Sunday, June 17, 2012


"Space Program: Mars" in the Park Armory Drill Hall.
All photos by Tamsen Ellen unless otherwise noted.

Humans have the propensity to gaze and to marvel, something most of us do when contemplating space. In answer to the question: Why do humans exist on earth? a seventh grader once responded:
I believe that there is, despite the fact that we humans have done so much damage to the world, a reason for our existence on this planet. I think we are here because the universe, with all it’s wonder and balance and logic, needs to be marveled at, and we are the only species (to our knowledge) that has the ability to do so. We are the one species that does not simply except what is around us, but also asks why it is around us, and how it works. We are here because without us here to study it, the amazing complexity of the world would be wasted. And finally, we are here because the universe needs an entity to ask why it is here.

Today, Sunday June 17th, is the last day you can visit Mars with Tom Sach's Space Program. I've been twice and I would urge you to see this remarkable installation at the Park Avenue Armory. There is so much involved in this exhibition, it is challenging to know exactly how to begin describing it. Is it an exhibition of sculpture? Performance art? A happening? I'll let you decide. In a explores human curiosity, creativity, and organizational systems by staging a fictional manned exploration to Mars.

Mission Control - 2007.

The bulk of the exhibition fills the 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, which the Armory's website describes as "an immersive space odyssey with an installation of dynamic and meticulously crafted sculptures." Upon entering the hall, the visitor sees a number of "stations" made from Sachs' signature technique of bricolage of simple materials. The stations represent various component parts needed for the mission, such as "exploratory vehicles, mission control, launch platforms, suiting stations, special effects, recreational amenities, and Mars landscape."

Rear view of Journeyman - 2006-10.

It is an impressive feat. Each station is clearly the product of an obsessive-compulsive urge to make, with no detail left wanting. In the images of the Red Beans & Rice station below (astronauts have to eat, don't they?) you can really see the intense level of detail Sachs has gone to in order to simulate a food cart for space. His work "is both humorous and serious, giving viewers insight into the challenges of space travel, but also leaving us to ponder our place in the universe," according to Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of Park Avenue Armory.

Red Beans & Rice (RBR) - 2011. (Detail below)

The exhibition is full of humor. From the Celebration Fridge (2007) stocked with champagne to the Vader Fridge stocked with mini-buds and clearly labeled: DO NOT DRINK OLD STYLE MINI BUDS. (With a conveniently attached urinal). So you wouldn't be mistaken that this might be a show about reverence for the wonderful, but long-past, era of space exploration a la Mad Men. No, this exhibition is about today; it's rife with contemporary culture...from skateboarding to hip hop to the undercurrent NASA's current Mars mission that will be televised live August 5th in Times Square! (If you don't know about the Mars Science Laboratory mission, definitely look it up. NASA will be landing a rover name Curiosity in a deep crater on Mars in the hopes of finding signs of life.)
Vader Fridge, 2009 (detail below)

Much is a simulation of the technologically complicated. But it's all made from ordinary stuff like plywood, foam core, tape, glue, nuts and bolts -- even the pièce de résistance the LEM, the Landing Excursion Module, which is a 1:1 replica of NASA's original Apollo Lunar Module that carried astronauts to the surface of the Moon. In this way alone, this exhibition is a marvel.

 LEM - 2007-12.

In the brochure (Official Document) handed out to visitors, Sachs explains SPACE PROGRAM: MARS is a follow-up to an unmanned "landing on the moon" that Sachs and his team completed in 2007, at which time they "collected 13 lbs of Moonrock and associated regolith. Nobody died. In the 50 months since, they have processed their samples, created compelling displays, and reported their findings. Now, they have taken their SPACE PROGRAM to the next level with the first ever manned mission to Mars. They have retrofitted and expanded on their first mission, building intricate sculptural systems and practicing the necessary rituals to explore and colonize the Mars landscape."

Front view of Journeyman - 2006-10.
Photo by Dave Pinter, via Flickr.

It is mention of this prior excursion/project that comprises a second component of the current exhibition at the Armory: the Museum of the Moon. Housed in the Veterans Room, objects from this earlier project include spacesuits, drawings, and moon rock samples. It is from the vantage point of this exhibition within an exhibition that makes apparent this it is the determination of object-making, or even just the act of creating, that is on display here. The brochure describes Tom Sachs as one who "strives to emphasize the presence of the human hand, reminding the viewer of the hard work involved while challenging aspects of modern creativity that relate to conception, production, consumption, and circulation." True dat.

Sample Return Box         and                              Death of Marat

You'll notice that the NASA logo abounds. This installation is obviously informed by the working systems of this organization and their amazing scientists. The NY Times' Randy Kennedy points out that the work "mines the United States space program for an entire prefabricated aesthetic — script, choreography, costumes, sets — and also for a complex load of cultural baggage about what fuels the compulsion to explore outer space.” So Sachs is also commenting on the commodification of creative endeavors....the colonization mentality of the first to there gets the booty, to plant the flag, to name their baby. The Apollo program might have been one of the crowning technological achievements of the 20th century but is was also "a work of performance art, one that spoke volumes about America’s aspirations and fears."

This brings us to a third component of the exhibition, the shop. Here you can find pens and pencils, backpacks, Tom Sachs' playing cards, Nike sneakers, and a variety of other SPACE PROGRAM: MARS branded items. It follows the Takashi Murakami model, an artist who famously incorporates stores within his exhibitions to sell his Louis Vuitton designed bags and cheap souvenirs...blurring the line (or making apparent) the relationship of art and commerce. Is it an ironic twist that Sachs has made numerous sculptures in his career that conflate the branded face of luxury with perverse weaponry, in works such as Chanel Chainsaw (1996)?

The fourth element of the exhibition, and likely the most effective, was the performative component. Throughout the run of the exhibition a variety of demonstrations were conducted using the stations to play out various rituals and procedures for survival, colonization, and scientific exploration, such as instrument checks, take-off and landing, rover deployment, red beans and rice preparation, suiting protocol, "their first walk on the surface of Mars, collecting scientific samples, and photographing the surrounding landscape."

Yesterday was an endurance demonstration in which Tom Sachs and his team conducted the Mars expedition from start to finish. I stayed for the suiting up and take-off and felt that the work really came to life in this context. The NY Times' Ken Johnson had criticized the exhibition saying, "The show’s entertainment is diminished, however, because the exhibits are mostly static. Few objects do more than sit there to be looked at, and observing the variously clunky, smart and dumb ways of representing high-tech equipment wears thin after a while." That has some validity, but the performative component cannot be dismissed, and while the system checks had the monotony of a C-SPAN hearing, the experience of sitting and watching "men at work" in a tongue and cheek manner was simultaneously soothing and entertaining.

Here are two videos. One of "lift-off" from yesterday's endurance performance and the other is from a prior performance. The second one has higher production values than mine! But the first is so.....well..."Thunderbirds are go"!!

Anne Pasternak, Creative Time’s president and a curator of the show points out, “It’s not just about making objects. It’s about involvement in an ongoing performance every minute of the day. And he’s using that to ask a lot of very serious questions about human ideologies and the decisions we make about this planet and the future of our species.” He's also examining how and why we work. What makes us curious. And how we manufacture systems of inquiry and then brand them with an American penchant for originality, shock, and newness.

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