New York

View of “Tom Sachs,” 2012.

View of “Tom Sachs,” 2012.

Tom Sachs

View of “Tom Sachs,” 2012.

Though Tom Sachs’s preposterously hypertrophic installation “Space Program: Mars” proposed to viewers a kind of voyage, it turned out to provide a very different sort of trip than the one advertised. Organized by Creative Time, the prolific artist’s ersatz expedition to outer space—which colonized a heroically large proportion of the Park Avenue Armory’s floor plan—never really got off the ground. But the actual journey on offer, one into the mind and working habits of its author, was a fascinating adventure nonetheless.

The show was, in essence, an extravagant, life-size (and then some) working model recapitulating Sach’s modus operandi—a madly macrocosmic enactment of his legendarily fastidious studio practice. And the array of quasi-participatory, bricolaged sculptural scenarios that composed it beautifully demonstrated not just the artist’s carefully honed sense of the ironically maladroit but also the intermittent horror vacui that provokes his most overelaborated artifacts. Informed by what seems to be a naturally occurring case of undeniably generative OCD—as well as a well-documented tendency toward almost logorrheic pedantry—Sachs’s physical and conceptual constructions initially propose themselves as spontaneous and appealingly offhand. Here, however, they were almost always less interesting as things-in-themselves than as representative cogs in his rigid metasystem of command and control, a system instantiated vividly in the usually handwritten text that percolated in and alongside the works like haywire didactic verbiage, ever-presently murmuring to viewers suggestions on how to look at, use, and/or understand them and their larger context.

If the specific pieces often boiled down to vehicles for low-ambition, knowingly schlocky gags—a biology lab set up to grow poppies for the cultivation of opium on Mars rejiggered, “due to federal law restrictions,” to produce “‘soapium,’ a Dial soap–based substitute”; a Winnebago RV fashioned into a “mobile quarantine facility” for returning astronauts, stocked with copious amounts of top-shelf booze—the conceptual coup de grâce of the larger project was the way it cheerfully strong-armed visitors into playing along with its central conceit. The centerpiece of the sprawling, umpteen-part “Space Program: Mars” was—fittingly, given its roots in the artist’s “Space Program,” a 2007 Gagosian LA show that mooted a similar lunar voyage—a full-scale model of an Apollo LEM, or lunar excursion module, which had been repurposed for its new Martian destination. Unlike the rest of the show, this work was off-limits to all but those who’d passed a set of examinations being given beneath a large sign blaring INDOCTRINATION in goofily menacing capitals. If the oral part was easy enough—knowing the order of the solar system was probably the trickiest question—a second, written test could only really be passed after sitting through an hour-long series of the artist’s films hosted in a little adjacent cinema, complete with a concession stand selling bad popcorn.

For all the dense diversity of the project’s sculptural program, it was here that its central motivations were truly fleshed out. The loop featured a mix of Mars-themed films, such as Space Camp, 2012—detailing the calisthenic and other preparations undertaken for the mission by the large cast of collaborators and helpers drafted into the project—and more general introductions to the Sachsian weltanschauung, including Ten Bullets, 2010, the most celebrated in a series of kaleidoscopically persnickety short movies that the artist has been releasing in recent years. Proposing a kind of unified field theory of discipline and efficiency for Sachs’s studio assistants—and by extension, the world at large—Ten Bullets is a winking masterpiece of professional tunnel vision and self-regarding procedural confidence. Here it also radically resituated the performative activity of “Space Program: Mars”—young pocket-protected people earnestly hurrying from one station to the next on scooters and bicycles, twiddling science-y knobs, watching aimless monitors, adjusting hoses, and sorting screws—from an oddly flatfooted form of pseudotechnical satire to a space of dynamic, discomfiting intersubjectivity governed entirely by the artist’s authoritarian brand of whimsy. That the LEM was full of freshly minted, officially certified Sachs experts for the hour-plus I was there confirms the persuasive power of at least one of the things he makes about as well as anyone—spectacles, especially ones in which he’s the star.

Jeffrey Kastner