is about Brexit, it's also about xenophobia, border policies in the US and about Syria; they are all part of the same pendulum swing."
Sachs describes himself as a sculptor who practices "the art of bricolage" (a French term to describe DIY and constructing something out of other things). Over the years, he's made Knoll-style office furniture out of phone books and duct tape, mixed together kitchen appliances with plywood to create a life-size home-made Apollo Lunar Excursion Module and constructed a Bonsai Tree from cotton swabs, toilet paper rolls, tampon applicators, and pregnancy tests. "I've been inspired by makers who have been forced -- for many reasons, whether war or poverty, or simply living off the land -- to employ bricolage. My grandparents' generation was forced to make and repair with the limited resources available to them during and after the Great Depression and I maintain a connection with that ethos."
But Sachs points out that the idea of bricolage is not just about making do with limited resources, "It's the power of positive thinking: if you believe you're going to fail, you will fail, if you believe you'll succeed, you just might. Every sculpture that I make is something that I want to exist and I'm so dedicated to that desire, almost greedy for that object, that I'm willing to sacrifice my most valuable asset, my time, to realize that." In the case of the passport office, he said "I'm making the world not the way it is, but the way I want it to be. I want everyone to have the most prestigious passport in the world so they can travel and trade freely."
Sachs has long been fascinated by Switzerland and has referenced the country in previous works. For one of his earliest in 1996, he left a pile of stickers on the reception desk of Jeffrey Deitch's art gallery in New York with the provocative phrase 'Nuke the Swiss' printed above a red cross, which Sachs notes was a "Surrealist-punk gesture" and points out you can't bomb the place that holds everyone's money.
"It's really a country full of contradictions, and contradiction is what makes art great," he added.
He is not the first to address questions of citizenship and nationhood through the issuance of a passport. The Slovenian art collective NSK has been issuing its own-brand passports since 1992, and at the Venice Biennale last year, Tunisia had three kiosks around the Arsenale issuing a universal passport called 'Freesas' to all applicants.
"Conceptually, I like the idea of creating my own nation, but it takes too much explaining," he said. "And also, Switzerland is status."
Tom Sachs' Swiss Passport Office is at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac for 25 hours starting Oct. 5, 2018.