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Conceptual Space Travel Touches Down at YBCA

Updated: Oct 16, 2016 20:50
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Space Program: Europa


Out front there’s a Winnebago that reads “NASA” on the side. The RV’s roof is adorned with antennas and a spinning radar device and a bundle of wires run off one corner and into the museum.

Is NASA planning to send this Winnebago into the stratosphere, a-la Captain Lonestar of Mel Brooks’ “Space Balls”?

Well, yes, and no….

This is the Mobile Quarantine Facility, the first sculpture to greet visitors at the new Tom Sachs installation in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “Space Program: Europa” is the third space exploration exhibit that the New York based artist have done and it’s pretty heady. For the uninitiated, this installation is confusing and strange, a convolution of Asian and American culture mixed in a plywood spacecraft, part make-believe, part conceptual art, part political statement.

Sachs insists that he is a sculptor, and he certainly is. The legs on his lunar module feature flawless welds, cuts of stunning precision and an overall visual balance.

Sachs and the landing module.


His strange, found-object arrangements invoke wonderment and are visually stunning. Sachs says that his mother told him: “When you die, if your sculpture isn’t really great, people are just going to throw it out.”

So his work is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also program art imbued with much more meaning than would be obvious to the casual observer. To understand the installation, we first must introduce the odd concept of “sympathetic magic,” which is the idea that something that represents an object is that object. A voodoo doll is one popular notion of this. And folks that have gone to Burning Man will understand that if you can suspend disbelief — perhaps with the aid of a proper cocktail of drugs and a fantastically well-built art car — then for all intents and purposes there is a Spanish galleon cruising across the Nevada desert at dusk.

Really but not really. But really.

“Tom’s whole idea is: if you can imagine it and build it, it’s yours,” says YBCA director Debra  TK. “So we can go to the icy surface of Europa just like anyone else.”

From an early age Sachs made sculptures of things he couldn’t afford (a Nikon camera made of clay; a duct tape Mondrian painting) or that didn’t exist (a Chanel Chain saw or a Prada toilet). He found that covetous objects and experiences of the elite could be made accessible to everyone through art, if only conceptually. And so the three iterations of Tom Sachs Space Program have taken gallery goers to the moon, to mars, and now to Europa.

After showing us some of his sculptures of otherwise unattainable objects (a “Hermes Value Meal” and the world’s most badass boombox) and admitting that he will probably make himself an iPhone 7, Sachs says, “Let me show you how we’re able to go to another world without congressional funding.”

We step through a tall opening and into Mission Control. Dozens of screens display closed-circuit cameras feeding from around the museum. Since this is Sachs’ fantasy journey, there’s also a vintage ghetto blaster and plenty of whiskey. A model rocket appears on the wall appears to be full size on one of the screens. It becomes even more “real” when Sachs activates a burner that spits orange flame from its nozzles. Around the room there are other models ready to simulate the visuals of space exploration.

If you were to observe the installation only by sitting in front of the control room screens — sloshed on booze some hallucinogenic mushrooms — you wouldn’t have that much trouble suspending disbelief, really getting to watch astronauts venture to Europa. Really, but not really.

But really.

The other thing about this that makes the exhibit really odd is the inclusion of a Japanese tea ceremony. Sachs enjoys the rituals of this culture but balks at how expensive and elitist the practice can be. So he wants to make it accessible and has done art referencing it before. One attendee comments on how he seems to fold his prior work into his new exhibits, not unlike a chemist or a brewer.

On the walls opposing mission control are sets of NASA branded equipment for performing a tea ceremony in space. There are folding water ladles, a micro-sized zen rock garden, a samurai helmet made from a safety helmet and a large wall of ceramic bowls. And here we find another bit of program art: the hand-worked ceramic bowls are marked with fingerprints, evidence of the individual.

Sachs makes a concerted effort to express, through his sculpture, the presence of the individual. He says that as our society is revolutionized by technology, a sense of individuality is lost. To combat this, every one of his pieces has a DIY feel. Nothing seems perfectly finished but is instead made complete by bursting with tiny intricacies, proofs that a human arranged every minutia of the tableau.

“In the traditional crafts there is a transparency,” says Sachs. “You’ll see in a tea house a rough hewn edge, you’ll see bark. You’ll see marks of the chisel and those are the things that I still respond to and I would argue that there’s actually a similarity between traditional Japanese craftwork and the studio where we always paint the wood first and then cut it. So you see that an individual was there or a pencil mark here.”

“Tom is very into the ethic of work and making,” says Erum Shah, Sachs’ studio manager. “We’re all about ritual. The scars of our labor are all over everything.”

That ritual and attention to the task at hand is perhaps why Sachs wants to bring a Japanese Tea Ceremony into outer space. He and his studio have created, from plywood and corrugated tin roofing, all the necessary stations to simulate that reality. There’s a wall cubby for shoes, a small entry gate, and a spring from which to draw water. There’s an abstract stone monolith (a piece of art within the piece of art [rabbit hole leading to rabbit hole]) and benches to observe it from. There’s a bathroom modeled after an airplane lavatory, a wood-cutting station (with automated skill saw) and a charcoal burning station.

