Artist Tom Sachs previews his mission to Mars, starting from Park Avenue
"We're going to Mars. In fact, we'll be there on Saturday."
In the course of several hours of an afternoon spent at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this week, there was no other point at which the artist Tom Sachs seemed quite so dead serious.
At one point he recited the Mentat Prayer (from Dune) by heart. He spent some time rhapsodizing about his handmade cinderblock (his favorite recent piece). He showed off his very first architecture project, "a real classic American shed made out of two-by-fours" (that also happens to be a Japanese Tea House, among other things). And he launched into an intense oration about the connection between French brutalist architect Le Corbusier, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, and skateboard legend Mark Gonzales.
No, it was at the moment when Sachs was explaining how he and his sizable, young, attractive crew of assistants would launch through the stratosphere, land on Mars, explore the planet and travel home, all this Saturday in the confines of his Park Avenue Armory exhibition, that I could see there wasn't an ounce of irony, put-on, or arty pranksterism there.
The exhibition, titled Space Program: Mars, will reach its zenith on Saturday with an all-day program (that could well go into Sunday) utilizing every single object in the show, which sprawls throughout the Armory and includes dozens of pieces ranging from full-size replicas of actual NASA vehicles to a series of workstations, miniatures, and riffs on the narrative of space exploration that Sachs has spent close to a decade developing.
It's the most fun show in New York City this summer, and that owes a great deal to Sachs' seriousness about the project and its narrative. After spending much of his early career playing with brand names (his Chanel Guillotine (Breakfast Nook) is perhaps the apotheosis of that line) in a way that was more funny than fun, Sachs had a realization.
"I wondered, What's the ultimate brand. And I thought, NASA represents our destiny in the stars and ... the mutation of man growing wings using his super-powerful mind."
It's this celebration of the human mind that is the through-line connecting all the pieces in Space Program: Mars, from the modified Winnebago (Mobile Quarantine Facility) to the exercise unit (Space Camp) to the bike-repair shop to Mission Control Center—a huge array that includes a boombox, an iPad, turntables, bottles of vodka, and monitors that can show dozens of locations around the Armory, from miniature sets of splashdown to the intimate moments the astronauts share inside the Lunar Module—most of the things constructed from plywood, fiberglass, and Con-Edison's familiar white-and-orange wood pedestrian barriers.
"That's our vernacular," Sachs explained.
Back in mid-May, at the exhibition's opening, I ended up standing next to Sachs' dad in line for drinks.
"I'm the proud father," said the sharp, dark-suited, gray-haired, handsome elder Sachs to a woman.
She spoke at length about the travails of getting her son into Bronx Science.
"It's a heck of a school," Sachs père offered, "and if he's into science he would be interested in the show. You should really come back for one of the demonstration nights, away from this manic scene. There's an order to everything, and a story!"
The story has astronauts blasting off to Mars, landing on its surface, taking soil samples, planting poppies, discovering water, spooning together in the Lunar Module while listening to Al Green, coming home, splashing down, getting rescued. And there's a bike race.
While Sachs and I were sitting inside that Module (which is surprisingly cozy) the other day, he explained why, throughout the exhibition, all the vehicles and workstations have fully stocked bars as well as guns. The liquor, he explained, wasn't about getting drunk, but the sociability that comes with drinking, the conviviality but also the meeting of minds. The guns, on the other hand, are a reminder that exploration has always gone hand in hand with militaristic domination.
"It's the colonialist thing, of making people see it your way with a shotgun and a bible, so this is a colonialist gesture. We're going to Mars not just for science, but like a colonizer, to bring back the gold or silver, do a germ exchange without realizing it, understand how colonialism changes the host country and invading country. If there's profit, we're gonna take it, and I feel that force is a strong component of that.
"I wouldn't want to say we're purely altruistic, and the guns say that more than anything. Plus the Russians actually brought guns when they went to space, and they used them when they crash-landed in the Ural Mountains. We have two guns here in the L.E.M. to keep the astronauts honest with each other. There's a reason they send three astronauts. With two people there's your way and my way. You like the Red Sox and I like the Yankees and one of us has to die."
Accompanying us around the hall was Sach's recently affianced partner Sarah Hoover, who works for Gagosian Gallery and was useful in reminding Sachs of his own wisdom. "I remember all the things he's said about this," she said at one point, gesturing around the hall. (She's honored inside the Lunar Module with a shop-vac that bears the title of "the Sarah Hoover," and "represents the vacuum of space," according to Sachs.)
With all the funny juxtapositions and the decidedly retro orientation of this project to the real NASA (everything is strictly pre-shuttle-era), as well as NASA's recently diminished stature on the federal priorities list, there's a temptation to see the whole project as tongue in cheek. Plenty of op-eds in recent years have decried NASA as a cold-war relic, an expensive and useless failure that ought to be scrapped. But Sachs isn't trying to poke fun at NASA's decline, or to reflect on its failings.
