What Artists Would Do if They Could Fly to the Moon

Posted September 24, 2018 3:24 p.m. EDT

Its ambition is to “revolutionize space travel,” but when it comes to manned missions, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company sometimes seems to have struggled to … well, to get off the ground. It has become a major player in satellite launches, and achieved some impressive milestones, but some of the targets and timelines related to its grandest plans have turned out to be wildly optimistic. That’s not even to mention the Tesla chief executive’s recent behavior, which has led some investors to question exactly which planet he is on.

So space watchers were intrigued last Monday by Musk’s announcement that he had found the first paying customer for a trip to the moon — Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese online retail billionaire. Maezawa then generated even more headlines by declaring that he would invite a group of artists to travel with him.

For this “awe-inspiring, global, universal art project,” which is called “Dear Moon,” between six and eight creatives — a painter, a musician, a film director, a fashion designer, and possibly others — would accompany Maezawa on a five-day, 500,000-mile journey aboard the yet-to-be-built Big Falcon rocket, orbiting the moon but not landing. (Last year, Maezawa also caught the art world’s attention when he paid $110 million for a Basquiat painting at Sotheby’s.)

In a statement, Maezawa pondered what might have happened if Picasso or John Lennon had been able to voyage in outer space. “We all have the ability to dream dreams that have never been dreamed,” he said. “To sing songs that have never been sung, to paint that which has never been seen before.”

The journey isn’t scheduled until 2023 — “if everything goes 100 percent right,” Musk said — but The New York Times took the opportunity to ask eight artists to do a little dreaming of their own, and to put in pitches for the project. In our version, the budget is unlimited, and (unlike the real mission) a lunar landing is allowed.

The only requirement was that they ignite imaginations. These are edited excerpts from some recent conversations.

Daniel Libeskind

I like that this project is about art rather than science. So my proposal is to turn the moon itself into an art project: It’s a sphere and I want to turn it into a perfect square. That’s the dream.

My son Noam is an astrophysicist at the Leibniz Institute in Germany, and we did some calculations about how it could work. We thought the best way would be to paint sections of it black, so they no longer reflect the sun’s light. To account for the curvature, you’d need to paint four spherical caps on the moon’s surface. That would create a kind of frame that looks square when you see it from Earth.

I get that it’s probably not the cheapest concept — our estimate is about $10 trillion for paint costs alone — but I like the way that it would transform the moon into a work of contemporary art. Think of how amazing it would be to watch the phases shift; the light come across the visible portion, the craters, the Sea of Tranquility, all framed by this rigid black square. Like a Malevich or Mondrian painting hanging in the sky. Literally a lunatic project.

(Libeskind is an architect whose practice is based in New York.)

Ai Weiwei

A change in perspective is the source for any kind of art. Without shifting perspectives, we will never have a complete view of anything — the political, personal, or social. The intensity of lifelessness on the moon, the impossibility of species existing there, is a mirror. It makes us appreciate even more the precious miracle of life on this planet.

So what I can put on the moon is an observation: My insignificance in relation to the universe, and to use that as a point of view for planet earth. Without knowing other celestial bodies, we cannot truly understand what our own planet is about.

(Ai is an artist whose studio is in Berlin.)

Kara Walker

Gil Scott Heron wrote that famous poem, “Whitey on the Moon”: “The man just upped my rent last night / Cause whitey’s on the moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But whitey’s on the moon.”

I got thinking about a moon colony, which plenty of people have talked about pretty seriously over the years. So what I would do is this: For every female child born on Earth, one sexist, white supremacist adult male would be shipped to the moon. They could colonize it to their heart’s content, and look down from a distance of a quarter-million miles. It’s a monochrome world up there; probably they’d love it. The colony would be hermetically sealed. And the rest of us could enjoy the sight of them from a safe distance. Maybe there could be some kind of selection ritual involved, something to do with menstruation and the tides — a touch of nature, to add a bit of irony justice to the endeavor.

For the supremacists, maybe traveling so far from home would help inspire a different worldview. And for the rest of us down on Earth, perhaps this is an opportunity to focus on the nature of our home planet with the same dreamy reverence we once reserved for the moon.