“Before the Tea ceremony, there’s a charcoal ceremony,” says Sachs. “Unlike American culture, the tea ceremony celebrates the temporal nature of life itself. And it’s important that we remember every day — ‘momento mori’ — remembering we’ll die so that you can live better lives today.”

We’re taken outside to the pond in the bamboo grove designed by YBCA building architect Fumihiko Maki in 1993. The pond has been surrounded by grey plywood and frozen over by a refrigeration unit. We’re told that there will be a performance by a team of astronauts that will:

  1. drill into the pond,
  2. capture some Europians (as portrayed by Pleocyemata Astacoidea — aka crawfish)
  3. and, well, barbeque the little suckers.

His grand plan revealed, Sachs then disappears to rehearse for tonight’s performance.

Alien Autopsy

We are permitted to explore the LEM (Lunar Exploration Module) and the MQF (Mobile Quarantine Facility). After climbing several ladders on the LEM, we find a pantry is stocked with whiskey and a control board made from a DJ mixer. On the way down, I notice a camera inside the toilet…

Out in the MQF, there’s some heavy metal playing. Who are we listening to?

“Iron Maiden,” says Charles Bates, who’s a gromen, one of the puppet-show style invisible helpers for the performance. “You gotta get pumped before you go into space.”

Two female astronauts will start inside this sterile camper, donning handmade spacesuits (female surely because it makes space travel more accessible to women, right?). They’ll walk into the spaceship and blast off to Europa. They’ll perform the tea ceremony and drill through the ice, capturing and consuming the native crustaceans.

And then?

Then one of them will poop.

And it will be captured by the two cameras (yeah turns out there’re actually two cameras in the shitter on the LEM — one pointing up and one pointing down) and displayed on the screens back at mission control.

“They’ll have to ask for permission from mission control and everything,” says Bill Haddad, a member of the TV industry who’s helping set up the closed circuit camera systems. “It’s the question kids always ask: ‘How do you go to the bathroom in space?’”

Indubitably, but really?

Yes, really.

Really, really.

I wind up amongst the installation workers of YBCA during the evening party. I’m told of how unique an exhibit this is, since some of it is meant to be interacted with (“Usually we use gloves with moving pieces. This exhibition, hardly at all.”). And one of the astronauts assures me that while she will not be dropping the on screen deuce — although she has before — she will be the “loaf pincher.” And then she says something about using scissors. Christ! Is that how it’s done in space?! Wasn’t there something about vacuum cleaners?

“You wanna see the video?” Asks another employee.

Well…yes…yes I do. For those of you interested, check out the documentary “Space Program,” which follows Sachs’ others solar-systemic installations.

It also gets pointed out that the exhibit is peppered with naked female imagery, jokingly calling it the “Magical Misogyny Tour.” But hey, it’s the fantastical sculptural realization of one man’s Tea Ceremony mission to a Jupiter’s sixth moon. Can you really knock him if the list of favorite things gets rounded out?

Can you find the boobies? How ’bout now?

“I love performance artist. I love industrious artists such as Sachs,” says Janette Reynolds when told that an astronaut will “go boom” in the LEM. Reynolds is a member of the Modern Art Council for the SFMOMA. “He’s doing an amazing job — chronicling history, his life, how he interacts with specific moments within the turn of a decade. However, do we really need to go to this level of defecation and calling it art?”

And this is a question that Sachs’ exhibit prompts: Is it art?

Well, yes and no.

It is certainly aesthetically pleasing sculpture but if the theorem of “sympathetic magic” is to be believed, then no. No, in that case it is actually a spaceship with an actual astronaut dropping the Jetsons off at the pond. And that shit happens.

Not really and really, really.

But what do people at the opening night soiree think of the install — regardless of defecating intentions?

“Juxtaposition is the way of the future!” Declares Anthony Torres. “It’s collage in spatial form!”

“I like that it’s something anyone could do,” says David Callahan, an architecture student. “I like the half door of the tea house. It automatically makes you subservient.”

“I like it,” says Sophie Lamparter, from Sweden. “I have to think further but I like it.”

Since she is Swedish, I walk her over to the Logjam cafe, where they’re making custom “Swedish Passports.” (really but not really).

Alien passport

The Logjam Cafe part of the install is named for the box of screws and other assorted hardware that ends up in a box at the end of the fabrication process.

If you buy a coffee at the Logjam Cafe you will be given — in addition to your beverage — a clump of hardware to be sorted and filed amongst the various bins.

“It’s really soothing,” says museum marketing director, Jen Martindale. “I’m not going to lie.”

After observing this weird, visually soothing but conceptual art, and considering Sachs mention of coveting an iPhone 7, I was happy to find myself in possession of an iPhone Ocho which is currently on available in an alternate dimension que es todo en Español. Y ya recibí un text de Señor Sachs. ¡Que chido, guey!

Tom: “Hey Sam, awesome article” Sam: “Glad you like it, Tom! Thanks for the Swedish passport”

Really. But not really.

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is drawn to art, bikes, song and drink like the proverbial moth to the moth-heroin. He plays music, tends bar, and makes silly animations. In addition to writing for he's appeared in several publications, including MotoSpirit, SF Bay Guardian, Motorcyclist magazine, SF Weekly, and The Kiteboarder. Check him out at