The Park Avenue Armory is a place where century-old interiors by design masters (Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White) are being meticulously restored over a period of years, while visitors watch. A different kind of replication is currently on offer in the building’s vast Drill Hall, where artist Tom Sachs is sending a team of studio assistants to Mars.
While the Armory’s restorationists work to make antique wallpaper look exactly as it once did, Sachs’s replicas of real-world NASA gear replace high-tech materials with 3/4″ plywood and duct tape. The result feels like something a space-obsessed eight-year old might make — if he had access to power tools, skilled helpers and his parents’ life savings.
The exhibition, titled “Space Program: Mars,” updates a 2007 show at L.A.’s Gagosian outpost, in which some of these same sculptures were used to “go to” the Moon. As in that show, the Mars crew will conduct live events (May 31, June 7, and June 16) in which a combination of human performance — “astronauts” in Tyvek-and-tape suits — and carefully photographed scale-model manipulation will enact an imaginary journey to the Red Planet.
On non-performance days, the Drill Hall remains a place humming with activity. Necktie-wearing crew members zip from one side of the 55,000-square-foot hall to another on skateboards; they tinker with gear; they speak via walkie-talkie to Mission Control-ers monitoring dozens of old-school tube televisions. Around the space, visitors linger over installations that range from the familiar — a Winnebago in which astronauts suit up for liftoff — to the fanciful, like a small shed in which Mars explorers will be able to conduct traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Smack in the middle is the Landing Excursion Module, a life-size (or, to use the program’s pocket-protector lingo, “one-to-one scale”) replica of the vessel the real-life NASA used to land on the Moon. Sachs’s version, though, will keep astronauts entertained: an onboard library sports deep-reads like Ulysses, and guns in the canteen squirt tequila and Jack Daniel’s; for music, he offers his crew two Al Green cassettes. Here and elsewhere in the exhibit, every tool — each hammer and screwdriver and soldering gun — is labeled with a Sharpie, bearing both a serial code and a name borrowed from an art- or pop-world legend. (Some labels evince second thoughts: A broom once named for architect Le Corbusier now pays tribute to Kanye West.)
Visitors hoping to tour the LEM should allot an extra hour or so to their Armory visit. It’s off-limits to anyone who doesn’t undergo an “indoctrination” program consisting of some educational videos, a written and oral exam, and a short period of menial service — like sweeping up debris around the Mars Rover, a heavily modified golf cart.
The films are as entertaining as the tour, affording a peek inside the artist’s actual SoHo studio. There, employees are governed by the commandment-like “Ten Bullets” list and taught to love that miracle material, plywood. Viewers also get an informative analysis of the Sachsian color palette — where yellows are borrowed from Kodak and McDonalds, black comes in many forms, and purple is strictly forbidden.
All of this is easily appreciated as tongue-in-cheek whimsy, but Sachs (whose sometimes provocative work has in the past combined violent themes with luxury-brand icons) naturally intends further layers of meaning. He has told interviewers his NASA fixation isn’t just a childlike indulgence but a sort of homage to space missions that themselves were performance art — massively expensive projects with little practical value but ample resonance with humanity’s dreams and ideals. Here, juxtapositions raise questions about the money and energy spent not just on exploration but on contemporary art. They return a human scale to space travel, reminding us how primitive technology was in the days of the Moon missions, and leave us to marvel at the ambitions and accomplishments of that earlier generation.
And they let us envision a day when those “do it because it is hard” ambitions will return — and will hopefully be flavored with enough hedonism to equip future pioneers with a healthy liquor cabinet and a well-stocked iPod.
For details on live performances and talks, visit armoryonpark.org.