When the rover Curiosity touched down on the gravelly surface of Mars early Monday morning, after the hubbub settled down, it occurred to us: what was the artist Tom Sachs doing when it landed?
“I was having a cheeseburger, from room service, and a Coke, and French fries,” Mr. Sachs told Gallerist over the phone from Aspen. He and his fiancée, gallerist Sarah Hoover, were in bed together that night, watching the landing on a laptop, over wifi in a hotel room. “1 min to entry!” he tweeted, with a picture of his laptop screen.
Mr. Sachs was in Aspen for the ArtCrush live auction at the Aspen Art Museum, at which he was honored with the Aspen Award for Art and for which he had created a commissioned work, Poche Vide, which garnered the night’s highest bid.
The artist, whose latest show “Space Program: Mars,” at the Park Avenue Armory, involved an imagined and very homespun expedition to the Red Planet—replete with booze-filled refrigerators, old stuffed animals, a pinball machine decorated with porno magazine tear sheets and a woman taking the first human step onto this terra incognita—was far from home on the night of the Curiosity landing. His coveted Jodie Foster lamp, which he said he had hand-picked from the actress’s trash outside her door, was sadly no where in sight. “I do like the idea of watching the Mars landing with Jodie nearby,” he said, referring to the lamp.
But none of that kept Mr. Sachs from tuning in keenly to all of the goings on over at the NASA control room in Pasadena.
“It was pretty late in New York, one o’clock in the morning; I’m in Colorado, it’s midnight. I know some friends in New York had set up super media stuff. For me it was fantastic to see my friends in mission control at Pasadena. It was just a bunch of nerds on their mobile devices, emailing and Facebooking and Twittering around. Eventually we just passed out.”
By friends, he was referring to engineers Adam Steltzner and Tomasso Rivillini, from the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team, whom he had met while working on “Space Program: Mars.” That project led to an informal exchange program in which he became the unofficial artist-in-residence of the EDL team—they gave him pointers about science, and he gave them tips about art, beginning a dialogue between the two disciplines about using everyday items “as a way for people to connect with ideas that they might have otherwise overlooked.”
“I was happy to see Adam Steltzner on the front page of The New York Times today celebrating,” he said. “He’s the guy with the Elvis hairdo and the earring.”
When asked about his tweet on Monday, which read, “Steltzner’s new tattoo!” and with which he posted a picture of a person’s forearm bearing a tattoo of the Mars rover, Mr. Sachs said Mr. Steltzner had emailed him the picture of the tattoo, which he believed the engineer had engraved on his wife’s arm.
Mr. Sachs then recalled a fundraising trip he took to Washington, D.C., in 2010, with Anne Pasternak of Creative Time and Rebecca Robertson of the Armory, as part of an application he made to NASA for funding for his “Space Program: Mars,” one requirement of which was a meeting at NASA headquarters. Sitting before a room full of skeptics, (“It was like a scene out of Mad Men”), when asked very seriously, “Why you, Tom?” he launched into his pitch:
“Because of sex. I bring sex to the Space Program,” Mr. Sachs said he told them. “They gasped. It was the most conservative environment. I did my best Don Draper to use the shock to reel them in. I explained that no one cares about robotic missions to other planets because there are no people involved. And when you’re a man or a woman, you can identify with the astronaut. We are sexually reproducing beings. That’s the one thing that robots can’t do, and if you look at the space program as this way of reproducing us and getting our DNA off of this planet and onto other places, it’s the people that’ll do it.”
Ironically, Mr. Sach’s space program involved a lesbian sex scene between its two female astronauts, who could be seen spooning from a screen in the Landing Excursion Module, a version of the Apollo Lunar Module fashioned from plywood, tape and glue.
They rejected his proposal, though he believes he appealed to their human side. “In that moment, I had won over the most angry, conservative bunch of art haters.” He added, “I was the only one in the room wearing a tie.”
And while his exhibition at the Armory may be over, Mr. Sachs’s exploration into space is far from it. “We are continuing full bore,” he said. “Just because we landed, it doesn’t mean the work is done.”
With the help of NASA scientist Gregg Vane, Mr. Sachs and his team of assistants are also doing research on future missions involving the planet Europa, a planet on which they’ve found liquid water. Mr. Sachs added, “That’s the next holy grail for finding life on another planet within our lifetime.”
“We collected over 40 pounds of Mars rocks and particles, and are analyzing those in our Mars science laboratory,” Mr. Sachs said, though he asserted that his work isn’t only about Martian rocks and descent capsules. “The whole space program isn’t so much about Mars and science but about the human condition and our experience here on Earth.”