Tom Sachs, dressed in khakis and a white short-sleeve collared shirt complete with pocket protector, stood at a control panel in the front of the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall, his face lit by a bank of dozens of television monitors. Slowly, deliberately, the artist called out over walkie-talkie to his similarly uniformed assistants spread throughout the mammoth hall — “Camera one, okay, camera two. Rockets. Camera four. Space.” A video sequence gradually filled the central monitor depicting a space shuttle taking off from its launch pad, gushing smoke. Only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the video footage wasn’t from NASA but composed of live feeds from cameras trained on tiny scale models mounted around the exhibition.
Sachs has filled the Armory with an installation that tells the narrative of his personal mission to Mars, an obsessive, warped, and funny replication of everything from the Apollo Lunar Module to a handmade moon rover and a space-friendly Japanese teahouse (they have to take their human culture with them to Mars, one attendant commented). “Space Program: Mars,” presented by the Armory and Creative Time, is an extension of Sachs’s ongoing preoccupation with space travel and the infrastructure surrounding it. Though the artist’s astronomical knowledge of space-travel trivia is clearly up to the challenge, the point of the installation is not to replicate high technology but clone it in Sachs’s signature style of bricolage.
Sachs’s interplanetary vehicles are cobbled together from wood scraps, resin, and tape. The trompe l’oeil sculptures, over 20 in all, look slick, but investigating further, their verisimilitude is exposed as an aggregation of tiny, resolutely human details: the uneven nails of a cabinet, stashes of Everclear and Marlboros in space-age containers, a drive control made of a single wooden popsicle stick. With his fraternity of assistants whizzing across the space on bikes and skateboards to execute his stage directions, the artist has become the maestro in a giant game of pretend in which imagination overlays the poetry of the mundane.
Visitors to the Armory are welcome to pretend right along. It’s possible to join Sachs’s team and participate in the installation after making a stop at the “Indoctrination” table in the corner of the exhibition. There, helpful attendants will guide new volunteers in completing a series of tasks like stapling zines, stamping logos, and sweeping the floor. After a period of initiation, the volunteer will be rewarded with the chance to climb inside the Lunar Lander (the tactic is about “deepening the experience,” according to one attendant, and avoiding the possibility of long lines in the exhibit).
Throughout the month-long run of the installation, “Demonstrations” will be held in which attendants will activate each element of the installation, staging rocket takeoffs, riding in the lunar rover, and, just possibly, making rice and beans at the rice-and-beans station (a Sachs studio ritual). Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories will also host conversations in the Armory on May 26 and June 16. For his part, Sachs seems assured of the mission’s success — “We're going to find life on Mars here at the Park Avenue Armory before they do at Jet Propulsion Laboratories,” he cheered from the control center. Given early indications, the artist is going to attract plenty of life to his galactic pillow fort.