OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, TECH BROS have been counting on artists to generate hype—and ROI. It can be hard to get people to understand, or care about, something as impenetrably technical as the blockchain. But once Beeple’s $70 million NFT made headlines two years ago, the blockchain was all anyone could talk about. Now, the same thing is happening with private space exploration. This new sector is creating cheaper rockets and building a whole new economy far, far away, using satellites to monitor everything from nuclear facilities to deforestation and to bring the internet to remote locales. They’re enlisting artists to draw attention to their innovations, and to make all that’s happening up there more relatable here on Earth.
The more gimmicky the space art, the more headlines it generates. Jeff Koons and Elon Musk—a match made in neoliberal hell—have teamed up for a new project launching (literally) this summer that allows collectors, perhaps bored of buying on Earth, to own art on the moon. Koons is sending 125 sculptures depicting different lunar phases to the moon on a SpaceX rocket, then pairing them with Earth-bound editions, each featuring a gem that plots the precise location of their lunar counterparts. Naturally, the editions all have corresponding NFTs.
If you could send anything to the moon, why would it be … a moon? Never mind that the lunar phases are irrelevant up there, since they exist only from an earthling’s perspective. If the collaboration is supposed to make gonzo ideas like colonizing Mars seem more humane, then Koons—whose shiny balloon dog sculptures are infamous for their abrasive vacuity—is an odd choice of artist. Instead, the collaboration has the opposite effect: it underscores the idea of the private space sector as a plaything for the ultra-rich.
You might think that the sky’s the limit with space art, but in fact, there are many constraints. Even Koons—one of the richest living artists, collaborating with one of Earth’s richest humans—complained about cost. His solution is the most obvious one: make the sculptures tiny. But other artists are getting clever and resourceful, finding ways to work around the material and corporate limitations.
LAST YEAR, WHEN CHINESE CONCEPTUAL ARTIST XU BING had to postpone his rocket launch, it wasn’t due to the technical delays that are all but expected with such a complex feat of engineering. Instead, it was because Chinese officials required the artist to prove, before sendoff, that the Chinese-looking characters painted on the rocket’s exterior were indeed, as Xu claimed, nonsense. If he were sending a secret message to the world—or to extraterrestrials—the government didn’t want to be the last to know.
This was challenging. How do you prove that something is nonsense? The prompt stumped the artist for a while, until he reframed the question—how do you appease a government bureaucrat? Eventually, he offered a certificate confirming the message was indeed gibberish, and that seemed to do the trick. Ready for takeoff.
When I visited Xu’s Brooklyn studio last fall, he told me he got the idea for Xu Bing Tianshu (2019–20) when a space company approached him to collaborate. He had already developed the characters for one of his previous works, Book from the Sky (ca. 1987–91), a set of scrolls containing 4,000 of them. When I asked him which company, he said he couldn’t tell me. It wasn’t hard to look up, though: it’s i-Space, a private Chinese company. I suspect he avoided naming them because the rocket didn’t make it through the atmosphere before it blew up. Xu and his team found the beat-up spacecraft the next day in the Gobi Desert, where it left a 90-foot-wide crater, then displayed it at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing. The resulting installation was a reflection on our species’ small role in a big world, one that inspires humility and awe in the face of a universe that we can barely comprehend. It’s a poignant piece, but a big hole and a broken rocket probably isn’t the publicity the company wanted.
Then there are size and material constraints: exorbitant costs, limits as to what can survive temperatures far below freezing, the whole zero-gravity thing. Rockets often drop off several satellites belonging to various parties in a kind of rideshare. The more weight and room they take up, the more expensive the lift. The New York–based artist-investigator Trevor Paglen came up with a clever solution for his 2018 project Orbital Reflector. He sent up a balloon in a satellite with a device that would inflate it when it went into orbit. Paglen chose lightweight, reflective Mylar that would reflect the sun, making the balloon visible from Earth at twilight and dawn. The artist wanted to highlight the best that the private space industry has to offer—exploration and innovation free from military or surveillance agendas—with a project that, like the best of space artworks, was meant to inspire wonder and awe. Sadly, during that year’s government shutdown, furloughed FCC workers weren’t able to grant the clearance necessary to inflate the balloon after it went up. The satellite was lost in space, along with the $1.5 million that it cost to produce.
