When Troy artist Michael Oatman built his make-believe spaceship, he crawled inside the brain of a fictional astronaut from the 1970s.
He stopped cutting his hair. He let his beard grow long and bushy. He stepped into the windowless spaceship, slammed the heavy door behind him, and spent a few days there all alone.
“It was really to get into the character of this guy,” he said. “You have to understand it from the point of view of how this guy would live in it.”
“The Shining,” a solar-powered spaceship made from a 1973 Airstream motor home, is an outlandish sight even at MASS MoCA, which is known for its experimental art.
For the past year, museum visitors who venture outside have seen a 30-foot-long, winged tube of shiny aluminum that looks like it crash-landed on a catwalk 40 feet in the air. Heightening the mysterious sight are the remains of an orange-and-white parachute trailing from the ship, suggesting a pilot whose fate is unknown.
‘All Utopias Fell’
WHAT: Michael Oatman installation
WHERE: MASS MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass.
WHEN: Through November, re-opening in the spring. Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Open until 7:30 p.m. before most Saturday events
HOW MUCH: $15; $10 for students with ID; $5 for children 6 to 16; free for children 5 and under
MORE INFO: (413) 662-2111, massmoca.org
Created over four years, “All Utopias Fell” is a long-term installation, and Oatman’s largest artwork ever, spanning several thousand square feet. In addition to the spaceship, there are two other parts, “The Library of the Sun,” which is inside the ship, and “Codex Solis,” a 230-foot-long grid of mirrors and solar panels on the roof of Building No. 7.
“People definitely love it,” said Katherine Myers, director of marketing and public relations. “We try to tell everyone who comes in about it. It’s a bit off the beaten path so not something you would really happen upon.”
Adventure for visitors
Navigating their way to the spaceship is an adventure for visitors, who must cross a small bridge over the Housatonic River and venture inside a dingy coal-and-oil boilerhouse from the days when Sprague Electric made high-tech electronics in North Adams.
Next, they ascend a staircase of metal grating (impassable with high heels and challenging for those with acrophobia) and walk horizontally for 10 feet along a catwalk to enter the ship.
“This is the most extreme example of my mission of removing you physically and mentally from the museum context,“ Oatman said.
In 2005, for “Unnatural Science,” a group exhibit at MASS MoCA, Oatman created the fictional office of Dr. Henry Perkins, a scientist who supported eugenics, which had a “lip” or floor bump at the entrance.
“It was a physical sensation I wanted people to have, to re-orient them,” Oatman said of “Long Shadows.”
With “All Utopias Fell,” the goal was to “maximize the experience of being up, of being precarious, of being thrilled,” he said. “You have to figure out how to get up there, and you have to decide if you want to go.” Climbing up, he says, becomes “the perfect opportunity for someone to really travel, to lift off from the ground and then get the perspective of the campus and the mountains, and then go inside.”
Back to the ’70s
“The Library of the Sun,” Oatman’s dense and detailed transformation of the inside of the Airstream, imagines the world of the spaceman who prepared this hermitage when he left Earth. It’s like Buck Rogers meets “Back to the ’70s.”
“I wanted feelings of isolation, disorientation, enclosure, claustrophobia almost,” said Oatman.
A black rotary phone, newspaper stories and television clips flashing on a video screen, a record player and sewing machine are all real vintage 1970s objects collected by Oatman.
“There’s nothing in the ship that’s more recent than 1978, so I think you’ve got to think it’s been in orbit all that time, for 30 years,” he said.
There are humorous touches: a workbench where the aeronaut crafts yarn God’s eyes, books held into place with leather “safety belts,” a photo of Guy Lombardo, real jars of preserved food.
“My mom and dad canned those tomatoes,” said Oatman.
He carefully selected images and books that would have interested the aeronaut, apparently a scientist who was studying the sun.
He combed through material in Building 17, a vast storehouse of leftover Sprague materials, and found capacitors, tools and signs.
“When you learn that Sprague built the switch for the atomic bomb or they made parts for the Gemini project, I really wanted to have some of that real material in the show.”
And Oatman wants visitors to interact with the objects.
“There’s a bicycle that you can ride. It turns on a light when you pedal. You can play all the records on the record player. You can lie in the chair and experience the video,” he said.
“Kids stay for half an hour, just poking around and looking at things, asking their parents ‘what’s this and what’s this?’ It’s also a vehicle for stories to be told for people who don’t know anything about this period of space exploration or the space race or the Cold War or the emergence of nuclear power.”
Beginning of project
The first part of the project began in 2006, when Oatman designed a massive arrangement of mirrors and solar panels for the roof of Building 7, an installation with a coded message that Oatman will not reveal.
“I realized that you needed some place to see this from,” he said.
Soon after, he was driving in the Nevada desert when he saw the top of an Airstream peeking over a fence.
“I remembered that they used Airstreams to quarantine returning Mercury Gemini astronauts. So, they were already associated with the space program. . . . In a few days, I sketched an idea of a homemade spaceship made from an Airstream.”
He proposed the project to MASS MoCA and they really liked it.
“Now there was this other place that you could view the array from,” he said.
Oatman found his Airstream online, and bought it from a collector in Ohio, who towed it to North Adams.
After “Codex Solis,” the solar panel project, Oatman worked for three years on the spaceship, on site at MASS MoCA and in his Troy studio.
“The whole thing was a pretty neat collaboration,” he said.
Richard Criddle, director of fabrication and art installation at MASS MoCA, and crew member Jason Wilcox welded heavy pieces of steel; an engineering company from Boston figured out how to lift the Airstream into the air with cranes and wires. Chris Derby Kilfoyle of Berkshire Photovoltaic Services, a solar power pioneer, worked on the solar wings of the spaceship.
“Every task light, every video screen. They’re all powered by the sun,” said Oatman.
Debora Coombs, a Vermont stained glass artist, made an artwork for the ship. Even Oatman’s architecture students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute got involved.
Oatman, who is 47, has been interested in space travel since he was a boy devouring Tom Swift novels and launching model rockets, and he became a NASA fan during the Apollo missions.
“The space program is the most optimistic gesture that humans have come up with. It presupposes possibilities and the future, and contacts with other life. For a government agency to be thinking that poetically and that experimentally, I think it’s really interesting.”
Since “All Utopias Fell” opened in October 2010, Oatman has cut his hair and sports only a goatee, but he still dreams about being a space man.
He’s been thinking about writing a letter to Sir Richard Branson, asking if he can ride along when Branson’s Virgin Galactic begins taking passengers into outer space.
“I would do that in a heartbeat,” Oatman said.
“I’m really driven by new experiences and by wanting to see things that I don’t encounter in the world in my everyday life. . . . I think that for me, that’s sort of what drives me as an artist . . . I’m an explorer through art.”