A place that exists only in moonlight.
Katie Paterson & JMW Turner.
There is a natural symbiosis between the two artists in this exhibition. Both, although divided by centuries, seek to present the relationship between man and his place in the universe. In the artists minds’ there is no binary distinction between art and science that would later develop. Just as Turner worked at the RA with the Royal Society housed adjacently, so Paterson with a cheeky ‘don’t ask don’t get ‘attitude has suborned everything from university science departments to Nasa to aid in her exploration of not just the history of our planet but our relationship with other planets and the nature of space itself. Where Turner begins Paterson continues then. As such given her subject matter is broadly earth’s geology, time, the finite nature of planets and the possibility of eternity. Consequently, the Turners selected by her with evident care complement both their enquiring minds and their intellectual courage to seek for the truths that underpin our existence.
It is clear as we view the installations and engage with the concepts, that the artist has a brilliant intellect that is aided by a keen sense of curiosity. This is borne out by the book that accompanies the exhibition. This brims with ideas. As such it charts the beginning of the artist’s process. These thoughts are distilled on paper and developed from there. The cover of this book is again a product of her ambition and cheekiness. It is made from an assortment of stellar debris sourced anyway from universities to eBay.
The exhibition begins with a rotating colour spectrum that represents the big bang, our own starting point in time. The large spinning disc encapsulates the colours of the origins of the universe, the rotational aspect creates a dizzying even hypnotic response in the observer, that whilst beautiful also disconcerts. Indeed, much of Paterson’s work moves from pure thought to sensory experience, born out in past works that seek to emulate the smell of planets and the crackling of artic ice. This exhibition then moves from the starting gun of the universe to beguiling us into contemplating the earth’s geological history manifested in a suspended pendent comprised of beads from each of eras up to the current day. The artist herself when questioned made it quite clear that all her works are authentic but also precise otherwise ‘’What is the point?’’ It is a fascinating exercise to examine this necklace that tells the story of our planet. Here Peterson’s fascination with geology chimes well with Turner’s own interests.
Having reminded us of our planetary past, the artist then reminds us of the passage of time with a row of clocks on the wall; each set not just to earth time but also at the times of neighbouring planets. This are cleverly worked out by mathematicians and scientists in some fantastic logarithms that as accurate as possible and are the artist wryly comments even beyond her understanding. Again, to maintain authenticity, the artist is not afraid to ask experts for help. Time is a recurring theme for the artist. She takes pains to remind us that nothing in the universe lasts. Thus, we have a string of bulbs ingeniously arranged as a constellation. Some bulbs burn bright others are fading, many have burned out. Whilst aesthetically pleasing, its darker purpose is to remind us that inevitably all planets die. This sobering thought of not just our own mortality but on a larger scale the earth’s, is reinforced by a sequence of letters written to an academic informing him, rather in the manner of a war time fatalities, that a numbered star had died. Indeed, the artist bemoans the demise of telegrams which she felt created a more dramatic effect. It is made clear that within the set time frame of the project these letters are only a few of the notifications sent.
Other works such as planetary maps, reinforce this idea of a galaxies whose planets are extinguishing over time rather like bulbs that cannot be replaced. In the final gallery, one installation dominates. It recreates with a mirror ball and projected light, the brilliance of a galaxy seen at night. There is a sense of awe as one looks up and experiences not just the sheer volume of planets represented but their beauty. In this manner Peterson gets us to see not just the science that governs the solar system but the beauty and awe that she herself feels.
Whilst the artist is clearly mindful of the demise of solar systems, the flux of galaxies she does have a firm belief in the future whatever its manifestation. This is evident in one of her most ambitious plans called ‘Future Library’. Here the artist has planted 1000 trees, near Oslo, which will supply the paper for a library of 100 books. Significant writers, judiciously chosen by a panel, write a piece that will be held in trust and not read until 2114. This is a leap of faith by both writer and artist, into an unknown world where books themselves may well be redundant. Nevertheless, this stab at immortality has been signed up to by writers such as Margaret Atwood who find themselves intrigued by the idea.
It is this unknown future that seems to most drive the artist. A fact that does not evoke fear in her but curiosity. The exhibition’s walls are punctuated by her epithets that reveal a philosophically enquiring mind. Perhaps the most telling of her quotes is in the final gallery that states to the effect; that it is the unknown, the place beyond knowledge that interests her most. Here again is the curiosity of a brilliant mind that sees no barriers, is not fazed by time or the demise of galaxies but rather strains intellectually to see what’s around the corners of the next galaxy, and the next.
Fiona Sinclair © 2019.