Major Tom: An Artist’s Quest for Interplanetary Travel

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

  • Tom Sachs’s “Space Program” lifts off at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday. Technically, it is an art exhibition. But know this: Tom Sachs is going to Mars.

    The Observer was introduced to the project on a visit to the artist’s Chinatown studio last November; our entry required that we be photographed at the door and issued with a facsimile NASA pass. Members of Mr. Sachs’s core team of 17 who were on hand included Mary Eannarino, a 23-year-old from South Carolina who most recently worked at an art gallery in Moscow, and who is to be one of Armory show’s two astronauts. “Mary’s in on this meeting because she represents the face of our space program,” Mr. Sachs said.

    As he led us to the Mars project, Mr. Sachs brought us past earlier artworks of his, most of them made using his preferred technique, bricolage, meaning he’d built them from bits and pieces of stuff he’d found, bought and occasionally stole (black-and-orange striped Con Ed barriers being a signature element in his vocabulary). They include a piece made from four sewing machine tables and a bisected basketball, spliced together with carbon fiber, and a Darth Vaderish figure that dispenses drinks. “Darth Vader’s penis and bladder are both vodka,” Mr. Sachs noted.

    Then there was the Jodie Foster lamp. This is a pale marble lamp he had spotted in the garbage outside Ms. Foster’s door when he and the actress lived in the same building. He had been studying Ms. Foster from afar, he said. “She’s the subject of a rape or stalking in multiple movies. She’s always this object of obsession. So, like, here I was, just randomly going through her trash. Just like an average New York City psychopath, like everyone else, because we’re all really obsessed with Jodie Foster. And I found this beautiful marble lamp and took it.”

    The marble is now incised with references to Taxi Driver and Freaky Friday and, of course, to John Hinckley, who had hoped to impress Ms. Foster, then at Yale, by assassinating President Reagan. The lampshade is made of animal skin and topped by a miniature of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Mr. Sachs has kept the piece in his personal collection. He calls it “a stalker’s lamp.” “I like to make potent, transformative pieces,” he said.

    Mr. Sachs, in short, is an artist who likes to operate in what Robert Rauschenberg famously called “the gap between art and life,” except that with Mr. Sachs that gap can be unnerving, like the gap they warn you about getting onto the subway. He has worked in this way since he moved to New York at age 25. It was 1991, the bottom of the Art Market Bust; being good with his hands, he survived by welding and sheet-rocking. Then his attention was caught by an NYPD program that offered a hundred dollars for every gun turned in off the street. So he and an artist friend began to make their own.

    These guns actually deceived the cops?

    There was no deception involved, said Mr. Sachs.

    “They are real guns. And they shoot. They are as good as any gun you can buy. They are as lethal as anything a policeman carries.”

    That passion quickly fed into another, a passion for branding, packaging and luxury goods, born of his childhood in Westport, Conn., a wealthy enclave where such stuff signifies all that is true and good. “Cultural Prosthetics,” his show at Morris Healey gallery in 1995, included Hermes Hand Grenade, Tiffany Glock and Gucci Beretta, the latter of them a charged image because Maurizio Gucci had been shot dead at the wish of his ex-wife with a Beretta. None of these gizmos actually worked but another piece in the show, Hecho in Switzerland, did; that gun was just as functional as the ones he had turned in to the NYPD.

    Having already begun making waves in the art world, Mr. Sachs pushed more buttons three years later with a show at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris, called “Creativity Is the Enemy,” which included a Mondrian painting replicated with duct tape, Chanel Guillotine, and Prada Deathcamp, which was built in a Prada hatbox. (It speaks well of Miuccia Prada and her curator, Germano Celant, that Mr. Sachs, who had built a Prada Toilet the year before, was given a show at the Fondazione Prada in 2008.)

    And he didn’t stop there. Mr. Sachs has also produced an electric chair that can deliver 42,000 volts and a working model of the radar tower of the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. So why the interest in such scary hardware? And why does a self-styled “good liberal” share the NRA’s passion for guns?

    Mr. Sachs says he likes guns because, unlike almost any other manufactured goods, they are not designed with a built-in obsolescence. Like motorcars, like fashion, like … well, just about anything. He speaks of a “hierarchy of construction” with domestic goods as the pits, followed by commercial product. Military hardware is at an altogether higher level, and the space program is at the tippy-top.

    “Going to the moon,” Mr. Sachs said, “was the ultimate art project. And it was the ultimate achievement of the Enlightenment. You can trace it back 500 years. From the Renaissance to now.” After making his Mondrian, Mr. Sachs had replicated an actual Barnett Newman, but added a lunar module. Artists do what they do for very different reasons. Mr. Sachs is clearly a believer in art as sympathetic magic; he decided to build a space program of his own.

    “Space Program” was launched at the Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, in September 2007. A female astronaut descended from the lunar module that dominated the gallery, took a first step on the surface of the moon, planted the Stars and Stripes, drilled the gallery floor for moon rocks and returned to Earth, bringing the samples home for analysis.

    In due course, Mr. Sachs set to work planning a successor to that show, one that would surpass it in ambition. Where “Space Program” had recreated Neal Armstrong’s historic step, “Space Program: Mars” would depict the setting up of a moon base, that is, an event before it had actually happened. But then a wholly unexpected entity showed up.

    NASA.

    Gregg Vane—“He says it’s ‘Gregg’ with three G’s” said Mr. Sachs—is the manager for Solar System Mission Formulation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. He had heard about Mr. Sachs’s project from his daughter, who was at college with a fellow who was now on Mr. Sachs’s team. Mr. Vane made a studio visit and was so impressed that he made a suggestion.

    Mars.

    “I said that’s an even more exciting place and that’s where everyone wants to go next,” he told The Observer.

    Very shortly after this conversation, the Obama administration announced that the moon program was over. NASA’s focus was shifting to Mars.

    Mr. Sachs called Mr. Vane. “He said, well, let’s get together and talk. This is a very cool idea,” Mr. Vane recalled.

    A few weeks later, Mr. Vane brought with him to the studio two fellow engineers, Tommaso Rivellini and Adam Steltzner. They talked with Mr. Sachs from 11:30 in the morning until 3:00 the following morning. A concordat was established. Sure, it was an art project but it would be an effective way of reaching a perhaps blasé public, so the scientific elements should be accurate. Mr. Sachs should get whatever input he needed. “We want it to be real. Not science fiction,” Mr. Vane said.

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