(Walker is an artist based in New York.)

Laurie Anderson

The first thing to say is that I would be first in line. A while back, I was artist in residence at NASA: I think it’s kind of amazing for Yusaku Maezawa to make that offer.

Their plan is just to circle around the moon rather than land, so I think I would find it hard to make any work up there: There would be so much going on out of the window that you couldn’t think about missing one second. The moment where you come around and see the Earth rise — so many people have imagined what it would be like actually to see that. You would go out of your mind with happiness.

I played at the celebrations at the Kennedy Center for John F. Kennedy’s 100th anniversary last year, and I have thought a lot about his writings on the space program. He said the most beautiful things: “I look forward to an America that is not afraid of grace and beauty.” I keep that in my heart. It’s so antithetical to what’s going on now.

(Anderson is a musician and artist based in New York.)

Hito Steyerl

I’m not opposed to the idea of space exploration; it’s interesting, especially deep-space observation. But the whole idea of corporate space travel seems pretty strange to me: I think it’s a kind of bailout plan for oligarchs, in case Earth becomes unlivable. The ultimate gated community.

So my idea would be to take the other seven artists and convince them not to blast off to the moon at all, but to create a space habitat right here on Earth. There are so many places that currently aren’t livable: conflict zones, areas that suffer from great poverty and environmental devastation. Other places are barely livable; people need to work three jobs in order to survive. Public space is almost extinct in many areas of the world. We’d create an environment rich in oxygen, have plants grow, and the other artists and I could work and create. This is about recycling dysfunctional civilizations as livable habitats.

Yusaku Maezawa asks what Picasso could have been able to make if he had seen the moon up close. So maybe they should create a clone of Picasso; he could go off and explore, leaving the rest of us down here to get on with creating space.

(Steyerl is an artist and writer based in Berlin.)

Eric Fischl

Photography has already captured so much of outer space that as a painter it would be very difficult to add to that. The stark contrast between horizon and space makes me think that you would need hard-edge abstraction to capture it — strong contrast between light and dark, very little color.

One thing I would try and figure out would be the profound ambivalence any human would feel finding themselves in a place where they’re not able to survive. The only way I could grasp the absurdity of having thought that I wanted to be there in the first place is to resort to humor. I think my first creative act after landing on the moon would be to unzip my spacesuit and pee into gravity-less space, in a futile effort to mark my territory.

(Fischl is a painter and sculptor based in Sag Harbor, New York)

Thomas Ruff

A few years ago, I did a project with the European Space Agency where they invited artists to go up in what they call the “vomit comet” — a plane that flies parabolic maneuvers high in the atmosphere, to create the sensation of weightlessness. They use it for training astronauts; you get about 30 seconds of zero gravity at a time. I took a series of self portraits in zero gravity: Me floating in space. So maybe I would be qualified for a moon mission. I’ve already done some of the training.

To me, the most interesting thing about the moon is the dark side: The side we never see from Earth. The first astronauts were nervous when they went around the moon, because you lose radio contact until you reappear around the other side. So I would want to photograph that, and keep photographing as we came around and as the Earth rose again. From the Earth you can’t change the angle you look at the moon — we’re stuck with the same angle and depend on the light of the sun — whereas in a spacecraft you can maneuver freely. I would want to use that, and photograph from every angle I could.

(Ruff is a photographer based in Düsseldorf, Germany.)

Tacita Dean

I have filmed three solar eclipses over the years, so the moon has always been a principal player in my work. I collect stones, so if I got to land on the moon rather than just orbit it, the surface would immediately excite me: the moon rock itself; all those meteorites, billions of years old.

I would want to make a film about the experience simply of being on the moon, concentrating on the detail of it, exactly what it was like. I wouldn’t try to pre-imagine the experience; I would just observe. Absorb as much as I can.

Honestly, though, I would be most excited by the relative weightlessness of the moon. I limp because of arthritis, so the fact that there’s one-sixth gravity up there would be hugely liberating. I’m known for my static camera positions, but on the moon I could be mobile, and able to carry my camera. That alone would be amazing.

(Dean is an artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.)