Mars on My Mind

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Sachs Mission Control
Comfort check after liftoff with Astronaut Ratanarat. Photo credit: Genevieve Hanson

After trying to upstage the transit of Venus with this mission in the other direction, Tom Sachs: SPACE PROGRAM: MARS ended its run at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend. Sachs’s show, organized by Creative Time, filled the vast drill hall at the Armory and was as interactive as an art exhibition where you’re not allowed to touch anything can be.

Sachs Mission Control
Comfort check after liftoff with Astronaut Ratanarat. Photo credit: Genevieve Hanson

Did I climb inside a 23-foot-high plywood “Landing Excursion Module” (LEM) for a tour that included a shot of astronaut tequila and the chance to try on a “genuine” space helmet? Yes. Yes, I did.

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I probably don’t even need to write about Sachs’s show, since I’m sure everyone reading this will have seen it for him or herself because, obviously, Kanye West tweeted it out.

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For years, Sachs has described his primary interest as bricolage. The surface of the red planet and much of the apparatus for getting there were made mostly of plywood (the queen of all building materials), repurposed NYPD and ConEd barricade crossbeams (with the original respective blue and orange/white stripe color schemes), glue, and bolts and screws. Plus, there was a Winnebago with space suits visible through the windows and a spinning radar antenna on top. Many, many photos are available at Sachs’s Tumblr, Gothamist, and The Times. The scale of the whole thing was impressive.

Randy Kennedy, writing a preview for The New York Times mentioned the possibility that Sachs’s show might come off more as a “monumental space-nerd amusement park” than as a legitimate art project. Which is fair. But what I saw at the Armory was quite successfully both.

Here is why the show worked: Everyone from Sachs, who was in residence with his studio crew the whole time, to that studio crew, to the Creative Time staffers took the mission dead seriously. And simultaneously clearly knew it was funny and adorable. All the studio assistants were rushing around fixing and adjusting things like veritable NASA engineers, but getting from Martian site to Martian site on skateboards. At 6:00 pm the day I was there, everything stopped and a group of the assistants had a bike race around the drill hall and precariously through the installation. The bike race was just as important and serious as anything else.

This overarching deadpan affect was the installation’s central aesthetic. Everyone was utterly sincere about the functionality of a planetary lander made out of wood and props. How else were the astronauts supposed to get to Mars’s surface? Duh.

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The ideal experience of SPACE PROGRAM: MARS begins with the videos. And please pay attention. There will be a test. No, really. There’s a test. More than one, in fact.

Sachs’s studio produces a lot of videos, and, well, they’re amazing; the same combination of complete seriousness and playful absurdity as the Mars show. I particularly recommend Ten Bullets and Color. These are the videos that were the subjects of the indoctrination tests. On which, more momentarily.

(Here’s the deal: these two videos are long-ish, in the 20 minute department. Longer than the general duration of a web video most people, I’m given to understand, are used to watching. But we all know you’re going to get home from work tonight and watch old episodes of “Dawson’s Creek” on Netflix (don’t lie!). So, I’m suggesting you watch these videos instead of one of those “Dawson’s” eps. Sorry, Dawson!)

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The videos are jewel-like and precise, and they present the jewel-like and precise world of the Tom Sachs studio, where there are a lot of rules. If I sound like I’ve been indoctrinated into some sort of cult, it’s because I have. The testing takes place at the indoctrination center. It is identifiable by the huge sign that says “Indoctrination,” visible behind the gentleman wielding a NASA-labeled chainsaw attached to a walker in this photo.

In order to enter the LEM for a tour, it was necessary to visit the indoctrination center for oral and written exams and a task, all to prove familiarity with the rules and standards of the mission. Sample question: what is the correct thickness of plywood? (3/4 inch) The exams also seem to be testing for a sufficiency of whimsy: “Are you a spoon or a fork?”

I then spent around 5 minutes-not kidding-sorting a cup of screws by size and type. One of the sorting categories was “Tiny”. This was Tom Sawyer and the fence, but my tester, Kim, got the tone exactly right. Consider me indoctrinated. My ticket had a special place for a punch for each completed phase of the testing.

Pretty sure this makes me officially an astronaut, but I’m just inferring that.

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Inside the LEM, there was a touching acknowledgement of the end of the Cold War space race: a cabinet held a row of bottles of Stolichnaya and a row of bottles of Jack Daniel’s (not all of them full…). Russia and the United States, side by side in harmony. In space.