NEW YORK – Tom Sachs has long been fascinated by space and humankind’s quest to explore it. But rather than simply dreaming of the starry cosmos, the artist set to work building intricate models, launched his ongoing Space Program – bricolaged sculptures used in a series of simulated expeditions – and recently released a film about the process and methods behind his program's 2012 Mars mission. Ahead of Sotheby’s 20 July Space Exploration auction, Sachs sat down with Books & Manuscripts senior specialist Cassandra Hatton to discuss his work, the aura of flown artefacts and how space inspired him to ask the bigger questions.
TOM SACHS. PHOTOGRAPHER: MARIO SORRENTI.
How did you first become interested in space?
I’ve been interested in space like everyone else of my generation – I was born in 1966 – for my entire life. I don’t remember it, but my dad told me that we watched the Moon landing projected on a giant screen in Central Park. It was this sort of spectre of future possibility that we’d all be going to other planets. In 2007 I had the opportunity to start working in earnest on my Space Program. That’s when I started taking the project seriously. As a kid I made rockets, and even as an artist I made sculptures of space suits and landing modules before 2007. I made pretty elaborate models of the Lunar Module in 1999 and the Crawler in 2003.
What inspired you to make space a subject of your work?
I think when the space program started to become more privatized like it is now. All these guys like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Richard Branson have their own space programs. I thought, if they can do it, so can I. Not all of them will succeed, but they’re all learning things. Private space programs have the same problems that NASA has. We have to think about physics, funding and safety of astronauts. These problems are opportunities to address everything from engineering to taxes to the laws of physics. I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and see what I could do. I’ve been pretty happy with the results. In 2007 we went to the Moon, and we went to Mars in 2012. Just this past year we went to the icy moon of Jupiter known as Europa.
TOM SACHS, LUNAR EXCURSION MODULE INSTALLATION FROM SPACE PROGRAM EUROPA, AT YERBA BUENA CENTER FOR THE ARTS. PHOTOGRAPHER: GENEVIEVE HANSON.
It seems that you and I share an obsession with the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, which is a record of the lunar surface operations between 1969 and 1972. What is it about these documents that fascinates you?
The Lunar Journal website is the go-to for anything Apollo program-related. There are more documents and information than any one person could digest in a lifetime. It’s the complete source. It has unabridged scans of missions plans, flight plans and experience reports. It’s the Internet at its best. Over the years people have asked me where I get this classified information for my Space Program. Well, none of it is really classified. I think during the Cold War there was some secrecy. But after we beat the Russians by going to the Moon and incidentally found out that God is dead, the information about how to build rockets and spacesuits and do everything you need to do to build your own space program became freely available.
In the auction catalogue, I reference those journals repeatedly, especially the documents for the Lunar Sample Return Bag and the Flown Apollo 13 Flight Plan. Initially they all seem super technical, but when you start going through them it’s fascinating. You get to relive history through those transcriptions.
I find it very inspiring to really understand how these missions happened. The documents demystify this impossibly complex task of space travel, breaking down every component into its discreet functions. And of course, it makes it really easy to debunk any idiot’s idea that it didn’t actually happen because there is so much data, so much information, so many real people. If you look up any of the people on those reports, you can call them. A lot of them are still alive. There’s so much great stuff, like what’s in this auction, because the people who built these objects have them in the garage.
LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN BAG. USED BY NEIL ARMSTRONG ON APOLLO 11 TO BRING BACK THE VERY FIRST PIECES OF THE MOON EVER COLLECTED – TRACES OF WHICH REMAIN IN THE BAG. THE ONLY SUCH RELIC AVAILABLE FOR PRIVATE OWNERSHIP. ESTIMATE $2,000,000–4,000,000.
That’s part of the fun with a lot of this stuff. I think the family who had the Apollo 13 Flight Plan didn’t realize it could be worth something. They always held onto it.
It’s incredible. Some of these things are truly important, priceless artefacts. An Apollo 13 Flight Plan with all the notes on it is a real representation of the amazing bricolage that was performed to bring those guys back.
A lot of these artefacts have really been elevated to the level of art, which is something you’ve done with your Space Program. How do you go about translating or paying homage to the real artefacts with your bricolage? How do they inspire you?
Great objects are imbued with ritual. Ritual of their use or ritual of their making – or both. These objects, in particular some of the flown objects, represent the best of things we’ve been able to make. Something like the Lunar Sample Return Bag is made out of the most advanced, complicated materials. This thing went on an adventure and still has the filth from its trip. When you hold it in your hand you can feel the power of where it’s been, and you can understand the experience this object has been through. So the objects I make – when they’re successful – are imbued with all of the experience of their making. You can see the blood and the sweat and the glue because of the way they’re made. And if they’re successful, they’re representation of a ritual that happened in the studio, the ritual of a performance or a ritualized activity. The objects in my Space Program are always kind of worn and scuffed up because they were used during demonstrations of our system.
TOM SACHS, CHALLENGER (CRAWLER), 2003. PHOTOGRAPHER: TIM POWELL.
That’s what my definition of art is – something that transcends the object itself. Paint and canvas are vehicles for a feeling. This space bag is just a bag, but it’s also not. You hold it and you have a connection to that moment of stepping down the ladder and being the first person to have ever walked on the Moon.
That bag was part of that special moment and that makes it different from any replica that may or may not exist. It was flown and it was there. But at the same time, I have a lot of respect for non-flown items because there’s the associated value. There’s a reason people like an Omega Speedmaster watch, which you can buy for a few thousand, that wasn’t flown. You’re not an astronaut, but you get to have the same timepiece. There’s some fantasy and mythmaking there. I think there’s value to that, too.
TOM SACHS, CHALLENGER (CRAWLER), 2003. PHOTOGRAPHER: TIM POWELL.
How has the theme of space evolved creatively for you? Do you view it differently than when you first started creating space-themed projects?
It’s changed because through all this work, my understanding of science and the space program has changed. There are three reasons people do anything – let’s just use the space program for an example. The first is spirituality. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone? These are the big questions science and religion ask. The second reason is sensuality. People climb mountains and go to the Moon because of adventure, and because it tests the best of our abilities. It’s like the ultimate camping trip. The third reason is that they’re interested in the hardware itself – the rockets because they go boom. That may be a little blue collar. It’s the part I connect with. In a way it’s a lower form, but it’s the part where making is. These are the guys who make the rockets. But it doesn’t mean anything without the first two; you don’t build rockets unless you have people willing to go to other planets, and you don’t build them unless you have reasons and ambitions to answer those bigger questions. So really you need all three to go together. As a sculptor it’s the making that initially brought me into it, and because of the process of having a space program for over a decade now, as I continue with future missions I’m really focusing on bigger conceptual issues. What is beyond the infinite? As we look out into the solar systems, we’re also looking into our bodies, peeling the onion of the cell and the atom, and digging inside.