Sculptor Tom Sachs Sets His Sights on Colonizing Jupiter’s Moon

by Sura Wood

Sachs’ unorthodox, large-scale sculptural exhibition promises to attract a wide audience to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is turning over its campus to the endeavor.

New York-based sculptor Tom Sachs' latest ambition is to colonize Europa,
the icy sixth moon of Jupiter that is thought to harbor evidence of life.

"Space Program: Europa," opening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this month, is the third iteration of the artist's imagined DIY voyages into outer space, an ongoing series of low-tech handmade sculptural projects Sachs has been fine-tuning since 2007.

Sachs' first brush with international fame is emblematic of his pointed satire of consumerism and sly sense of humor. In 1994, hired to create a Christmas window display for Barney's New York, he invented a revisionist nativity scene, replacing the Virgin Mary with Hello Kitty and the three kings with Bart Simpson in triplicate. The display sparked a public backlash and Barney's was compelled to issue a full-page apology in the New York Times.

Sachs practices "bricolage," the building of sculpture with found and discarded objects that are refashioned into something new and unexpected. He has built Knoll office furniture out of phone books and duct tape, fabricated a blue "Tiffany" glock pistol with a matching case and created a faux Hermes-branded hand grenade out of cardboard.

"Since I was kid, I've been making the toys I wanted to have," Sachs says. "Later, when I wanted a camera or a BMW, I'd do my best to make my own version of it. I've even made my own Brancusies and Le Corbusiers."

At YBCA, Sachs will transform the galleries and grounds into a launch pad and a teahouse, among other things. The unorthodox, large-scale sculptural exhibition, which promises to attract a wide audience, represents the first time the multi-disciplinary facility has dedicated nearly its entire campus to the work of a single artist.

"Only YBCA was crazy enough to do something like this and only we could because we have the agility and flexibility to accommodate it," notes exhibition curator Dorothy Davila, who began serious discussions with Sachs at his SoHo studio last year. "We thought of it as a whole universe so it made sense that all of YBCA would become a playground for an artist creating his own kind of world."

Sachs' world is one in which high-tech objects made of low-tech components trumpet their imperfections. "I live for that transparency," Sachs says. "All the objects I make tell the story of how they were made."

For the uninitiated, the show is an introduction to Sachs' idiosyncratic process and cast of mind. Visitors will first encounter the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a customized Winnebago parked on the YBCA plaza where astronauts suit up for their journey. Once inside the museum, they'll find a tongue-in-cheek overview of Sachs' career featuring an image of the Hello Kitty window display, a surfboard he made with Ed Ruscha, a photograph of the hip hop group NWA, Sachs' dogmatic training films playing in a loop and various artifacts charting the development of his space programs. On the main floor will be a 23-foot-tall landing excursion module (LEM) modeled on the Apollo program, and a functional, foam core outhouse resembling an airplane lavatory. "Mission Control," a mixed-media installation where landing and launch sequences are coordinated, is equipped with a bank of video monitors that flash planetary diagrams, prompts to "Applaud" and helpful comments like "Crashing Will Terminate our Mission!"

Once they "touch down" on Europa, the astronauts drill through the icy crust of YBCA's frozen reflecting pool in search of Europa life forms. The excavated delicacies are then grilled and served as part of an ancient Japanese tea ceremony performed in a teahouse Sachs constructed from plywood, Con-Ed barriers, resin and steel and stocked with oddball ritual accessories. The structure is set in a bricolage garden dotted with a bronze bonsai sculpture cast from toothbrushes, tampons, Q-tips and a syringe; a lantern; and "Narrow Gate," a basalt sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, which is Sachs' answer to the mysterious monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." "We're bringing some of earth's culture to Europa and the tea ceremony is the best humankind can offer," he explains.

Lest he be mistaken for a thwarted astronaut, Sachs is quick to stress that he's first and foremost a sculptor. "I'm not a tea master or a rocket scientist but I can achieve and investigate a lot of the same areas they do in my own way," he asserts. "And unlike [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk, who probably thinks he'll fly to Mars with his family, I'm not interested in going. I'm not James Bond. I'm Q."

During opening and closing weekends, live demonstrations showcase the astronauts' activation of the mission's operations; on Sept. 17 from 1-6 pm, Sachs conducts a public program.

Sept. 16 → Jan. 15, 2017

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

(415) 978-2787/