In a promotional video for Jeff Koons’s latest project, titled “Moon Phases” and presented by Pace Verso, the gallery’s NFT platform, the artist blandly explains why he will permanently install his sculptures on our planet’s only natural satellite: “Throughout history, humankind, we’ve gazed at the moon. We’ve looked at the moon with awe and wonderment. And we’ve thought about our aspirations of what we can become.”
Both this statement and the project itself offer a very grounded perspective of what the moon is: an object onto which man projects his feelings about himself. While Koons may be a man on the moon, he’s looking back at Earth, oblivious to the vastness behind him, if only he would turn around. Though he insists the project is “outside of the realm of the global,” this hubristic (and surely costly) project will fail in its inability to theoretically reach beyond the bounds of our earthly systems, values, and aesthetics.
But perhaps I’m missing the point — after all, why would Koons turn around to face the chill of the infinite universe, when he has the whole world in the palm of his hand?
Though Koons will be the first artist to “install” art on the moon, sending art to space is nothing new. Happily for those of us still invested in art’s purpose to interrogate our human condition (and, occasionally, to transcend it), there are many other artists who are concerned with both the concept and the reality of outer space, using it to critically engage with ideas of representation, belonging, and existence.
It is no surprise that many of the artists grappling with the subject most successfully are women and artists of color. For those who are not White American male artists with their choice of the world’s top galleries (Koons recently jumped from the behemoth Gagosian to the equally hulking Pace), it is the empty frontier of space that is appealing, as it offers an opportunity at least to theorize a utopian vision for our future, one in which everyone — including those marginalized on Earth — thrives.
For Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, an exploration of space is a metaphor for the feeling of foreignness he grew up with living on an island nation whose past was rooted in far-off Africa. For him, space exploration is of dual significance. First, it is a great equalizer: All astronauts, no matter their nationality, experience displacement from home. Second, it allows Strachan, a citizen of a former colony whose lands were “discovered,” invaded, and explored, to step into the role of explorer.
Strachan’s project “Enoch” (2018) involves a satellite outfitted with a canopic jar topped with a bust of Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., the first Black man to train as an astronaut. Orbiting Earth, Lawrence — who never saw flight (he died in an accident while in training) — becomes his own moon. This moon, however, does offer a message of poignant aspiration: Part of the original project’s concept involved beacons installed at the top of school buildings, which would light up when the satellite passed, giving children an idea of the possible height of their ambition.
Like Strachan, the artist and engineer Xin Liu considers the concept of home and belonging in her work, though she is more interested in objects that leave Earth, only to return transformed. In the performance for Living Distance (2019), for example, she sent her wisdom tooth into space as an avatar of herself. The resulting two-channel video chronicles the tooth’s sub-orbital ascent, experience of zero gravity, and finally its return.
In sending a tooth, made from the body’s toughest stuff, into the hostile environment of space, the artist questions our ability to exist there as organic matter. She wonders if we are suited for space exploration, or if the definition of humanity is inextricably linked to Earth. If the human body is able to leave Earth, to colonize Mars, say, what would we become then? The moment you leave a place you are changed, so who are we if we are not Earth-bound?
Julia Christensen’s project, on the other hand, assumes our life on Earth, but grapples with how to share that experience with other species in the universe. In her two-hundred-year-long project, which she has dubbed the “Tree of Life,” Christensen is working with scientists and engineers employed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to embed her work on a spacecraft the size of a toaster oven to be sent to Proxima b, a planet orbiting the closest star to our Sun Alpha Centauri3. The craft is a 21st-century update on the Golden Records, which were launched into space in 1977 and contain a message from Earth (including recordings of Bach and Louis Armstrong, as well as greetings in 55 languages). Christensen and her collaborators have incorporated as a non-profit entity, the Space Song Foundation, to support the project.
Though built by humans, the craft will not communicate a human message, but rather is outfitted with antennae designed to broadcast the changing electric frequencies of trees — a bellwether of the planet’s health. Instead of communicating man’s achievement, this project could very well chronicle man’s destruction of the planet, should we be unable to stop the march of climate change.
As Voyager 1, which contains the Golden Records, left our solar system 13 years after its launch, it turned around one last time and took a picture of what it saw. What it beamed back was a now-famous photograph of the “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan put it, an image of Earth the size of a single pixel, swimming in a vast expanse of cold darkness.
By the end of the “Moon Phases” promo, Koons has dropped the humanitarian act, lapsing back into a familiar egoism the 21st-century art world will have no problem recognizing: “I can see my whole history as an artist,” he says with boyish delight, “I can look at this project, and I can see the ideas that I had from the very beginning.” For the artist this project is one of personal conquest. But if Koons has conquered something, it’s something that is only a fraction of a single pixel.