"We are anthill men on an anthill world." by Lap Le
A review of
Space Program: Mars by Tom Sachs
Park Avenue Armory

These last few months have been eventful #space. We saw the first private company, SpaceX, launch and successfully carry out a mission to the International Space Station. There were some of history’s most spectacular solar flares, a ring of fire, eclipses, and Venus danced across a sunlit stage. China sent its first female astronaut into space, following the footsteps of our own Sally Ride decades past. Currently, Voyager 1 is reaching the farthest boundaries of our solar system, possibly becoming the first man-made object to trespass into interstellar territory. And while our telescopes can see farther, with greater clarity than ever before, we also saw the decommission of the space shuttle program. Discovery, Endeavor, and Atlantis -- whose names were once hopeful allusions to our aspirations have second lives as reminders to our grounding priorities. With slowly decreasing funds and a satiated urgency, space, it seems, is still waiting for us.*

This sets the stage for Tom Sachs’ newest exhibition Space Program: Mars. If you haven't been to the Park Avenue Armoury the first steps into the Wade Thompson Drill Hall are impressive. It is vast. Across its surface stand the intricately constructed pieces that make up Sachs’ half-decade interlude with the American space program. NASA-branded stadium seating serve to bookend the show, giving the audience front row seats to Mission Control, on the west end, and Mars, on the east. Shafts of light from the hall’s high ceiling illuminate the various stations -- each a pitstop in the epic production that will take us on an endurance-challenging ride to Mars. The centerpiece is a full-scale lunar module titled Apollo LEM. Around it you find countless other pieces that range from tools to small carts to large converted vehicles; all branded cohesively. There is a lot to take in and during most of the exhibition you are able to get up close and personal with the pieces. That is when you realize how crazy Sachs and his team really are. With Wes Anderson’s spirit for detail and the imaginative charm and ingenuity of Michel Gondry, Sachs’ pieces work hard to indoctrinate us into his world. It is impressive, but more importantly, it is thorough.

Throughout the show there are also scheduled performances. On these days you become an observer, audience member, and Earthling to an orchestrated journey to Mars -- a performance that takes us from liftoff to homecoming. It is supposedly just about 12 hours long. I didn’t last the whole way, but then again, I didn’t undergo the training regime necessary to have done so**. The few hours I did spend there saw that Sachs and crew were as attentive to detail and nuance in the performance and script as they were with everything else. There was an overwhelming sense of charm as they carried out their mission -- working through mishaps and technical failures, pushing along with light banter and cheesy moments, keeping a good humor in mind all the while. It really was like watching a movie, except you get to see it exactly as they are filming it, production tricks and all. I will also freely admit that the launch scene, helped by two gigantic plywood speakers, just about fulfilled a childhood dream of mine. I happily clapped along with the rest, high-fiving the woman next to me and her ten year old son as the model rocket jerked upwards. Leaving the armory, despite everything this show accomplishes, I couldn’t help but keep thinking, “The guy’s got style”. This is either damning or it's nothing.

Style, in the aesthetic and formal sense of the word, but also in a way that can loosely be referred to as swag #kidsthesedays. It begins on the surface. The pieces are rendered in Sachs’ version of a NASA aesthetic -- a naked, grimy space-white coats every cobbled piece of plywood, black sharpie attempts to keep order, hurriedly marking just about every surface, and domestic hardware hides in plain sight. Household familiarity peeks from and weaves through the more obscure, techie forms. Nothing is hidden from the viewer and all the little tricks employed in production are actually on display. A favorite of mine was using a blowtorch on a miniature space capsule to simulate the fiery halo as it broke atmosphere. In video, it looked great. During moments like this, when we zoom in and out of each piece, seeing it for what it is, then what it wants to be, we engage in a kind of semiotic gymnastics that reminds us how real make-believe can actually be. What results is that the audience is prepped for the ride the second they feel let in on the joke, suspending disbelief and willing to accept the fantasy before it starts. The press release calls this transparency, but I feel it’s actually a form of posturing that is meant to disarm more so than reveal. In fact, more so than the overt content of the work -- the journey to Mars and all of its immediate cultural gravity -- the posturing of Sachs’ work is what I find most interesting.

