Installation view of “A place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson & JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, 2019. Photo: © Stephen White

Fleeting Little Thoughts: A Conversation with Katie Paterson

On paper, the works of Scottish artist Katie Paterson might sound fanciful, overambitious, even unachievable. She has connected a telephone line to a glacier so listeners could ring up and hear it melting; beamed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to the moon and back via Morse code and fed the altered version, distorted by craters and other cosmic encounters, back into an automated grand piano; and created an elegant necklace from 170 fossils carved into spheres resembling miniature planets, each representing a major event in the evolution of life on earth. 

Whether Paterson is charting the 27,000 stars that are known to have died (All the Dead Stars, 2009) or planting trees in Norway to supply paper for an anthology of books to be printed in 100 years (Future Library, 2014–2114), time is an underlying motif in her work. Her sculptures, installations, texts, and drawings are scientific and awe-inspiring, conveying the majesty of the cosmos and our relative insignificance within it. 

Last year, Paterson’s largest U.K. solo exhibition to date—at Turner Contemporary in Margate, on the southeastern Kent coast—paired her works, which give clean, graceful form to sublime ideas, with watercolors by the English Romantic painter JMW Turner, whose regular visits to the town inspired many of his atmospheric seascapes. In the interlude between that show and a major exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (originally scheduled through May 31, 2020), Paterson invited volunteers to sculpt miniature sand versions of real mountains on 25 beaches around Britain for First There is a Mountain. The piece prompted awareness of coastal erosion and, in this time of widespread political isolationism, reflection on the interconnectedness of people and continents.

Elizabeth Fullerton: You created The Cosmic Spectrum for “A place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson and JMW Turner,” at Turner Contemporary Margate. This spinning work, based on complex scientific projections, traces the color of the universe through time from its inception to its end. It’s almost counter-intuitive that red signifies cooling and blue signifies heat. What made you even think that the universe had a color, and how did you come to translate that into sculptural form?
Katie Paterson: It started because I read somewhere that scientists had determined the average color of the universe today as “cosmic latte.” I was quite struck that the universe right now has been measured in terms of its color and that it’s beige. I thought, “Well if they’ve been able to work out the current color of the universe by analyzing hundreds of thousands of galaxies and the light from everything that currently exists, can scientists go back in time from when the first stars evolved and predict what the future color of stars will be like?” So, I pictured the artwork as a circle starting with the Big Bang, moving to the primordial era into the first stars, then into something called re-ionization and the beginning of our present Stelliferous Era—the era of the stars—and all the way into the far future, when the stars start fading out, the black holes start evaporating, and everything literally disappears into nothing. The work charts all of the average colors of those eras and ends at the end of the universe, which is 000 (zero zero zero) black, with no color.

Installation view of “A place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson & JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, 2019. Photo: © Stephen White

EF: What does motion contribute to the work?
KP: I wanted all of the eras to blend together so the wheel would almost make one average color of the entire universe from beginning to end, but so you would still be aware of these different eras flashing forth: the blue from the early stars, the red from the late stars, and our “cosmic latte.”

The colors were brought together through a strict analysis but also via speculative ideas. How can we possibly know what kind of colors the stars will create billions of years from now? Based on what has been and what scientists think is going to come, my team were able to measure these colors and determine coordinates, which we then turned into a spinning color wheel.

EF: Who would have thought there would be such a range of hues?
KP: And that they would look like Turner’s color palette as well? That was a really nice connection. I couldn’t believe it when I found Turner’s Orange Sunset (c. 1840)—which was exhibited directly across from the color wheel—and almost all the colors matched.

EF: Totality (2016) is similarly mesmerizing. The giant mirror ball is made up of thousands of facets, each bearing an image of the moon eclipsing the sun, which form myriad tiny reflections that grow brighter and darker. Like much of your work, its simple appearance belies meticulous labor. How was it created?
KP: The structure underneath the mirror is a three-dimensional base with 10,000 little squares recessed into it, and it’s a really intricate system. The mirror ball is organized as if the moon were eclipsing the sun, over and over. A total eclipse moves into a three-quarter eclipse, a half eclipse, into a sliver of an eclipse, then back into a full eclipse, and then the sequence repeats. It does that in both directions, horizontally and vertically, so it really is complicated. We organized all 10,000 images of eclipses as rows on a chart, and every single piece of mirror was numbered and inserted by hand. Every image isn’t necessarily of a different eclipse—the work brings together every image that’s been documented of solar eclipses across centuries, some dating from before photography, so drawings are represented, too.

