“In order to be a critic, you have to be a willing participant,” states Tom Sachs in the podcast feature of the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, where his latest exhibition, “Space Program: Rare Earths,” takes over the venue’s expansive 3,000-metres-square north hall. The claim is patently false, as critics of anything from totalitarian regimes to anti-vaccine campaigns might attest, but it is the sort of apologia that the artist offers for the starry-eyed exuberance in the fourth iteration of his space series. Though infused with playfulness and ironic humour, there is a good deal in the show that is deadly serious, as only a 15-yearlong commitment to painstakingly replicating NASA space missions in plywood and duct tape can be. Sachs’s reputation for making “a caustic parody of … unbridled consumerism,” as one of his early press releases puts it, has morphed into something closer to a celebration of greatness mitigated through the language of ambivalence. Despite the occasional knowing wink, his increasingly entertaining and didactic installations leave little room for the viewer; instead they are all about him. Using his distinct technique of bricolage, the artist has cut and pasted himself into an all-American success story. This sleight of hand is done by weaving the day-to-day of his studio life into the NASA narrative. Now that Sachs is an astronaut-in-training with SpaceX and a candidate for the lunar tourism mission dearMoon, this narrative is becoming lived reality.
From the point of view of labour and technique, the show is an impressive production. Even the arched metal ceiling of the trainstation- turned-market-turned- exhibition-hall reflects the maker aesthetic of Sachs’s space program. The north hall has been transformed into a lunar landscape populated with work modules, rovers and geometric outcrops made of plywood. This, however, is not the moon but the latest in a series of artistic space missions that previously included Mars and Jupiter’s icy satellite Europa. This time Sachs visits Vesta, an asteroid whose abundance of rare earth metals links to the artist’s simultaneous critique and appreciation of cell phones. The exhibition is divided into rooms labelled “Indoctrination,” “Re-education Center” and “Museum of the Moon,” among others. It is not just a sculptural show but a stage set inviting complete immersion. The viewer has the option of joining the space program by paying a small fee, filling out a form, completing the task of sorting flattop from rounded screws and going through an oral exam, wherein they are asked questions, like their number of sexual partners or the artist’s favourite colour—a didactic enactment of what occurs when we use smart phones. An ID is then issued and the newly minted team member gains access to special parts of the exhibition, though visitors can also manoeuvre through the show as outsiders. What an outsider can’t do is use the card scanners, presumably triggering blinking lights, or use a laptop featuring what seemed to be past team members and their favourite songs. However, they can watch the videos in the “Re-education Center” or, according to the exhibition brochure, fast-track to enlightenment in the “Anechoic Chamber.” c
It is no coincidence that the various space modules look like parts of an artist’s studio. Power drills, screwdrivers, a wall of well-organized Sharpies, among other things, constitute the tools Sachs’s astronauts use. While in his theatrical performances the astronauts are always women, the installation, with an ample supply of Marlboros, Jack Daniel’s, a statue of Darth Vader and the occasional Hustler magazine, is stereotypically male. NASA, which the artist has called the “status brand of science,” is more than an object of fascination for Sachs; it is a form of “sympathetic magic,” a term he uses to describe his self-made replicas, intended to merge life with fantasy. His homemade copies have even earned the respect of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, for whom he designed the EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) Mission Patch—a badge the workers now wear on their blue polo shirts. In a gesture of boastful humility, the artist describes this contribution as his “civic responsibility.”
Another of his responsibilities is the training of new team members. This is done through a series of indoctrination videos he originally made for new studio employees. 10 Bullets, 2010, demands values like punctuality, good nutrition and work ethic, and introduces a system of indulgences, where employees are required to acknowledge their mistakes by paying a fine into a box topped with a figure of Leatherface, the villain in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. The religious undertones are intentional. “We are a cult,” Sachs confirms in an interview on the Deichtorhallen website. As with all cults, the structure is strictly hierarchical, with the devotees serving the vision of their leader.
Charismatic leadership and exceptionalism permeate an installation that feels genuinely, if also at times satirically, patriotic. Larger-than-life American flags and NASA logos hang on the walls and continue to appear on every rover, landing module and hubcap. The show’s outlier is a massive, wooden, scaled-down replica of New York’s two towers, initially built for SCHAUWERK Sindelfingen in 2019. Their role is ambiguous. They might be reminders of the risks of expansionist hubris or a nostalgia for American greatness. In contrast, Sachs’s interviews and online shop are not as ambiguous. Among other things, he claims art taught him to love the seven-day workweek and he sells children’s T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “It won’t fail because of me.” This begs the question of how willing a participant can be before he loses his claim to credibility.
A brief reprieve from Sachs’s Disney-esque immersion (a comparison not least prompted by his ever-present signature-cumlogo) is found in the “Museum of the Moon” and, paradoxically, the “Anechoic Chamber.” The immersive quality of the latter resembles a theme park ride. Up to six people can lie in deck chairs to watch a video on individual monitors hanging half a metre above their heads. The resulting immersion separates viewers not only from their environment but even from their bodies. The video takes a viewer on a solitary journey through space, which is now made up of balls and sugar crystals. The earthly familiarity of these materials combined with the unknown of the universe makes the voyage feel introspective, allowing the visitor a 15-minute escape from the artistas- pioneer narrative. The “Museum of the Moon” is a room filled with objects from past “missions.” Its traditional gallery presentation gives the viewer space to look at the sculptures as separate specimens rather than as actors in a fantasy world. No longer in narrative association with one another, they function as traditional art objects: a shelving unit echoes Donald Judd; the use of felt might be a cheeky nod to Robert Morris. The visible traces of making destabilize the logos and consumer goods the artist used in the production of the work. Here art and consumer object alike are denuded, though this strategy of revealing has since tipped in the opposite direction. In most of the artist’s practice, artifice is no longer a window into the act of making but a style comparable with stonewashed jeans or “rustic” furniture. Instead of art’s being used to destabilize quotidian forms (including its own) and shifting the horizon of our gaze, the so-called real world has neutralized its function. The result is that Sachs’s practice has long since spun out of orbit to lose itself in the deep space of the artist’s ego. ❚
“Space Program: Rare Earths” was exhibited at Deichtorhallen International Kunst, Hamburg, from September 19, 2021, to April 10, 2022.
Dagmara Genda is an artist and writer living in Berlin.