The 1995 movie “Apollo 13” showed how NASA mission control was able to jury-rig, using a severely limited roster of supplies, a life-saving solution for three astronauts on their way to the moon. It’s a genuine example of American ingenuity, and you get the feeling watching “A Space Program” that it had a big effect on artist Tom Sachs when he saw it.
This documentary, directed by Sachs’ collaborator Van Neistat, captures an installation/performance art piece which depicts a journey to Mars by two female astronauts, using equipment constructed entirely out of commonly available materials—plywood, epoxy, Tyvek, and so on.
It’s sci-fi bricolage, with Sachs as flight director and members of his studio as ground control crew. There’s a full-size recreation of an Apollo-style Lunar Emission Module, and the creative use of power tools to cut a hole in the “Martian surface” (aka the wooden floor of the performance space) upon “arrival.”
It’s all very hard to describe, but it’s the culmination of years of work for Sachs, whose first foray into the field came with 2007’s “Space Program” at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. That lunar faux-expedition evolved into 2012’s “Space Program 2.0: MARS,” staged at the Park Avenue Armory in New York and captured here.
The film version inevitably fails to capture the live experience of the audience members in the room where it happens. It also, though, allows for close-ups and cutaways that provide a smidgen of context and perhaps more clarity than someone sitting on bleachers 50 feet away from the action could obtain. The overall effect is playful and philosophical, puzzling and profound, in equal measure.
It’s tempting to wonder if anyone who ever turned a refrigerator box into a rocket ship as a kid could, with a skilled grant writer, match Sachs’ feat. But that would be cynical, of course, and ignores the level of craft, imagination, and sheer sweat that went into the project. Despite its recent, exciting successes with unmanned spacecraft, NASA has been accused of lacking in the inspiration department. This artist, and his dedicated studio-mates, have it in spades.
The movie’s barely more than an hour long, but be sure to stick around through the charmingly handwritten, several-minutes-long end credits, which have a few clever in-jokes.
(72 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, July 22, at Living Room Theaters)