Totality (detail), 2016. Printed mirror ball, motor, and lights, 83 x 83 x 83 cm. Photo: © Flora Bartlett, 2016, Courtesy the Arts Council Collection

EF: It’s a wonderful combination of the serious and playful. What made you connect a disco ball with a solar eclipse?
KP: It’s just tiny little thoughts that I have sometimes, fleeting thoughts. Perhaps I encountered a mirror ball somewhere and connected it to seeing thousands of suns. A solar eclipse made sense because it has a sequence of the moon moving across the sun, and I was imagining that this mirror ball would reflect all of the suns around the room at the same time. I get drawn naturally to everyday objects and materials like disco balls, telephones, record players, a necklace of fossils, and light bulbs. Then it’s a question of how to bring together the micro and macro, the very distant and the very near.

EF: In the Turner Contemporary show, Totality was juxtaposed with Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), so it was spinning to a fragmented piece of classical music rather than to the thumping beat one might associate with a disco ball.
KP: Yes, I like the melancholy feel of the piano playing, and I still find it quite haunting, even though I’ve heard it a million times. It’s ghostly, this strange piano that’s playing by itself, and then you find out that the music’s been on a journey to the moon and back. Obviously the music in itself is evocative, but when it breaks up, it becomes something else, something quite otherworldly; and along with the slowly spinning mirror ball it evokes a strange end-of-the-night disco experience.

EF: Did you achieve the result you were expecting with Earth-Moon-Earth?
KP: I had no control whatsoever, because, in a way, the outcome was what the moon decided. I knew that I wanted the music coming back altered somehow. What I was trying to achieve was that you would hear the bits that had gone missing on the moon, so I was really happy when the music was still recognizable, yet you heard little silences. I read that every sound still exists somewhere as waves and it’s endless, so I like to think that maybe the “Moonlight Sonata” is still up there being played in space.

Fossil Necklace (detail), 2013. 170 carved fossil beads and black silk, beads: 0.8 cm. diameter each, 147.3 cm. total length. Photo: © Christopher Burke, 2016

EF: How did it work in practice to translate the sonata into Morse code and relay it to the moon?
KP: Moon bouncers, as they are called, set up the technology to send radio waves to the moon, often in their gardens or sheds: it’s an underground world. People send signals to each other via the moon and then send postcards after a moon transmission. I love it. I contacted Peter Blair, who is a moon bounce authority and has one of the biggest stations in the U.K. He got together a group of people who helped me break up the score, and then it was transmitted in sections because it was so long. The score in Morse code was received in Sweden, and the group helped translate it back into letters that became the musical notations. So, it was sent from Southampton (on the U.K. southern coast), beamed from the moon, and received in Sweden.

EF: When did your interest in deep science begin?
KP: After I graduated with my first degree in Edinburgh, things were pretty tough; I managed to get a job working at a hotel in Iceland, where I stayed for a year. It was 24-hour daylight. I saw the northern lights, glaciers, geysers, lunar landscapes, the moon. It was an extraordinary time because everything I’m interested in came to light there, and I hadn’t realized it until that moment. The sky just looked deeper in Iceland, the colors were brighter, the light was extraordinary. I literally got off the plane from Reykjavík to do my Masters in London, and it all sort of happened when I got in the studio and managed to start making work.

EF: It’s quite rare for an artist to find his or her voice while still studying. 
KP: It was very hard as a student with no money or means. How do you even start with trying to go to distant locations and getting hold of complicated equipment? I still remember one of the professors saying, “Is this it?” because I would come in with a little bit of paper with an idea on it and a whole number of notes. And I would say, “Yeah, I’m afraid so—here I am yet again with a few scraps of paper because I can’t go any further.” It’s satisfying now to think it’s been about 10 years, and I have actually managed to make a substantial number of these works.

Installation view of “A place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson & JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, 2019. Photo: © Stephen White

EF: For your degree show, you placed a microphone deep in a glacier so people could dial up and hear chunks breaking off (Vatnajökull (the sound of), 2007–08). There seems to be quite a strong elegiac aspect to your work.
KP: Yes, there’s a map of dying stars that I think of as a graveyard of the universe, although it’s about life as well as death because the stars are continually evolving into something new. The glacier piece is definitely listening to the sound of the planet dying. It sounds extreme, and it was just a phone call, a few-second moment connecting with something much vaster than you are, directly listening to it melting away. And then the melancholy sound of the piano playing music that’s been to the moon. They are quite an elegy, some of these works.

