‘Katie Paterson’s work engages with the landscape, as a physical entity and as an idea. Drawing on our experience of the natural world, she creates an expanded sense of reality beyond the purely visible.
For her exhibition in the Lower Gallery, Paterson presents two works, Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007/8 and Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon), 2007. Vatnajökull (the sound of) is a live installation. 07757001122, rendered in neon on the wall, is the number for a mobile phone connected to an underwater microphone, placed by Paterson in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Breiðamerkursandur, Iceland. When called, the mobile phone detects and transmits live the sound of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which is currently melting and moving through the lagoon. When Paterson first presented this work in 2007 for 8 days, over 3,200 calls from 47 different countries were made to the glacier.
In the gallery, Vatnajökull (the sound of) is a minimal intervention. The work exists in the space created by calling the number and connecting with the glacier. Only one person at a time can connect to the glacier and listen to its underwater movements as a series of ‘pops’ and ‘trickles’. The work invites us to travel thousands of miles to the remote place which is home to this vast mass of ice on its downward journey into the lagoon. Tapping into this geological journey reveals a paradoxical and somewhat melancholy reality. The advances in modern technology, which make it possible for us to achieve such a seemingly wondrous thing as to call a glacier, coincide with the palpable demise of our natural habitat.
Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) is a translation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into Morse code transmitted to the moon via E.M.E (Earth-Moon-Earth) / moonbounce, a form of radio communication sent from the earth to the moon, reflected from the surface of the moon, and then received back on earth.
For this work Paterson translated the notes of the Sonata note-by-note, bar-by-bar into their respective musical letters and then worked from these letters to produce the Morse code. The code was then sent from a ‘moon station’ in Southampton; the returning code was picked up by another moon station in Sweden. There was a 2.5 second delay between the transmission and reception of each piece of code, as it travelled the 480,000-mile journey to and from the moon.
On hitting the surface of the moon, some of the code became lost in the moon’s craters. The remaining code that was received on earth was re-translated back into letters, by eleven moonbouncer enthusiasts involved in Paterson’s project. Paterson then re- translated these letters back into musical notes, producing a new 'moon-altered' score. This moon-altered score is played on a Disklavier grand piano, a digital self-playing piano. The sound of the Morse code received from the moon can be heard on the headphones in the gallery and is also transcribed in an accompanying publication.’
Erica Burton, Modern Art Oxford
‘Katie Paterson’s poetic vocabulary is both simple in gesture and monumental in scope. Treating the cosmos as her playground, her works span vast distances, making connections between disparate points and timescales. For Paterson, the universe is at once a graspable entity and an elastic proposition in a state of continual flux.
Paterson is best known for her project Vatnajökull (the sound of) 2007/8 in which she invited her audience to listen to the sounds of a melting glacier in Iceland via a live mobile phone link. For Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) 2007, she beamed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon and back via Morse code, its uneven surface registering as gaps in the notation. All the Dead Stars continues Paterson’s explorations into the celestial realm. Documenting the known locations of over 27,000 dead stars from data supplied by astronomers, supernova hunters, and astro-physicists dating back to 1006BC, Paterson finds a visual means to make tangible the enormity of the universe and our location within it. Our galaxy is indicated by the cluster of dead stars forming a horizontal line across the map’s centre. Paterson comments ‘the death of stars really is the cycle of life and death in the universe... stars make the heavier elements needed to form planets and build life’.
Lizzie Carrey-Thomas, Tate Britain
‘At any one time there are around 6000 lightning storms happening across the world, amounting to some 16 million storms each year. Such dizzying statistics are useful to hold in mind while experiencing Streetlight Storm, a new artwork by Katie Paterson. For one month on Deal Pier in Kent, during the hours of darkness, the pier lamps will flicker in time with lightning strikes happening live in different parts of the world.
Katie Paterson creates poetic artworks exploring landscape, space and time, using technology to bring together the commonplace and the cosmic. Streetlight Storm deftly harnesses everyday technology to connect with vast natural phenomena, collapsing the distance between us and remote meteorological events. Lightning signals from as far away as the North Pole or North Africa are received by an antenna on the pier and translated into light. As the pattern of lightning strikes changes, so the pier lights oscillate correspondingly, with a subtlety that contrasts with the power and drama of the storms they reflect.’
