Embarking on a “Mission to Space” at the Children’s Museum of the Arts
There’s something about outer space that simultaneously captures our wildest imagination and speaks concretely to the present. The night sky has hosted a proxy war between countries racing to the moon for national prowess; astrology and star signs are a common means that many use to relate to one another. And as climate change threatens the Earth as we know it, some have begun to look beyond our own planet for the future of humanity. Space ignites in many a sense of majesty and hope. Me? Space is cool, but living in New York, what I think is a star is actually—nine times out of ten—just the 8:45 shuttle from Dulles. A newly discovered planet that could potentially support life? That’s exciting, but did you hear the A train is running with delays?
Despite my preference for Earth, I was still intrigued by the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA) “Mission to Space,” an exhibition of works dealing with the final frontier. The show deals both directly with the cosmos (as in Andrew Zuckerman’s images made using materials from the Apollo missions) or more obliquely, often with a humorous, popular twist (for example, Masayoshi Sukita’s photographs of man-who-fell-to-earth David Bowie). As is usually the case with art openings, the event was mostly comprised of adults (though one man flitted about in sneakers that lit up whenever he walked), but given the venue, there were a few children present, which was lucky for me, since I was curious to speak with some K-12 critics to get their impressions. I found a few young takers who shared choice (albeit brief) insights and helped me navigate this show of art-meets-space.
First though, I sampled the evening’s beverages (wine and boxed apple juice), and found the curator. “At CMA, what we like to do is design shows that are not just family friendly, they’re for any generation,” CMA curator Jil Weinstock tells me. “We want to elevate the experience, we show work that’s challenging,” The show presents the works of notable contemporary artists like Tom Sachs, E.V. Day, and Nina Katchadourian. Day’s Bridal Supernova (2006), for example, consists of an exploding Barbie doll gown in a cage, a piece that both conceptually blows up a commercial signifier of womanhood and is, I can imagine, enjoyable to look at for any age group. And as is customary at the museum, the show also includes sketches by children (the CMA has the country’s only permanent collection of kid’s art, with images that date back to the 1930s). A drawing of a house labeled “Space Club” was a personal favorite. “I like the juxtaposition between established contemporary artists and work by children,” said Weinstock, who sifted through some 2,000 works in the museum’s collection to pick out some that fit the theme.
As I stood in front of a work that looked like what could be a Thomas Hirschhorn assemblage of a dustbin, I met Ava, who must have been about six. “I think it’s used to pick up space rocks,” she told me when asked for her impressions. Naive Ava, I thought, people don’t use art. But upon checking the wall label after my “interview,” I realized that Ava was right—what I thought to be a piece of assemblage was Andrew Zuckerman’s Mockup Lunar Rake Used for Training (1969), a readymade object used by NASA in its training to pick up space rocks. Ava 1, Isaac 0. Did she have anything else to add? A favorite work in the show? Aspirations to be an artist? Apparently not.
Next, I spoke with Marilyn, an eight-year-old aspiring chef (“I’m a cook and I’ve been interviewed by a TV producer”). She voiced some enjoyment for Michael Kagan’s Blackbird (2014), a large painting of a cockpit. “It’s nice; I like it. It sorta looks like Star Wars,” she offers. Her review of the the rest of the works in the show was similarly positive—“they’re all good!” Nearby, Harrison (his mother recommended I talk to him since his sister, age three, couldn’t stop giggling) was also drawn to a work by Kagan. When I asked him where the painted rocket ship might be going he told me “to outer space,” very matter of factly, and perhaps, he added “all the way to Neptune.”
I found Oscar, also around age six, by two small Thomas Broadbent sculptures of asteroids made from porcelain—though one looked metallic and the other earthen. Here is a rough transcript of our conversation: What do you think the work is of? “Comets.” What does it make you think about? “Comets and stuff.” Your favorite work in the show? “The brownish-tan rock.” Fair enough! Broadbent’s pieces are similar in composition and scale to near earth asteroids, chunks of rocks that have been pushed into earth’s orbit by nearby planets and will remain circling our planet for forever. The introspection and questions of mortality that Broadbent’s works inspire may be difficult for kids to grasp, but it goes to show the duality of the exhibition.
After asking every child present (who wasn’t in a stroller) for their thoughts, I finished my visit at the clay bar—a bar where you can make sculptures out of clay, guided by trained artists (I made a rocket ship that better resembled a flying space mouse). Upon leaving, it felt like I’d been there for hours, and I expected to walk out into New York at nightfall. The show had made me actually excited to get a glimpse of what few stars you can see in this town. But I was wrong; as I left I was met with the blazing sun. Alas, mercury is in retrograde.
“Mission to Space” is on view at the Children’s Museum of the Arts, New York, Sep. 13, 2016–Jan. 15, 2017.