EF: Like the glacier piece, First There is a Mountain has a strong ecological dimension, including the compostable buckets that you provided in the shape of five real mountains on five continents.
KP: It relates to landscape and time, in that it’s taking these vast mountains and reducing them back to their most basic element, which is sand. The original sand came from mountains very, very long ago, so it’s like re-creating them in miniature. The work also links to ideas around the erosion taking place all over U.K. coastlines, which are retreating and changing rapidly. The buckets have clear links to environmentalism because they are made from bio-plastic produced from cornstarch and will completely dissolve. If one fell into the sea, it would leave no trace. It’s a relatively new material that’s starting to be used more, and it could have a life-changing impact, so I’m glad we were able to use it for this project.

EF: This is not the first time you have reduced nature to its original essence and replicated it. In Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky (2012–14), you melted down a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite and recast it into a new version of itself before sending it back into space. What inspired you to do this?
KP: I’m interested in cycles of time, like my record player playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in synchronization with the earth’s revolutions (As the World Turns, 2011) and the nine clocks ticking away for whole durations of days and nights, telling the time on the other planets (Timepieces (Solar System), 2014). The color wheel represents vast expanses of time, and the beads in Fossil Necklace (2013) also begin with the first cycle of life on earth and work their way through all of geological time. The title of the sand pails comes from an old Zen poem that describes the mountains, what they first were, then they were nothing, then they became mountains again. That’s what I feel I am doing with First There is a Mountain. It’s like speeded-up geological time being played out all over the beaches.

First There is a Mountain, 2019. Bio-compostable cornstarch, dimensions variable. Photo: © Katie Paterson

EF: Besides melting down a meteorite for Campo del Cielo, you ground up matter from the moon, Mars, and other planets to print the cover of your book A place that exists only in Moonlight, produced for the Turner Contemporary show. Do you see any ethical issues around destroying ancient astronomical artifacts?
KP: When I first made Campo del Cielo, there was a bit of controversy around that, but I purposely chose a kind of meteorite that existed in abundance on earth. We see meteorites as rare, but a great deal of material has fallen to earth from space. There’s a huge market on eBay. I got hold of some rare samples for the book, like the lunar dust that came from a 1955 collection, but most of the objects that I ground down weren’t very hard to get. The grinding process started in my kitchen. The printers had to do a lot of testing with the cosmic dust in the silver ink, and once we’d figured out that it was going to work, I collected and crushed over 40 objects in my studio, but even then it was pretty low key. I had a hammer, a pestle, and a mortar. It wasn’t too hard because they were all tiny meteorites. I dread to think what I was breathing in. With each object that I crushed, I would look back at my list and think, “Goodness that is Mars,” and then get nervous because it was the most precious sample. But I really enjoyed the experience, which is probably why I ended up doing it by hand and didn’t pass it over to somebody else. Because a lot of my works are conceptual, I like handling materials.

EF: Obsolescence seems to be woven into your work, not just in terms of our demise and that of cosmic bodies, but also in terms of the technology you employ.
KP: I seem to be drawn automatically to these technologies. I love faxes and telegrams, which have an inevitable life span built into them. I’m having to replace the color wheel in just a few years because those colors will no longer be accurate. With Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008), when the bulbs go out of existence that’s just it, gone. But I quite like that because it’s true to the nature of the work, and it is ephemeral. Then there’s the forest (Future Library) that grows for 100 years, so that feels like an extremely long period of time. The materials end up determining the outcome sometimes, and I’m pleased about that. Each work feels like it might end, but it sparks off something else, like the color wheel. I’ve now got a palette of universe colors that I can work with.

Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, 2008. Set of 289 light bulbs with halogen filament and frosted colored shell, installation view. Photo: © John McKenzie 2011, Courtesy of Ingleby Gallery

EF: I was surprised to find that your work was so multi-sensory. One doesn’t expect to find the universe has colors or that planets have smells, as in your candles formed of aroma layers corresponding to planets or places in the universe (Candle (from Earth into a Black Hole), 2015). 
KP: Yes, space is thought of as a vacuum, but it is in fact multi-sensory. At Turner Contemporary, Totality was immersive—the sound of the glacier and the sound of the piano coming together to create a sensory experience. What I love about Margate and the relationship with Turner is that it’s very experiential. When I was selecting the Turner paintings for the show, I had a newborn baby in my arms and didn’t have time to think about the historical connections. Instead it was very intuitive—“Wow, that one’s grabbed me because it reminds me of a sunset on Venus”—so that helped me link the works together in quite a visceral way.