This art installation pokes fun at NASA, space exploration and sculpture

Science Friday
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NASA is a fairly serious government agency tasked with such difficult feats of science as launching humans into outer space, and exploring the unknown reaches of the solar system. 

For New York-based sculptor Tom Sachs, however, space exploration is a chance for satire, fun, DIY and a conversation about the similarities between art and science.

Sachs has been working on a homemade "space program" since 2007. One of many big differences between his program and NASA’s? Well, for starters, all the materials for Sachs’ space equipment comes from Home Depot. 

“Nothing that we use is exotic,” Sachs says. “I've always wanted to make perfect things. And I realized at one point I could never make anything as good as an iPhone, but Apple can never make anything as crappy as one of my sculptures.”

Sachs’ first space installation took place at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. It featured a journey to Mars and back in front of a live audience, and included a mission control, flight crew, landers and rovers.

During a recent conversation with Kevin Hand, deputy chief scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Sachs’ tongue-in-cheek descriptions of his installation had the two men laughing for most of the talk. 

“We had a thermal cooling layer,” Sachs says of the astronaut suits he created partly from FedEx envelopes. “Because the astronauts would tend to overheat and when the cooling layer failed — and it does fail in the movie — our astronauts would get very cranky. And that was always something we're trying to avoid.”

Both Sachs and Hand agree that science and art have much in common. 

“I just find a lot of inspiration scientifically in art,” Hand says. “Tom and I discovered we were kind of kindred spirits and he's sort of like my artistic alter-ego.”

Sachs compared creativity in science and in art to cooking with spices. 

“Scientists and artists have kind of the same job,” Sachs says. “They have a gut feeling about something then they have to go out and prove it and bring it to the world. ... [They] all work hard to develop a constant flow of information, to prove their ideas and make sure that they'd work in real life. It starts with a gut feeling, an idea, a flash of inspiration and the rest is hard work. So when we say in the studio, ‘Creativity is the enemy,’ what we really mean is, you just need a little bit of chili pepper to flavor the whole stew. The rest is hard work and stirring it.”

Sachs’ installation can be viewed online, and in September he is planning another installation in San Francisco. Instead of a journey to Mars, however, he and his studio mates will be focused on the icy moon, Europa. 

“We'll be landing two astronauts on the surface of Europa,” Sachs says. “We'll be drilling through the icy crust, fishing for life that lives or swims beneath the icy crust in the ocean of Europa. We'll be extracting, killing, and eating these — I should say abducting, killing and eating these local residents.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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