Complementing the style is the ‘Sachs attitude’, something he’s turned into a general mode of operation in his studio practice. It is obsessive, but postures a detached self-importance. His videos exude this sentiment, but in this exhibition, it can also be seen as a confident, smirky nod to ingenuity over sophistication, and wit over everything else. He doesn’t do this through recognition or any kind of qualification of what he’s up to, but simply a non-recognition of everything else. It’s a cool-kids club that anyone can have guest passes to, you just have to understand the unspoken code. This tone creates a seriously light conflation of irony and determined sincerity. At its best it serves to imbue the style with a sense of energy, the result of a decidedly youthful and creative dynamism -- humor being the engine of this. At its worst, it deflates the internal logic of the work to emphasize style over form and content and attitude over narrative. Which is fine, but I don’t think it would serve Sachs in this performance. It would run the risk of pushing the work too far into ironic affectations, dispelling the magic and curbing the sincerity needed for the fantasy to exist. And the fantasy is important. Without an empathetic tether to Sachs’ world it would be hard to get past the gravity of an aesthetic criticism alongside trying to come to terms with what looks to be a instrumentalist agenda that actually doesn’t say much. While it is important to maintain some sort of historical imperative when dealing with something as charged as the Apollo Program, I think Sachs trades it in for a good analogy. In the context of the Cold War, the kind of aspiration and ingenuity the work draws from by crutching the Apollo program has an entirely different punchline. So why go there? The work doesn’t feel like it wants to. Thankfully, Sachs handles his own swag well and the worldview behind the fantasy, buttressed by the pervasive, but open aesthetic, becomes more compelling than the conceptual underpinnings of any critique on consumerism/branding, the indoctrinating impulse of corporations/governing bodies, or the propagandistic nature of similar endeavors. The attitude of the work firmly sets it in a contemporary pathos. The performance, and all of its props, become the vehicle to express this worldview, the ‘Sachs’ attitude’, the club.

Space, until recently, has been under the sole custody of the largest powers -- the richest and most inclined. In Sachs’ world, space is for the young, daring, hip, and beautiful. Aspirations are no longer shadowed by impending doom, though it still runs the present risk of having people just not care. Few would recognize the full implications, much less the reasons, for reaching Mars in the first place. “But, whatever, let’s just do it.” His is a space program for the post-empire age. Even me bringing up the Cold War becomes a boring conversation in the context of the performance. Look at his ‘Grummans’, they dress in skinny ties and jeans, sharp skirts and trendy specs; they skateboard the light years between Earth and Mars on a whim, smoke, drink, and perform. You can’t help but compare the Sachs’ crew to those of the real Apollo program -- you can probably keep the specs and cigarettes, but add about a dozen years to their ages along with a more stolid nationalism. Here, seemingly pointless preparations for launch seem that way because they are pointless. Space Program: Mars isn’t about the space program, it’s about swag; it’s more about a contemporary pathos of agency than the fallout of Cold War sentiments or modern renditions of American exceptionalism. It is an illustration on what agency means, or can mean, against the gravity of former systems of power (or disempowerment). And again, humor is the key. We were serious before, and it led us to the moon. It also held fear over our heads and sold us prerogative in factory-sealed packages. Using the space program as the setting of this story, relying on an aesthetic and attitude that leads by example, and building an expansive culture around it all, Sachs isn’t just taking us on an insane fantasy ride because he feels like it (or maybe that’s exactly why), but reminds us that without humor what’s the point. More than that, it explicates that humor is the by-product of particular and new brilliance; a glimmer relative to the ambitions that propelled us to the moon, though now mature and open and wanting more. In all the make-believe, there is real talk and that isn’t just impressive, it’s thorough.


Title by Ray Bradbury, whose contributions to science fiction and American aspirations are as immense and endless as the night sky.

* NASA Budget Presentation
** “Space Camp”, 2012

Mission Control, 2007-2012. Upgraded with 18 more screens.

Landing Excursion Module, 2007-2012 and Mars Excursion Roving Vehicle (MERV), 2010-2012

Close up of the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), 2011-2012 with astronaut Mary Eannarino

Mars Excursion Roving Vehicle (MERV), 2010-2011

The first image that pops up when you google "Cold War"

Mars as seen from the rover Opportunity

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