A confetti cannon, each piece of paper matched to the colours of the brightest explosions in the universe.

Gamma Ray Bursts are the brightest explosions in the universe, which burn with a luminosity 100 billion times that of our sun. The confetti cannons created for '100 Billion Suns' contain 3,216 pieces of paper whose colours correspond to each of these cosmic events. Every burst of confetti creates a miniature explosion of all of these vast explosions, in just under a second.

Cannons were set off at regular intervals during the vernissage of the 54th Venice Biennale at a series of unspecified locations around Venice, from major piazzas to the smallest back streets. Each explosion is documented in a photographic archive, showing a unique perspective of Venice during the opening days of the Biennale: 100 Billion Suns (Venice)

'The stars are coloured of course; the hottest are as blue as the bluest daytime sky, the coolest as red as the glowing embers of a camp fire.'
David Malin, Ancient Light: A Portrait of the Universe, 2009

At the height of the Cold War, after the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the US suspected that the USSR might attempt to conduct secret tests. The Americans therefore launched a series of satellites designed to detect Russian nuclear weapons being tested in space. On 2 July 1967 the satellite Vela 4 detected a flash of gamma radiation unlike any known nuclear weapons signature. It was not manmade. It was the first recorded Gamma-Ray Burst of cosmic origin.

Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) are flashes of gamma rays associated with extremely powerful explosions in distant galaxies. A typical GRB releases as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun will in its entire 10-billion-year lifetime: they are the most luminous events known to occur in the universe. These extraordinary cosmic phenomena are the subject of an ambitious new project by Katie Paterson, a young Scottish artist based in Berlin.

Paterson's conceptual projects make use of sophisticated technologies and specialist expertise to stage intimate, poetic and philosophical engagements between man and the natural environment. Tempered with a childlike kind of wonder and a keen sense of the absurd, her work makes us see the universe anew and offers a sometimes giddying sense of our place within the cosmos. Combining a research-based approach, a Romantic sensibility and coolly Minimalist presentation, her work collapses the distance between the viewer and the most distant edges of time and space. In the past, Paterson has broadcast the sounds of a melting glacier live to a visitor on a mobile phone in an art gallery, mapped all the dead stars, compiled a slide archive of darkness from the ancient depths of the universe, custom-made a light bulb to simulate the experience of moonlight, and buried a nano-sized grain of sand deep within the Sahara desert. Eliciting feelings of humility, wonder and melancholy akin to the experience of the Romantic sublime, Paterson's work is at once understated in gesture and yet monumental in scope. The development and production of her work involves close collaboration with specialists in different technologies, whether astronomers, electrical engineers or the amateur radio enthusiasts known as 'moon-bouncers'. She recently completed a residency in UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy.

In 2010 Paterson began to develop a concept for a new work called '100 Billion Suns', an investigation of the phenomena of Gamma Ray Bursts. So far scientists have recorded 3,216 of these explosions. Paterson's idea was to re-imagine these vast events as a single explosion recreated on a more domestic scale using a hand-held confetti cannon, the sort used at weddings or family celebrations, each cannon containing 3,216 pieces of confetti to correspond to each of the known GRBs. Each piece of confetti in the cannon would be colour-matched to a swatch taken from an image of one of the Gamma Ray Bursts, creating a single one second burst, a tiny explosion containing within it condensed visual information relating to all of these enormously vast cosmic events.

Originally exhibited at James Cohan Gallery in New York in early 2011, where a cannon was exploded once a day for the duration of an exhibition, an expanded version of '100 Billion Suns' was subsequently commissioned by Haunch of Venison to take place during the opening days of the 54th Venice Biennale - the major art festival that takes over the historic city every other year. Nearly 100 cannons were set off over a period of four days at a series of unspecified locations around Venice, from major piazzas to the smallest back streets. Some were witnessed by unsuspecting onlookers, others were not. Each explosion is documented in a photographic archive showing a unique perspective of Venice during the opening days of the Biennale. The fact that Paterson's confetti explosions were deliberately rather small and even unimpressive, yet reflected such dizzyingly vast cosmic events, was a key element in the work. By reducing such enormous cosmic phenomena to a human scale Paterson allows us to understand them yet also enhances our sense of relativity. It is a strategy of great seriousness combined with wonderful playfulness, of simplicity and complexity.

On the morning of first day of the Biennale I was making my way through the streets to the main exhibition in the Giardini. The sun was shining and reflecting brilliantly from the water of the Grand Canal. Blue sky. Venice is a city in which past and present seem to co-exist; the ancient churches and palazzos crumble and the water laps at the super yachts, and this seemed a completely appropriate setting for Paterson's work. So it was curious to unexpectedly come across a small pool of confetti - unmistakably Paterson's die-cut cosmic confetti - lying on the pavement before me, both mundane and wonderful. It might have been a remnant of some celebration the night before, rather than a carefully conceived and executed work of art. I might have walked straight past it but there it was, a subtle intervention, a beautiful and quiet representation of a series of massive cosmic events that had happened billions of years in the past, a reminder of the vastness of the universe on a sunny morning.

Ben Tufnell, Director of Exhibitions, Haunch of Venison

Read text by Ben Tufnell