Mission to Earth: Artists launch Aspen Space Program
On the rugged and remote backside of Aspen Mountain, a group of artists have crafted an “Aspen Space Station” that they hope might convince people – and the billionaires among us – that the wonders of Earth are worth saving.
Walking the crude trails between the station’s monumental sculptures and installations on the 30-acre site – amid tall grass, aspen trees and a symphony of wildflowers – one is reminded that life on this planet can be pretty good.
Artist and “Aspen Space Station Commander” Ajax Axe, who has lived on this very off-the-grid mining claim for nine years, hopes that a visit to the station and an experience with its playful but pointed artworks might change some minds. The works call out – sometimes by name – the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of the world for going to space rather than using resources to save Earth from the ravages of climate change.
It is a jolly thumb in the eye of what she calls the “escapist fantasy” of space travel today, which is allowing people to ignore the worsening climate crisis.
“Part of the ideas is to ask these people to come back to Earth and be focused on being here,” Axe said on a recent morning walk on the site, the faintly smoky mountain air providing a constant reminder of the climate crisis at hand. “This concept that we can just give up on Earth and escape to Mars, I think, is problematic and unrealistic.”
Red signs posted around the station make her point more forcefully: “Send the billionaires to space, just leave us your bank accounts,” for example.
On Saturday, Axe and her crew – locally based artists Chris Erickson, Wally Graham and Lara Whitley among them – are staging the station’s official opening and a “launch back to Earth,” inviting the public to the station to interact with the work and become “Aspenauts,” with events and activations on the site continuing into mid-September.
The happenings on-site are aimed at including a cross-section of the Aspen community to the station – events range from art talks to meditation walks, dance performance to forest bathing, bushwacking, knife-throwing and watercolor painting.
“The programming is probably the most important part, because really the project is about getting the community together to appreciate our environment and the forest and the fact that we libe here in this incredible wilderness,” Axe said.
The same 1-percenters funding and buying into SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, she noted, spend lavishly to find sanctuary at homes here in Aspen, where the space station likely won’t go unnoticed by the billionaire class (Axe noted that she already hosted Musk associates for an early tour; she wore here Aspen Space Station helmet – adorned with 500 animal horn tips – to the Aspen Art Museum’s Art Crush gala last week and talked up the station to the blue-chip collectors there).
“All these people who are invested in the space industry are still escaping here,” she said. “There’s something that they’re getting here in Aspen that they’re not getting from this hyper technological fantasy about the future.”
Entering the property on a downslope from the unpaved Midnight Mine Road, you are greeted by two of Axe’s massive sculptures including a three-story tall welded space station structure topped by a hairy seed pod-like sphere.
“We’re subverting the space fantasy to sort of expose its absurdity, and also to sort of cultivate this appreciation for everything that we have here,” Axe said.
During public events, visitors will need to collect codewords at each artwork in order to gain entry to the next.
Down one path you’ll find Axe’s “Forest Pod,” a woven dome structure punctured with sticks that you can enter. Nearby in another dome, army figurines are battle over a live cactus under glass.
“They’re all fighting over the last living thing left on the planet,” Axe explained.
Inside a spartan miner’s cabin, the artist has staged a trio of robots mingling and bumping clumsily into one another – look close and you’ll find these are sculptures made with modified Roombas, affixed with lamp posts and animal horns.
“They definitely have a life of their own and a weird rhythm of their own,” Axe said. “That’s why I was attracted to them in the first place.”
This is Axe’s first foray into large-scale outdoor sculpture and earthworks, but anyone who has followed her work in local galleries in recent years – “Playtime,” “Palace of the Beast” and “Cult of Phi” series among them – will recognize the artists’ signature notes of dark humor, rustic aesthetics, and fantasy world-building as distinctly hers. Using found materials, assemblage, a cutting wit and an anthropological lens, her explorations all fall under the rubric of what she’s dubbed “wild futurism.”
On the far end of the station, after hopping across a babbling stream, visitors enter Lara Whitley’s tranquil “Earthly Palace.” Built with strings of salvaged lavender glass and sticks for a no-impact installation, with wood meditation stools on hand, it’s a transporting space with an entrance inspired by Shinto shrines.
In between, Chris Erickson has installed paintings on wood in a field of aspen trees. Inspired by the sunlight and flowers on the site, with a rough-hewn viewing platform installed above, he’s painted abstracted flowers in his signature neon and bright colors, but with striations across them that mirror the way shadows and mountaintop sunlight play against wildflowers in the area.
The sculptor Wally Graham made an on-site sculpture continuing his series of ominous and beautiful “Wildfire Spirit” sculptures, part of a continuing body of work using burnt trees from the 2018 Lake Christine Fire near Basalt.
There is also a hammock area and a knife-throwing zone, the venue for a celebration of gravity on the site (a slackline is also on the way and will be part of a public event exploring the pleasures of Earth’s gravity).
Later this month, the artists will invite the public to the station to brainstorm ideas for “Cool Shit You Could Do With A Billion Dollars Instead of Going To Space.” They plan to buy advertisements addressing these suggestions directly to Musk, Bezos and their billionaire cohort.