"It is becoming a bureaucratic entity, so now this whole space program has a slightly more pathetic or defeated tone, and that's why we used the worm logo of the 1980s along with the heroic meatball from the 1960s.... I think it represents the hubris of it all. But there's something really human about all that, because amid all these achievements there's failure that we must embrace because our lives are so short, and even amid failure you still get to do what you love to do."
Asked about the current crop of for-profit space-exploration companies, Sachs actually sees a kind of environmentalism at work, which is another theme of the show, though it might be hard to see through all the fiberglass, wires, epoxy, and verbal gags.
"The central concern, especially of SpaceX, is that they're looking to use spaceships that are reusable, and it's more about environmentalism than simply going to space, and it's less about the science of it than about the research of how to travel ... It's really the study of earth, and resource conservation and husbandry of this planet, and this space program is as much a study of resource management as anything else. As this exhibition draws to a close, we have been trying to understand how we will leave the space elegantly, and yet we're still building things. We'll be building things through Sunday night, when we start taking them apart. And it's called 'bingo,' the point of no return when on a helicopter and you have to turn back or you won't make it back, it's called the bingo point, and that happens at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening."
There will be plenty for Sachs and his crew to do, but also plenty for visitors to do. First and foremost, they can pay a visit to the "Indoctrination Station," where they'll be tested by clipboard-wielding, white-coated staffers (one test involves a game with wood blocks), and, if they score well, put to work making sockworms (more Dune references), sorting screws, or helping in more advanced ways. It's a clever way of involving viewers not just in one corner of the exhibition, but its underlying philosophy.
"There's only one way to fail the test," Sachs said. "The question is 'If you're given a billion dollars to save the environment or solve world hunger, which would you choose?' You can fail on that one."
But again failure isn't the point; collaboration is (there is likely a fair amount of suggestion offered test-takers on the right answer to that question). And through the indoctrination program Sachs has even ended up hiring two studio assistants. That's a rather rare kind of interaction for the public to have with artwork in any realm. Sachs said that the involvement of the Park Avenue Armory and Creative Time—the New York nonprofit that funds and supports socially engaged art projects around the city—were crucial in involving visitors in the show.
"It's not just the space and financial support but the collaborative effort and attention to vision, and it goes beyond just making Tom happy. They have their agendas of being public institutions and engaging the public. And their agenda of making it successful through the public has made it much more rewarding."
SOME OF THE ITEMS IN THE SHOW DATE BACK to Sachs' first iteration of Space Program, in which he and his team took a full-scale replica of the Apollo Lunar Module (or Lunar Excursion Module, L.E.M. for short) to the moon in 2007 at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Since then the project has expanded not only in terms of objects, but also ideologically. There are references to NASA, of course, but also to a variety of pop-culture touchstones. Maybe the greatest of these is Dune, which interestingly ties into the ecological bent of the show. Sachs explains:
"The spice on the planet Arrakis opens the mind and expands consciousness but allows us to fold space using the power of the mind. But really what it is is a combination of opium and petroleum. Arrakis is a colonized place, like Mexico getting raped by all the Europeans, the Dutch in this case, and it takes place 10,000 years from now. What we learn from Jules Verne is that when you write a story about three guys going to the moon, walking around, and coming back to earth, 150 years later the exact same thing happens. So in the same way when we think collectively about how to solve the problem of how we're destroying our planet, you have to start thinking about something like spice melange for when we get there. So we're making those first steps now. I know I sound a little like a crackpot, but to me it makes sense because you've got to dream big if you're going to think of something as outlandish as using your mind to fold space, but it's not as outlandish as this idea that you and me collectively have all the information there is to have in the palm of our hand, which we do!"
Mind-expansion is key for Sachs, as is method. Since so much of his early work was focused on brand-names, many connected Sachs' work with issues of class, consumerism, and his upbringing among the wealthy in Westport, Conn., but that now seems like a simplistic and incorrect reading of his practice. He's laid out his 10 rules for art in an adorable video titled Ten Bullets. What it comes down to, largely, is showing mastery over his work, but making sure to always show the hand that created the work, and the way in which the work is put together. It seems more connected to the D.I.Y. ethos of punk and hardcore, as well as a reaction to the great 20th century art tendency of "deskilling." Hence joints are exposed, labels and logos hand-drawn, and everywhere the signs of construction connect the maker to the object. Not only that but each item, each detail seems imbued with a great deal of research and creativity.
The mythologies Sachs creates around these items are as concerted, and as much on display, as those exposed joints. It's part of what makes Space Program such fun. Wandering a hall of NASA replicas would feel like touring the Air and Space Museum; this feels like something almost anyone can connect with because it looks like a bunch of things made by people.
