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‘Science Is in a Constant Struggle Against Intellectual Bigotry’: Tom Sachs on Finding Water on Mars


From left to right: Mars, Tom Sachs.


Earlier this week, NASA confirmed evidence that there is liquid water flowing on Mars. With this exciting news in mind, ARTnews reached out to the artist Tom Sachs—who in 2012 staged an exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory titled “SPACE PROGRAM: MARS,” which simulated a four-week mission to Mars using simple materials mostly from the artist’s studio—to get his thoughts.

“I think the thing that’s important is that artists and scientists are a lot alike,” Sachs said. “They have an idea and they go out and have to prove it. And that’s what we’ve done finally. We got proof, even though we all kind of knew it all along.”

(Sachs extrapolated: “NASA doesn’t send robots to detect life, it sends robots to detect signs of life, evidence of life, the elements necessary to support life, because that’s sort of the scientific equivalent of a legal document proving that it’s really happening.”)

Sachs went even further back in time to mention Giovanni Schiaparelli, the late 19th-century Italian astronomer. Schiaparelli birthed the idea of the Martian canal, which, although ultimately incorrect, was perhaps a prescient forecasting of these modern day NASA findings. “Although they weren’t canals as he imagined them, he wasn’t really that far off,” Sachs said.

For 2012’s “Space Program: Mars,” Sachs set up shop inside of the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, creating an exhibition that, using sculpture, approximated in detail the multitude of elements necessary for any full-on space program. In some ways, it was just as much about the culture surrounding space exploration as the actual act itself.

“We go to Mars and Europa and other planets not because we fucked up Planet Earth, but so that we can better understand ourselves and our planet that we inhabit now, so we can better utilize our resources,” Sachs said. “Science is in a constant struggle against intellectual bigotry, so it’s really got to back it up, and the guys at the other NASA are doing a really good job at backing it up.”

When asked if he expects to see life on other planets in his lifetime, Sachs quoted Kevin Hand—an astrobiologist who took part in “Space Program: Mars”—who said, “If I don’t find life on another planet within the next 30 years, I’m going back to organized religion.” Sachs continued: “Intelligent people look to science and the methods of science to try to come to terms with these unanswerable questions, and, well, that’s sort of the best we can do.”

Although the artist staged a mock space program, Sachs himself is in no way trying to leave his home planet. “I’m not interested in going to Mars,” Sachs said. “Mars and other planets are incredibly hostile. I see Earth as a warm wet kiss and I’m happy to explore all the great places on this planet.”

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