Sarah Martin, Turner Contemporary
‘Teleporting us from the humdrum to the epic is something Katie Paterson does very well. One moment she'll have you looking at litter, the next musing on celestial mysteries. This is the case with 100 Billion Suns, a confetti gun that fires 3,216 paper pieces, each numbered and colour-coded to match the gamma-ray bursts that are known to have occurred in outer space – explosions so intense they can wipe out entire galaxies.
She can transform something as prosaic as a box of light bulbs into a meditation on our finite existence, with their wattage engineered to match moonlight and their lifespan of 66 years reflecting that of the average human. Or turn our stomachs queasy simply by burying a nano-sized grain of sand in the desert, bringing home the sheer immensity of things and how small we are.
Paterson's 2007 graduation show at London's Slade staked out her technological, ecological territory. For Vatnajökull (The Sound Of), what visitors encountered in the gallery was a mobile phone number in neon on the wall. But call up the number and, through the space-collapsing marvel of telecommunications, you'd find yourself listening to the cracks and bellows of a dying, melting glacier.
Paterson's work is inherently Romantic, part of a tradition that goes back to Caspar David Friedrich's lonely wanderer, perched on the edge of an unfathomable chasm. Her use of technology – whether working alongside bulb manufacturers or the many top science departments she's collaborated with – would seem to be at odds with this tradition. But, if anything, they support each other. Take her ongoing project, All the Dead Stars, in which she's attempting (with the help of leading astronomers and astrophysicists) to document the locations of dead stars – a highly difficult task given that the universe is infinite, and given the nebulous boundary between a celestial object's life and death. Rather than containing the universe with technology and human ingenuity, Paterson leaves us floundering in an unknowable, unmanageable universe where we are anything but masters.’
Skye Sherwin, AnOther magazine
‘Katie Paterson’s art enables us to engage with forces that are too intangible and too immense for us to experience in other ways: she has bounced music off the moon, mapped all 27,000 dead stars known to mankind and set up a phone line to eavesdrop on a melting glacier. By exploring the nature of the sublime, whilst also acknowledging that notions of landscape, time and the universe are merely conceptual abstractions of the human imagination, Paterson’s work has echoes of 19th century Romanticism. However, since her art requires contemporary technology for its realization, these ideas are simultaneously placed in an ambiguous dialogue with science and its claim to objective, empirical veracity.’
Pryle Behrman, Art Monthly
‘.. Call the number and you are connected to a microphone plunged in the meltwater of an Icelandic glacier. To hear the cracking and gushing of the polar cap is a sobering and exhilarating experience; that telecommunication can collapse distance and yet leave it ultimately intact is a delicately phenomenal thought. Whilst these works look very much like gallery based art, their implications pull us in all directions – to the moon and back, and then to one of the most alien landscapes on each – making us feel at once powerful and pathetic.
Just as the banal light bulb and mobile telephone harbor weighty notions of life and death, distance and connectivity, the ordinary record players in Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull (2007) release associations of a remote and sublime landscape. Water collected from Icelandic glaciers has been made into frozen records and pressed with a sound recording of the water trickling and gushing in situ. The records contain the promise of fidelity, but when they’re played, their crystalline surface interferes with the recorded sound so that we hear both the distant melting glacier and the grooved ice before us, rather like a painting on the cusp between figuration and abstraction. Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull is presented as a three channel video installation that concentrates divergent time frames – the human time of the journey to the glacier and the geological time of its ancient presence – into a two hour period over which the records play and melt.
Paterson’s themes are immense, and her processes ambitiously connective, yet she wields a sensibility that preserves the human poetics of grandeur without buckling under its metaphysical weight.’
Sally O’Reilly, Modern Painters
‘The Moon has always seemed somewhat melancholic, a wistful object in the night sky that remains a favorite subject of poets, musicians and artists even after it has been de-mystified by 40 years of probes, manned landings and scientific exploration.
For the young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, it was the Moon's ambiguous distance—far, and yet so close in astronomical terms—that piqued her interest in pursuing her own kind of exploration. Paterson is interested in transmission and reception—the basis of human communication—and in a Zen-inspired quest to know and see what cannot be easily seen or known. An artist deeply engaged in science, she's also interested in exploring the ineffable. In her first well-known work, she placed a microphone into an Icelandic glacier, and callers to a mobile number could listen to the glacier as it slowly melted. In her research, Paterson happened upon a global community of radio enthusiasts who took particular delight in bouncing radio signals off of the Moon's surface and recording the results. After making contact with a group of Japanese enthusiasts, she proposed trying the experiment with an encoded version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, reconstituting it and playing the resulting transmission through a digital player piano, "performing" robotically in an empty gallery space. The results were, in Paterson's words, "strange and almost ghostly."
