Major Tom: An Artist’s Quest for Interplanetary Travel

He’s already been to the Moon—why not Mars?

  • The Observer returned to the Sachs studio in mid-April as the Armory lift-off approached. It was Bricolage Live. Elements of the real included physical training—“We work out together two times a week,” Ms. Eannarino said—and hi-tech devices, which are combined with models and mimesis to compact time. “The astronauts lift off,” Mr. Sachs said. “They travel for seven months … they land on Mars … they erect a flag … and then they dig in the middle of this crater … they break open the surface of Mars … The satellite surveillance is showing us that the surface of Mars at the Park Avenue Armory is pine from 1850. We get some of the soil samples and send them by return rocket to Earth. Scientists on Earth retrieve the sample. A scientist puts it under a microscope … studies it … radios back …”

    But “Space Program: Mars,” which is co-produced and co-curated by the Armory and Creative Time, is not just the kind of painstaking step-by-step representation of reality you get from a flight attendant before take-off. Mr. Sachs presents it as a colonizing mission, with the intended and unintended consequences that such ventures historically have had. “When you go to another planet, you can fuck up that other planet,” he said. “Like when you go from Portugal to Brazil you bring diseases with you. It’s the same when you bring your culture to another culture. Or to a place that doesn’t have any. We’re bringing the depths of man’s depravity with the opium den and the heights with the Japanese tea ceremony. His embrace of nature and asceticism and purity and simplicity.”

    At the Armory, the tea ceremony will be represented by a tea house, the opium by the poppy, which Ms. Eannerino will have transported in the form of a poppy-seed bagel.

    “She whips out the aluminum briefcase with one perfect bagel,” Mr. Sachs said. “A bagel with poppies. She takes out a butter knife and she scrapes the seed into the hole she has created. Then on the screen—and you should remember this whole story is told onscreen—a flashcard comes up and says, ‘120 days later.’ The plants grow to about one meter high. And they flower. A beautiful poppy flower. And then they die.”

    Mr. Sachs indicates a model of the plant.

    “Mary, why don’t you take the scalpel? She’s going to score the poppy bulb. Then she’ll collect the liquid with a spoon.”

    She does so. It’s viscous and transparent.

    “It ends with drinking opium tea in the tea house. Which we won’t drink now because it’s really dangerous!” Mr. Sachs said.

    Hi-tech meets the subversive hyper-reality of the hand-made guns: this is Mr. Sachs’s standard operating procedure.

    Last October NASA shut down the manned flight program. You may have seen grizzled veterans tearing up on TV. A couple of months ago the Obama administration cut the Mars program to the bone. So it would be easy, and a propos to our times, to imagine that the space program, a high point of man’s time on Earth, now survives only as an art project.

    Mr. Vane doesn’t see it that way. “There was a decision made quite some while ago that the space shuttle was going to be retired. That was George Bush,” he said. “And the reason that they made that decision is that it is too old and dangerous to fly. So there has never been any question about shutting down the space shuttle. The issue is replacing it with the next vehicle.

    “It’s a political problem. Bush announced this grandiose vision but he never put any money into it. So NASA has been struggling along, trying to build the next rocket and the next spaceships to replace the shuttle. And if they’d ever been funded properly, there would not have been a gap between the space shuttle and this new Orion vehicle. But this was never the intention—to shut down human space flight. This is a widely misunderstood thing. It’s rather a lack of political willpower.”

    That “Space Program: Mars” is also an edgy art project doesn’t trouble Mr. Vane, and not just because he sees it as a way of winning hearts and minds. “When I was asked to reflect upon the confluence between what Tom is doing and what I and my colleagues do as scientists and engineers, the way that I answered that question is that both are acts of tremendous creativity. And they reflect the greatness of the human spirit,” he said.

    “Tom is looking for new ways to express the world through art. And scientists and engineers are looking for new ways to understand the world in engineering and scientific ways. But there’s an aesthetic that underlies all of that. If I had to find a single term in my mind, that is, a unifying term, a unifying concept between art and science, I would say aesthetics. When engineers design, they are looking for elegant solutions. Scientists are looking for elegant answers to very difficult questions. That’s where I see the confluence.”

    “We really are going to Mars,” said Mr. Sachs. “The more detail, the more we develop it in depth, the more real the experience becomes for us. That sample is a real sample, although it’s made of plywood. We are really doing the best we can to find life there and we are creating our world.

    “That’s why we are using microscopes instead of telescopes. Microscopes are what you need to see the paramecium in Central Park pond water. There really isn’t a lot of difference between extreme opposites. They are a lot alike. If you look at a cell … an atom … subatomic particles … the space between subatomic particles. It’s about the same proportion as between the planets in the Solar System. And even within galaxies the distances are vast. It’s totally nothing. But the thing vibrates so quickly and with so much power and energy that it happens to work. It becomes solid.

    “For us it will work. Everything we’re doing, we’re taking it as far as we can. So it becomes real for us. It’s not just about me building a space program and going to Mars. You go to Mars and you study water. You’re studying water on Earth. It’s not just about going to Mars. It’s about understanding us.”

    editorial@observer.com