"This landing module is our full-size version of the actual landing module, and every detail that we could find and do we did, but it's really no different from that tea house, which comes out of our depth of study of Japanese culture and going to Kyoto and studying tea and learning about it in our own remedial way. I would say I'm equally good as a rocket scientist and as a tea-master, and I consider myself to be both. Neither of which you could agree with on any external terms, but for the purposes of this it's true. And that's true also of making red beans and rice New Orleans style or being a cult leader with indoctrination, or a geologist with our berms, or acoustics with Hitler's Euronor speakers [these are also constructed of Con-Ed barriers]. Marcel Duchamp called the artist a media mystic, and he filters the world through his experience. On the other side comes the art object&mdashlgood, bad, or indifferent—that's his way of looking at it. I share that."
While Duchamp wasn't so concerned with showing the hand that made works of art (and in many cases sought to banish it explicitly, a lesson that many artists in the century that followed took as license to de-skill their work), he's obviously a huge inspiration for Sachs, and having this show in the same Armory where Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase caused the artist's first scandal is not without significance. If Duchamp made a scandal of himself at the Armory, Sachs is also seeking to provoke in the space, to the point of actually digging up the floorboards.
"This is probably the most interesting and site-specific thing that is happening," Sachs said, pointing to the splintered floorboards and medium-size hole in the floor, illuminated by klieg lights. "This is something that could really only happen here, and that's ripping up the floor from 1850. We built a series of special tools for doing this … and 'raped' open the surface, and then went at it with a jackhammer. We found a something pretty interesting under it all. A bone! With a number on it! It's the weirdest thing. We dug until we felt we were into nature and weren't going to find anything, and so this is the dig site. We call this Gonzales Crater, named for Mark Gonzales. Mark's kind of the Mozart of our time. He has such an inside-out way of looking at the world that he's an inspiration to us. And his skating is an aggressive gesture against modernist architecture."
Sachs studied architecture early on, and seemed proudest, of all of the show's creations, of the tea house.
"This is my first piece of architecture," he beamed. "It's a real building. You can see the blue foam and on the outside is corrugated fiberglass that you can see through. total transparency and connection of joints ... Every architect's first house is a tea house or an extension of his mother's house, and I was not able to convince my parents to let me do this at their place in Connecticut. But it's a traditional tea house, and it's got the tokonoma, the shrine with the object of contemplation and the flower, and the mizuya, the water room with all the hardware and stuff, and this is just a fantastic dream come true to study all those things and make my versions of them."
The last item we looked at together is Sachs' very favorite. It's the first thing that greets visitors on their way in to the show. It's a cinder block. Only this cinder block is made of plywood, joined with bolts and screws, and shot through with machined holes. I asked him how this was the centerpiece of a show about Mars.
"If you look at a NASA object it's totally handmade but all traces have been polished away or integrated. I tried to make stuff like that early in my career and failed because the more I worked the more expensive it got to produce and the more I couldn't do it and my mistakes would show more and more and then I had an epiphany that it was the madeness of it, all the errors, dents, and glue-drips that gave it all virtue. The cinder block is the symbol of imperialist architecture. After you've raped a culture, and made them see your way with a bible and a shotgun, and done your germ exchange, you start setting up a factory on the outskirts of town to make bricks to make square buildings where there used to be round ones. And the cinder block is our symbol of the space program—it's on our mission patch. If we were to build a space station we'd want to build it out of cinder blocks. And this one is filled with these lightening holes, to save weight, or lightening windows. It's just an industrial technique that's used in aerospace or in racing to reduce weight. I have all these associations, like when you jack up a car to steal the wheels, or want something to throw through the window of a Starbucks when it moves into your neighborhood, it's always the cinder block. It's a rock in the concrete jungle that doesn't have rocks. These are our boulders. This one is special. It's totally fabricated. It's made of plywood, which is sort of our genetic code. Our carbon is plywood."
Although his narratives and mythologies are deeply rooted in contemporary art practice and theory, Sachs had the gravity and enthusiasm of a genuine explorer. And as he spoke of what would happen Saturday he seemed increasingly inspired by the vastness of his vision and his creations. He really was going to Mars.
"We've been training for it, we've demonstrated each element, and Saturday will be one of those performance art pieces that's eleven hours long and it's so boring and who cares, right? But one of our astronauts said yesterday 'We're doing it for us, and the public is invited to watch.' We're doing it to show every single element, and prove that it works."
There's a delicate balance between things working and things failing in the show. As everything is handmade, jerry-rigged from all manner of things (even a coffee-maker in one of the stations was modded to show the inner workings of the device—in this case the suggestive movement of the plunger pushing the water through the coffee), breakdowns happen. And that's why there are tools everywhere, themselves modded and hand-painted and often given funny names. Yet it's not failure but ingenuity for which the breakdowns and fixes are significant. If you pay a visit Saturday or Sunday you'll see plenty of both, and rough edges, and a story that encompasses everything from skateboarding to the quest to rule the heavens.
"We will marshal all our forces," Sachs said, "and use everything here, and things will fail, and we will fix them, and we will do what we can, because it's our last chance."