Because of the Moon's irregularly cratered surface, bits of the transmission are lost in the process, and there are gaps and missing notes in the playback which Paterson sees as a kind of technological intervention in the musical score. This seemingly simple transformation encourages us to listen carefully for what we can no longer hear.
She then convinced her Moon-bouncing colleagues to take this Zen notion to its extreme, and transmitted a performance of John Cage's 4' 33", his famous silent work, which encouraged audiences to simply listen to the sounds around them, and to pay the same careful attention to ambient sound as one would to composed music.
For a recent exhibition in London, Paterson produced a map of all the dead stars in the universe, and her next work is another search for the ineffable: working with several leading astrophysicists to find a way to transmit what she refers to as "ancient darkness," images of the black of deep space from the time of the Big Bang.’
David A Ross, FLYP
‘Katie Paterson is an astronomical artist – in the fullest sense of the word. The sky is not the limit for her. It is a beginning. Her champion Cornelia Parker describes her as someone who can "take you out of your realm … she is so original, engaging and expansive – I fell in love with her and her work. She makes us realise how inconsequential we are in relation to the universe." Her work has involved plotting a map of 27,000 dead stars, bouncing Beethoven's Moonlight sonata off the moon in Morse code and returning the results into a self-playing piano, making an electric light bulb that duplicates moonlight.
More recently, she has become a connoisseur of darkness. In her beautiful, playful, fastidious The History of Darkness, she has catalogued and dated darkness with the help of telescopes – including the Keck telescope in Hawaii – the most powerful telescope in the world that can look back 13.2 billion light years. Questions that tease us out of thought obsess her: "I like work on the brink of impossibility," she says. She loves immensity – and particularity. One of her works tells the story of a single grain of sand taken from the Sahara desert which, with the help of a nanotechnologist, was turned into the smallest grain imaginable ("I like the idea that it is a sculpture") and then released back into the desert. "The sand is smaller than a blood cell, as close to nothing as you can get but it still exists." Paterson's boyfriend photographed her, in black and white, returning the sand to the Sahara. "I suddenly felt so sad," she said. It was to do with scale – the immensity of the desert and her almost invisible enterprise.
Paterson, 29, laughs as she talks about her work – and acknowledges that it is finely balanced between seriousness and play. She is a romantic (with the romantic's understanding of futility) and with the patience, curiosity and technical persistence of a scientist. Scientists champion her work: she has recently become University College London's first artist in residence in the department of physics and astronomy. She grew up in the western highlands of Scotland and studied at Edinburgh and the Slade, where her MA involved recording a melting glacier – a work that launched her career but is likely to prove just the tip of the iceberg.’
Kate Kellaway, the Observer
‘Katie Paterson is rapidly establishing an international career through work that ‘reveals the poetic beauty and vastness of the universe’. Katie graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2004 and the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2007. Her Slade Masters show included Earth-Moon-Earth, in which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was converted into Morse code, beamed onto the moon as a radio wave and returned to earth. The resulting score, with elements distorted and lost by its journey, is heard on a self-playing grand piano. Since then she has been the first artist in residence at University College London’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, where she began History of Darkness, a slide collection of photographs of time and space. These are taken with various telescopes, including the most powerful in the world at the W M Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The collection which Katie intends to build throughout her life seems at first sight to be photographs of nothing, black film. In actual fact the numbers on the slide frame reveal the point in space and time that they document. As from earth we see the sun with a delay of eight minutes, because of the time it takes its light to travel, so the further the telescope sees into the universe the further back in time it can reveal, to within 5% of the big bang, believed to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
Katie’s projects consider not only what lies beyond our world but the earth itself, offering insight into ideas that are so profound our grasp on them is fragile. Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, for instance, was commissioned by the Whitstable Biennial in 2010 and involved taking a grain of sand from the Sahara desert and bringing it back to the UK, where it was cut down to 0.00005mm using nanotechnology. Katie then, carefully, carried this back to the desert and released it. It will never be seen but we know it is there, and that is enough to be moved by its presence. Although the works are meticulously planned and realized in collaboration with authorities in various disciplines, Katie’s approach enables a human connection that resonates beyond the intellect, taking consideration of the nature of the world and the universe to another level of appreciation.’
Helen Pheby, Yorkshire Sculpture Park