The new works in Katie Paterson’s “Requiem” exhibition (on view through June 11) reveal her poetic sensibility, sometimes in surprising fashion. The deceptively minimal title installation, which occupies the entire downstairs gallery, sets the tone. A hand-blown glass urn, almost a votive object, sits in the center of the space, while a chest-height shelf running across the walls holds 364 numbered glass vials that contain dust dating from pre-solar time to the present day. The samples vary in color, volume, and granularity, but each one weighs precisely 21 grams—the posited weight of a human soul. They are meant to be poured into the urn in numerical order, so that eventually all 364 layers will come together to represent life on earth, telling a story of ecological collapse.
Sources for the vials’ ground contents range from rocks and meteorites to bee pollen and butterflies, from microplastics and silicon to space dust and the debris of war. Paterson describes Requiem (2022) as her most political work to date. It is a moving embodiment of the beginning and ending of time. Visitors may have the opportunity to pour the contents of a single vial into the urn. I was fortunate enough to transfer sample number 67; the Rhynie chert dust from Scotland’s Aberdeenshire dates from the beginning of the Devonian period, 412 million years ago. It felt important—a quiet but significant act of protest against the state of the world. Requiem is accompanied by an extensive and meticulously researched written guide explaining the origins of each and every dust sample. As the final entry explains, “At this critical time for life on earth, the biosphere needs such a sense of care and ingenuity to grow in human hearts.” Paterson’s practice and our recognition of its meaning is one way to inspire that sense of care and ingenuity, and it’s vital.
In the downstairs hallway, a pair of incense sticks created by Paterson invoke the smell of the first and last forests. Upstairs, Endling (2021) encapsulates the history of the planet in 100 pigments, while The Moment (2022), a quarter-hour glass, measures 15 minutes with pre-solar material in hand-blown glass. Evergreen (2022) is an exquisite record of 351 extinct plants embroidered in silk thread; as Paterson has explained, it “represents a reverence for life.” It took several years for her to gather details of these extinct plants from across the world. She had help from scientists at Kew Gardens, the botanical illustrator Deborah Lambkin, and the Royal School of Needlework. In the final work, which captures each individual plant in stitch, Arts and Crafts-style embroidery is brought into contemporary practice.
Requiem, as an artwork and as an idea, remains central to the exhibition, which Paterson calls a lament or elegy. It is deeply melancholic, a requiem mass for a dying world, but it is profoundly optimistic, too. Paterson can have no way of knowing how individual viewers will respond, but if my experience is anything to go by, there is a kindling of thought and feeling in those who visit, an opening up of conversations. There is a reverence in this space for a world that has sustained humankind until now. Something almost spiritual unfolds as art and science collide, creating the wonder of Paterson’s work—a creative response to a desperate ecological situation. That must give us hope.
“Requiem” will be on view at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland, from June 17 through September 11, 2022.