Katie Paterson’s Celestial Voyage in the Here and Now

Katie Paterson, 'Earth Moon Earth'
Katie Paterson, 'Earth Moon Earth'


10:00 - 17:00; admission free, advance booking required

To: 10 Jan 2021

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
75 Belford Road

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I enter a softly dark corridor with matt grey walls and small three line phrases spaced around the edge at eye height. (IDEAS, 2015)

A place
that exists
only in moonlight.

The milky way
into a diamond.

A nocturne
stretched to play
the longest night in the universe.

And with that, months of viewing culture through a screen are washed away. NOW – Katie Paterson, an exhibition hosted by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) is the perfect exhibition for our time.

Katie Paterson
Katie Paterson
Katie Paterson
Katie Paterson

Paterson’s work, concerned with deep time, the cosmos and our place in the face of it all, is poetic and perfectly refined. Her IDEAS speckle our imagination with thoughts that wizz us away from the daily death tolls, the press briefings and all things covid, to outer space, including a disco ball of eclipses and a candle that burns through layers of scent that catapult us from Earth (Forest), through the stratosphere (Geraniums) past the sun (welding fumes and hot metal) and beyond. Often collaborating with scientists and researchers, her simple pieces are the distillation of detailed and complex research during which she explores Einstein-ian questions about relativity and scale through the eye of an artist. Every work holds a deeply poetic simplicity that evokes feeling, asks questions and asserts itself as beautiful, both in form and in content. This is conceptual art at its best.

After graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 2004 and Slade School of Fine Art in 2007, Paterson quickly rose to success as one of the most exciting artists of her generation. Her most ambitious artwork to date is Future Library (2014-2114) – a thirty-minute video, premiered for this exhibition, is available on the SNGMA website*. This contemplative film reveals Paterson as a wonderfully normal kind of human, with brilliant artistic vision. For this project she has planted a forest in Norway which, over one hundred years, will grow the paper for a series of anthologies. Every year between now and then one writer will contribute a text that will go unread, stored in a timber archive, until publication in 2114. She belongs to a school of contemporary art that is not catering to the wow-factor of pickling sharks, or the scandal of an unmade bed. Instead she produces work that looks outwards, away from the artist’s ego and towards the much, much bigger picture. It is thorough, well-researched, well-made, simply-conceived yet nuanced in meaning. Affective, but not imposing.

Katie Paterson, 'Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight'
Katie Paterson, ‘Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight’

As I stand soaking in the nocturnal rays of Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008, held in National Galleries of Scotland’s collection, which provides a lifetime’s supply of moonlight), the eerie sound of the next-door piece drifts through – Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) 2007.

Katie Paterson, 'Earth Moon Earth'
Katie Paterson, ‘Earth Moon Earth’
Katie Paterson, 'Earth Moon Earth', detail
Katie Paterson, ‘Earth Moon Earth’, detail

For this piece, Paterson sent a Morse-code version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata up to the moon by radio transmission: it was reflected off the surface of the moon and received back on Earth where it was transposed back into music. As with all translations, something was lost, and parts of the code disappeared into the craters and canyoned textures of the face of the moon. These appear in the score as absences, rests and silences. A grand piano stands alone in the centre of the room, keys pressed down by the spectral communication of the moon as it processed its auditory likeness. Paterson has created a dialogue with the moon, in which it can speak to us, there, in this small gallery space. The muse has finally heard the artwork it inspired and proposed some minor edits.

Katie Paterson, 'Totality'
Katie Paterson, ‘Totality’

Through to the next room and there is a giant disco ball in the centre of the room, spinning and scattering mirrored light on every surface. It has a dizzying effect – now we have been primed, we’re in the middle of the exhibition and she has flung us into orbit. But this isn’t any old disco ball, it is Totality (2016), a globe made of over 10,000 images of solar eclipses documented throughout history, from drawings hundreds of years old to highly-advanced telescopic images. It’s utterly transporting, reminiscent of one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, but all the more celestial for the lack of selfie-snappers.

Amid the awe of it all, and whilst slap-bang in the middle of thoughts about deep time, an exhibition invigilator hurried me along, explaining that this was a time-limited slot because of Covid-19 and would I mind hurrying on a bit – an ironic reminder of the urgencies of our time and the many ways that this virus has infiltrated our lives.

This NOW exhibition is the last in a series of six, shown over the course of three years, and highlighting the range and diversity of artists practising in Scotland now. There are three supporting artists, whose work is hung alongside Paterson’s: a highlight for me was Darren Almond’s six photographs from his Fullmoon series (1998-now). These are eerie and haunting images of landscapes photographed at night using a long, fifteen minute exposure and solely the light of the moon. Other contributing artists are Shona Macnaughton and Lucy Raven.

I expect that the ‘now’ that we currently experience is worlds away from the ‘now’ of the first exhibition of the series three years ago. And yet, the choice of leading and supporting artists could not be more apt. Almond’s glimpses of vast, empty landscapes evoke the quiet of lockdown, a fifteen-minute window into nocturnal canyons and jungles. Paterson’s work allows us to travel away from daily anxieties of the current pandemic and towards a wider perspective. Against the backdrop of eclipses and the cosmic latte colours of deep time, our significance as individuals, or even as one human race, seems to take a step back. And so, I am reminded once more of art’s power as a tonic to the frenzy of our ‘now’.

With thanks to Flora Zajicek for this review. Insta: @florazajicek

*Due to current health and safety requirements, two rooms in the NOW exhibition are closed: Room 5 featuring Katie Paterson’s film ‘Future Library: A Century Unfolds’, and the exhibition Resource Room. Paterson’s film can be viewed here.

Image: Katie Paterson, ‘Earth Moon Earth’

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