The combination of art and activism and whimsy is aimed at creating a new narratives that might replace the space stories of “The Jetsons” and the like that have, Axe suggested, subconsciously made people believe we might all live happily elsewhere once our planet is used up.
“If we want to change the future and we want to change the direction that we’re going as a civilization, we have to change the myths and the fantasies that are kind of the North Star of where we’re heading as a culture,” she explained.
To carry out the project she sought out local artists with a background in environmentally focused art –Wally with his forest fire sculptures, Erickson with a series of pollution-themed graphic works and Whitley with the ambitious valley-wide “Imagine Climate” public art projects of recent years.
The space station concept is now due for a global expansion, with Axe using local materials and teaming with area artists and nonprofits at each site.
“Each iteration of the project is going to be very different because each community has different resources and different issues,” she said.
The project actually began early this year in Lamu, Kenya, where the artist has long spent time and made art. It started as the artist explored basket-weaving technique and using local materials in Kenya, eventually making sculptures of space equipment with them, imagining what a Lamu-made space station might look like.
She teamed with a group of artists there for a space station project that had been slated to open in the spring, but was delayed to November due to coronavirus shutdowns in Kenya.
Axe is also working toward staging space stations in Greece and Lebanon, and potentially on the Amazon in South America.
Axe’s local team is also recruiting locally and globally for the Earth Force Climate Command – a riff on the Trumpian new U.S. Space Force – hoping to bring more artists, writers, thinkers and people in positions of power to the Aspen Space Station to hatch new ideas for environmental action and political activism.
“I’m interested in bringing scientists and writers and all different kinds of thinkers into the mix,” she said. “Instead of just sort of this nebulous ‘let’s talk about these ideas,’ I’m much more interested in prototyping and implementing ideas.”
On-site at this weekend’s launch, participants will wear “Aspen Space Program” badges, which include a signed pledge to:
“1. Stay on Earth
2. Enjoy it.
3. Stop thinking I can torch this planet and then escape to another one.”
An online “cosmonaut pledge” includes an extended version of the oath: “You can enjoy canned oxygen. We’ll enjoy fresh air. Instead of torching the planet and thinking we can escape to Mars, we’ll make life right here sexier than your escapist space fantasy nonsense. … I pledge to use my imagination to build a magnificent future right here, in my own community, and stop letting corporate, colonialist propaganda about space colonies corrupt my thinking about the future.”
The high drama and absurdity of it is a necessity, Axe reasoned, and a better choice than despair.
“This is really serious,” she said. “But at the same time, if we can’t laugh, what the hell is the point?”
The work has already opened up debate, she said. Aspenites who have bought into the privatized space industry, she said, have argued with her that their work does not deter meaningful action on climate. Axe disagrees.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh, it doesn’t have to be either or,’ this is the classic line,” she said.
One of her points here is that it actually is, and that the worsening crisis – underscored by this week’s dire U.N. climate report and locally by the grim drumbeat of wildfires, mudslides, highway closures and air quality advisories – needs those resources to keep Earth liveable.
“We need everybody’s passion and enthusiasm and focus on making it work here,” she said. “We need people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, to be really focused on fixing this horrific climate collapse that we’re experiencing.”
What: Aspen Space Program Mission to Earth Launch
Where: Midnight Mine Road, Aspen Mountain
When: Saturday, Aug. 14, noon-7 p.m.
How much: Free
Getting there: Four wheel drive required for vehicles; hikers and hitchhikers welcome; shuttles available from Midnight Mine snowplow turnaround at 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.
More info and directions: aspenspace.org
Aug. 14, 1 p.m. Fresh Earth Air Watercolor Class with Amy Beidleman; 3 p.m. performance of “ET Strikes Back” by Pop Abattoir; 4:30 p.m. Earth Appreciation Meditation Walk
Aug. 21, 6 p.m. “Cool Shit You Could Do With A Billion Dollars Instead of Going To Space” gathering
Aug. 22, 8 a.m. Earth Exploration Session: Mission to Lonely Peak
Aug. 24, 5 p.m. Cosmic Play: Proper Movements for Life With Gravity
Aug. 26, 7 p.m. The Pleasures of Gravity: Throwing Knives and Slacklines
Aug. 28, 7 p.m. Cosmic Forest Bathing Session
Aug. 29, 6 p.m. Aspen Black Hole Simulator Session
Sept. 5, 10 a.m. A journey through Past+Present+Future with Nicole Lindstrom
Sept. 8, 6:30 p.m. ‘Dance In Aspen Space,’ Dance Premiere with Jenelle Figgins
Sept. 9, 5 p.m. Archeology of the Future: Artifacts for Generations to Come
Sept. 16, 6 p.m. Closing Ceremony and Gravity Appreciation Dance Session
Clay Center exhibition, residency, summer camp
The current exhibition at Carbondale Clay Center is a rarity, featuring artists from outside the Carbondale Clay Center network, many showcasing their work for the first time.