Failure and humility are part and parcel of space exploration, though. That’s how Xin Liu, an artist and curator in MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative, put it when we spoke in February. Liu was amazed by all the resources offered at the Institute when she arrived as a graduate student in 2015—not every artist gets to share a water cooler with world-class scientists and engineers. Liu, who has a background in engineering and in performance, had long been interested in “experiments in measurements,” and was eager to scale up. But she confessed that it was only after her first zero-gravity flight that she began to ask an important question about sending art into space: why? Often, in STEM, the answer is, “to see if we can,” but that risks the consequences posed by nerds eager to see if they can split an atom who wind up inventing weapons of mass destruction.
In zero gravity, Liu found herself feeling sad and lonely. Something she had known her entire life—“the ground that had always held me”—was gone. She felt a similar sense of loss when she had her wisdom teeth removed: a part of her body was gone. And so, in 2019, she mourned by sending one tooth briefly into space. Soon, she began to wonder why many humans share such profound curiosity about the universe, and thought perhaps the impulse might be as natural as hunger or love.
Liu documented the launch of her wisdom tooth in a virtual reality video, Living Distance (2019), which will be on view this summer in her solo show at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. For another project, she launched potatoes into space for 30 days on a payload she designed herself; now, she’s planting them in the Pioneer Works garden. These are the basis of educational workshops that will culminate in feeding those potatoes to the children who sign up. When she told me this, I was flummoxed, and I followed up with that question she mentioned earlier: why? And she said, because she wanted to insist that space exploration shouldn’t just be a domain for eccentric billionaires. She hoped to bring it home for the next generation, so they might start to imagine their roles there.
DOES SOMETHING TAKE ON NEW MEANING when you send it into space? If it’s that easy, it would explain the odd symbolic gestures that litter recent history: humans have sent up dinosaur bones, a Nobel Prize replica, September 11 artifacts. In 2001 Pizza Hut even made a delivery to the International Space Station on a resupply rocket. But for Xu Bing a work doesn’t count as true “space art” when you just launch objects made for Earth into space. (For instance, Amoako Boafo’s 2021 project “Suborbital Triptych,” for which the Ghanaian artist sent up three paintings via Jeff Bezos’s private rocket company, Blue Origin.) But Tavares Strachan’s Enoch—which hitched a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 with Paglen’s balloon in 2018—is a good example of work that engages meaningfully with the conditions of outer space. Strachan’s work comprised a 24-karat gold urn containing a bust of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut, who tragically died in a 1967 supersonic jet crash, before ever making it to space. The work is a monument to what could have been, a way of helping Lawrence realize his dream posthumously.
This summer, Xu is planning to launch the world’s first satellite designed strictly for art’s sake. He knows it’s the first because there are about 6,000 satellites floating around right now, and each is categorized by its primary function. Xu hopes to collaborate with museums and invite artists for “residencies.” This is welcome news: the most thoughtful of the space artists is now leading the next wave. Xu’s satellite is less a tool for sending up objects than a conduit for using space as a medium. If all goes as planned, it will have screens to play videos, and cameras to take photos. The satellite should also be able to collect data from neighboring satellites, and transmit Morse code. Xu told me he wanted to start the residency because he hoped that encouraging free exploration from other artists might help expand his own imagination when it comes to this vast newly accessible territory.
It’s surprising that so much space art is so dull, given that outer space, like most good art, inherently asks all these existential questions about where we come from and what it means to be human. It’s why Bill Clinton had a lunar rock in his oval office—he’d point to it when debates got heated, and it would calm people down by making whatever problem seem smaller. If a rock can have that effect, you’d think it’d be almost too easy to make good space art.
The problem seems to be that, for a few powerful men, space elicits not humility, but a desire to conquer. Today, artists have a unique opportunity—and even responsibility—to shape our perception of, and role in, our extraterrestrial future. What could possibly go wrong?!