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A Simulated Journey To Mars, Where You Can Chat Up The Astronauts

Tom Sachs’s new interactive exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory may look like a boyhood fantasy. But it also raises thorny questions about our role in the universe.

Since we first put a man on the moon in 1969, Americans have been with space exploration. Tom Sachs is no exception. The 45-year-old artist has made it his personal mission to learn everything there is to know about space travel, and then stage his own flight to Mars–from New York’s Upper East Side. Beginning today, visitors will be able to view his labors as they explore of an interactive exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory.

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Space Program: Mars, curated by Anne Pasternak of Creative Time, simulates a 30-day space mission with a sprawling playground of meticulously assembled sculptures built using Sachs’s signature method of “bricolage”: a technique of crafting complex systems out of found objects and simple, readily available materials such as foam core, hot glue, and plywood. In this case, Sachs has fashioned everything from a life-size space capsule to a “red beans and rice preparation” station, Unlike NATO’s sleek, valuable, and technologically advanced equipment, Sachs’s DIY pieces are, in his words, “expensive, slow, and crappy.” “That’s why they’re magic,” he said yesterday, as he addressed a group of journalists.

Visitors are invited to go on the journey and ask probing questions of the 13-member crew–who shuttle between the sculptures on skateboards dressed in white shirts, ties, and pocket protectors–and even become volunteers themselves after undergoing re-education at the “indoctrination” table, where they’re instructed to staple zines and sweep the floor. Sachs’s team will also periodically conduct 90-minute demonstrations of the “flight plan,” during which visitors will witness the activation of the sculptural systems, rituals, and narratives that make up the mission to Mars, including liftoff and the collection of samples on the planet’s surface.

Sachs stresses that these events are not performances but rather the means to understanding ourselves through the study of another planet. “The energies we need to survive in space,” he says, “are the same energies we need to survive on Earth.” The exhibition also raises questions about our seemingly irrepressible urge to colonize other places and subsequently screw them up. But perhaps what’s most surprising is how easy easily one becomes caught up in Sachs’s elaborate game of pretend. For his part, the artist does nothing to break the spell: “We’re going to find life on Mars here, I know that much,” he said with an impish smile. “Or else.”

Space Program: Mars runs through June 17. For more information, go here.

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About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.

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