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Artist Jeff Koons makes history with a sculpture on the moon

With the lunar touchdown of the Odysseus spacecraft on Thursday, the world’s most expensive living artist has now earned a new, space-age superlative: His creation is now the first “authorized” work of art on the moon.

Exchanging the gallery space for a transparent box in space, the American artist Jeff Koons had a new sculpture series hitch a ride with Odysseus (also known as “Odie,” or IM-1), which began its journey on February 15.

Attached to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and overseen by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, Odie’s historic arrival marks the US’s first landing on the lunar surface in more than 50 years. It follows a failed attempt by the Peregrine spacecraft last month, which burned up in the atmosphere after a propellant leak prevented it from completing its mission.

Posting to Instagram shortly after Odysseus touched down, Koons described the moon landing as “astounding achievement” and said he was “so honored” to be involved in the mission. In an earlier post, he had described the launch as “a spectacular event,” adding that “in person, the scale, the forces, the experience of space being penetrated was unbelievable!”

So what is Koons exhibiting on the lonely lunar surface? Contained in the aforementioned box are 125 mini-sculptures of the moon, measuring about one inch in diameter. Called “Moon Phases,” they show 62 phases of the moon as seen from Earth, 62 phases visible from other viewpoints in space, and one lunar eclipse.

Jeff Koons poses with his moon-bound artwork. - From Jeff Koons/Instagram
Jeff Koons poses with his moon-bound artwork. - From Jeff Koons/Instagram

Each sculpture is inscribed with the name of a groundbreaking figure in human history, including Aristotle, David Bowie, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, Billie Holiday, Gabriel García Márquez, Andy Warhol and Virginia Woolf. (The full list can be seen on the project’s website.)

Koons “has drawn inspiration from the Moon as a symbol of curiosity and determination,” according to a statement from his gallery, Pace. “Hopeful and transcendent, his new project offers viewers a sense of perspective about their place in the vast universe, encouraging profound reflection and contemplation.”

But the art market wouldn’t be able to do much with far-flung sculptures “exhibited” in outer space, so there’s a commercial component to Koons’ project as well. Pace Verso, the NFT wing of Pace, is also offering NFTs of each sculpture, while Koons has produced larger, coinciding physical sculptures of his “Moon Phases” to remain on Earth. Measuring 15.5 inches tall, these editions will be made from the same reflective stainless steel as his record-breaking $91.1 million sculpture “Rabbit,” and will each feature a diamond, sapphire or ruby to mark Odie’s landing site.

This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows its Odysseus lunar lander over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21. Koons' "Moon Phases" is visible on the lander's exterior. - Intuitive Machines/AP
This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows its Odysseus lunar lander over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21. Koons' "Moon Phases" is visible on the lander's exterior. - Intuitive Machines/AP

Though its arrival marks a milestone, “Moon Phases” is not the only art to touch down on the moon’s surface. In 1971, Apollo 15 crewmembers left an aluminum figure by the Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, as well as a commemorative plaque for 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who died in service.

It’s also long been believed that six famous artists — Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers and David Novros — covertly sent a joint artwork aboard Apollo 12 two years earlier. Their collaborative piece, “The Moon Museum,” is a tiny ceramic tile scribbled with drawings from each artist, and reportedly remains attached to part of the lunar module’s leg to this day.

Odie’s landing comes at a time when a second space race has seen countries including India and Japan complete with their own successful uncrewed lunar missions, as well as a flurry of government agencies and private companies worldwide proposing trips into space.

But Odie has closed the chapter on a more niche space race — between Koons and the Dubai-based artist Sacha Jafri. Last month, Jafri had banked on having the first sanctioned work of art on the moon, but his laser-etched piece, titled “We Rise Together with the Light of the Moon,” faced a fiery end aboard the Peregrine.

This article was updated with additional comments from Jeff Koons.

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