It’s not a bird or a plane but it is Tom Sach’s Space Program: Mars, the newest immersive installation occupying the daunting 55000 sq. ft. of the Park Avenue Armory’s great drill hall. Transformed into a hangar testing ground for a trip to the red planet, NASA logos are imprinted everywhere as if to lend authenticity to all the ingenious, sometimes glorious, geeky, and somewhat retro Star Wars fakery that Sachs has filled it with.
Like any high-security area, visitors are greeted by dos, don’ts, and precautions prior to getting issued a temporary id card (aka a required ticket purchase). Upon entry, a screening room outside the drill hall shows training videos of the corporate variety that Sachs used for his own studio. They urge assistants to keep a list, be on time and thorough, while also preparing viewers for a test at the “Indoctrination Center” that, if passed, entitles them to ascend the cunningly hand-crafted space capsule—the 23 ft. tall Landing Excursion Module (LEM)—a copy of the Apollo Lunar Module and one of the show’s best jerrybuilt surrogates.
Tom Sachs, Interior view of Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF); Photo by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
In addition to the LEM, the great drill hall contains other elaborate, to-scale, painstaking reconstructions of a Mission Control Center–complete with banks of blue-lighted monitors streaming live feeds from cameras scattered throughout the exhibition-, launch platforms, a battery-powered Mars Excursion Roving Vehicle, a Mobile Quarantine Facility transformed from a 1970s Winnebago, robot suits, a repair station, and even a giant, non-NASA compliant (Darth) Vader fridge stocked with beer and hard alcohol. From astronaut food delivery systems to human waste disposal to entertainment, replicas of everything needed for extraterrestrial exploration has been meticulously engineered using foam-core, plywood, hot-glue, screws, tape, found objects, and other salvage. They are all signature representations of Sachs’ wry and cheerful DIY, high junk style.
Space Program: Mars is manned for the month by Sachs and his studio team of thirteen. On my visit, there were a few assistants at the Indoctrination Center and others zooming around on skateboards and bikes–presumably to cover the hall’s great distances more quickly. The crew periodically tinker with the equipment and maintain the “machinery” by tightening bolts, replacing tape, and other human R2-D2 upkeep.
Without Sachs and his crew to rev up and articulate the complex systems–scheduled only a few times during the run of the show–Space Program: Mars ultimately diminishes to eye candy. Despite their hand-built ingenuity, Sachs’ stage props become hands-off décor that are for the most part inert objects, lacking animation and interactivity. Once the translation from high-tech equipment to low-tech copies has been appreciated and the novelty wears off, it all feels a little ho-hum and repetitive, not as illuminating or entertaining as expected. There’s buzz, but no lift-off. The visitor in such a playland might benefit from more Epcot Center and less skate park.
Tom Sachs, Installation view of Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF); Photo by James Ewing.
Space Program: Mars also delivers a mixed message on mega-budget exhibitions, as Sachs has often preached anti-consumerism–an oxymoron for a mega-exhibition project that must have emptied out at least one Home Depot. Then there is the onsite store selling high-end Nike “space” gear designed by Sachs, channeling Murakami’s Vuitton store. Despite its undeniable ambition, frequent cleverness and fanatic industriousness, Sachs’ occupation of the great drill hall lacks the transcendent kick of irreverence and irony that the artist has achieved in the past. In any event, future space exploration ventures are quickly being handed over to entrepreneurs like SpaceX and Elon Musk. The age of NASA and big budget inefficiency is fading fast. Surely Sachs has taken note of this.
(Image on top right: Tom Sachs, Mary Eannarino performs mission tasks in preparation for SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, 2010 - 2012; Photograph by Genevieve Hanson, NYC)