Tom Sachs Brings the Beat to the Brooklyn Museum with Boombox Retrospective

Angela Dizon

It’s a new season at the Brooklyn Museum, so for the summer, its glass entryway has been transformed into a monument for boomboxes, which were once regular pedestrian accessories in another decade. The Tom Sachs Boombox Retrospective, however recent some of its objects are, evokes a self­-evident nostalgia. While vinyl has certainly gotten its reboot, CDs and cassettes still bow down to MP3s and streaming services. The iconography of the boombox, thus, is largely due to its cultural significance, rather than relevance.

Despite this, the installation is alive with music. Each of the 18 boombox sculptures, crafted in different ways, are functional and play the same songs, allowing the listener to hear the music in vastly different ways. Nothing but Prince was played on April 22, the day after his death — a testimony to the exhibit’s unique capacity to align with the times. Though technology comes and goes, its content — in this case, music — lasts.

Throughout the show, Sachs’ mark is evident. His works are unlike typical “found objects” which possess little to no artistic intervention. Rather, he evokes the ingenuity of a child genius (think Jimmy Neutron) in turning everyday materials on their heads. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, he composes recognizable yet complex utilitarian objects.

Eight boomboxes take center stage on an elevated platform at the front. Off to the side, a large rectangular object composed of various speakers boasts a sign on its dials reading “DON’T FUCKING TOUCH!” The handwritten text, written on computer paper, authenticates the sculpture and situates it in the real world — like it would be a local DJ booth or something your friend who thinks he’s a DJ would scrawl on his equipment. “Toyan’s,” a mixed media piece completed in 2002, stands eight feet tall and 12 feet wide. It is inspired by the ingenuity of Jamaican sound systems.

The show continues in the lobby. At the center, a simple DJ booth boasts a wooden Seal of the President of the United States. “Presidential Vampire Booth,” executed in 2002, has shelves stocked with alcohol and copies of “Purple Rain” by Prince. Each bottle of booze is labeled by its generic name in Sharpie and computer paper. The booth’s modest size but dignified positioning, among other things, injects necessary humor into the show. In contrast, on either sides are two massive speakers (possibly made of vents) which literally vibrate to the bass. Their monumental size and sound take command of the spacious, echoing area and neatly concludes Tom Sachs’ retrospective.

A previous display of boomboxes completed between 1999 to 2015 appeared at The Contemporary Austin last year. It looks like boomboxes are making a comeback.

“Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective, 1999-2016” is on display at the Brooklyn Museum until August 14.

Email Angela Dizon at [email protected]

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