“It wouldn’t be fun if the curator didn’t have a nervous breakdown,” Tom Sachs says.
He’s demonstrating his scale model of a rocket lifting off at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the vapors coming out of the smoke machine look like it’s about to suffer a catastrophe on the launchpad, causing a ripple of panic among the staff.
A sculptor, spacefaring adventurer, and self-described “devout Saganist,” Sachs has rigged together a mock command station full of TVs as part of his “Space Program: Europa,” a massive, multimedia installation that plans to go where no human has gone before, with plenty of whiskey and ceremonial tea pourings to keep the astronauts in a healthy psychological state for the journey.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is the sixth-largest natural satellite in the solar system. An ice-covered world that’s basically a more inhospitable version of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, it’s nonetheless the best candidate beyond Mars for harboring life, with liquid oceans beneath its frozen exterior. (And it turns out we might be able to see if life exists on Europa without even drilling through all that ice, as NASA announced this week that the moon expels bursts of water from around its south pole.)
Human beings have not set foot on the lunar surface since 1972, using instruments less powerful than the phones in our pockets. Sachs’ project is a scrappy, low-tech riff on the Apollo program, with Kennedy-era optimism about America’s potential — and an awareness of its destructive power. Human-transported bacteria could very well wreak havoc on an alien biosphere, and it’s a grim coincidence that the moon in question shares a name with the continent that spawned colonialism.
Sachs is a bit like Doc Brown in Back to the Future, and his equivalent of the lunar module is built from Tyvek and plywood and says “rear,” in his own handwriting, on the back. But his method is better thought-out than someone like Larry Walters, the trucker who attached balloons to a lawn chair and floated over Los Angeles in the ’80s.
“By executing these details to an extreme degree, the experience for us becomes authentic,” Sachs says. “In other words, this space program is real. This is a spacecraft. These rituals we’re performing right now are real for us.”
Sachs refers to his aesthetic principle as “sympathetic magic.” By this, he means using whatever’s at hand to make your own luck. Using the — rather malevolent — example of a voodoo doll, which takes on the appearance of someone in order to influence that person, he notes that having built his own spaceship, he got enough scientists to take notice that he landed a residency at NASA and received invaluable assistance from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. (Europa is, in fact, Sachs’ third mission to outer space, after trips to the moon and to Mars.)
A Winnebago — or “Mobile Quarantine Facility” — with Connecticut plates is parked on the plaza outside YBCA, but inside, the approach is Japanese. Even though Sachs deliberately leaves the mark of his own hand on his work — “It’s important for the individual to show that he was there,” he says — he is equally fixated on that culture’s appreciation for elegance and refinement. Having cleared the museum’s contemplative courtyard to install Europa’s icy surface, Sachs fashioned a bronzed replica of a bonsai tree and elsewhere built a teahouse with an image of Sarek, the father of Spock. (San Francisco is the home of Starfleet, and a caption in Japanese characters quotes Spock’s dying words from Star Trek II: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”)
Plucky DIY spirit or not, the possibility of failure — even death — orbits nearby, always in range. Sachs is candid about Elon Musk’s odds of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars during his lifetime, and even more so about what motivates him to act: the knowledge that someday, he too will die. Comparing himself to a martial-arts student who realizes only in hindsight that his entire life was preparation, Sachs encourages extreme dedication, which is all the more urgent given the slow pace of scientific progress.
“You can’t rush it,” he says, crossing out the word “Bamboo” from a sign on a glass door reading “Bamboo Courtyard, and writing “Europa” in its place (and doing so backward, from the outside). “You can’t do great work without taking the necessary time. Stay up all night, do whatever it takes. You simply have to find a way, because death approaches.”
But there is a ton of humor present as well. From hand-labeled propane tanks under an electric-chair style switch marked “IGNITION” to an “indoctrination center” for would-be Martian-Americans to acclimatize themselves to their new status as colonials, “Space Program: Europa” embodies a demented honesty that’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the times, perilously close as our idiocracy is to a President Trump. There’s even a fully functioning Logjam Cafe, serving coffee, beer, and “Ritzeos,” Sachs’ own hybrid cracker-cookie that begs to be served with Tang.
Silicon Valley supervillain Peter Thiel’s lament about how the future veered off course — “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” — isn’t without a kernel of truth. Boundless progress feels like an anachronism on our rapidly dying planet. But if the luster of the stars has dimmed in the post-space-shuttle age, Tom Sachs is there, ready to imbue them with fresh affect, even when the extension cord is showing.
Space Program: Europa through Jan. 15, 2017at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 701 Mission St. 415-978-2700 or ybca.org