Scottish artist Katie Paterson has described time as the “material” with which she creates her work. In this modest but significant survey—her first major exhibition in a public institution in Scotland (originally on view through May 31, 2020)—her playful, rigorously researched works tick with the passing of millennia as stars die, solar eclipses pass, and planets spin. Shown across six rooms, the show brings together 11 works from 2007 to the present and marks—with separate contributions from Darren Almond, Shona Macnaughton, and Lucy Raven—the final exhibition in the gallery’s contemporary art series “NOW.”
Much of Paterson’s work involves what at first seem like fantastical, undeliverable ideas—with help from the European Space Agency, she returned a meteorite to space and once created a live phone line to a melting glacier. Her “Ideas” series (2015–ongoing)—short texts cut from sterling silver and displayed here on black painted walls—makes clear that there’s plenty more to explore. Featured “Ideas” include “A live feed of two galaxies colliding” and “A beach made with dust from spiral galaxies.”
Paterson’s ongoing Future Library (2014–2114) is similarly ambitious, although as a new film shows, this generation-spanning project is proceeding at a purposely slow pace. Future Library: a century unfolds (2019) forms a pivot point for the exhibition, its gentle documentary style providing insights into both the project itself and Paterson’s practice in general. Much of the 26-minute film is set in the Nordmarka forest near Oslo. Here, 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees have been planted to provide the paper on which 100 texts by 100 writers—delivered annually and kept secret until publication— will be printed in 2114. Manuscripts by authors such as Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Elif Shafak will be stored in a capsule-like wooden room made from trees cut down to create a clearing for the new saplings.
While Future Library is grounded in the landscape of our own planet, Paterson’s explorations into the deep time of space dominate this exhibition. In one dimly lit room, a single light bulb hangs while a display cabinet contains a further 288 bulbs. The work’s matter-of-fact title explains its significance: Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008). As you stand in this fake lunar glow, the sound of “Moonlight Sonata” drifts in from the next room. This version, though, pauses unexpectedly, and it isn’t quite as Beethoven intended—the result of the composition being sent in Morse code to the moon and back, with some of its dots and dashes lost in space. Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007) is performed on a self-playing grand piano; framed “before and after” copies of the code are displayed nearby.
Paterson’s adeptness at putting everyday objects to work in interplanetary ways is apparent throughout the show. In Timepieces (Solar System) (2014), nine sleekly Minimalist clocks each tell the time on a different planet and the moon, presented in relation to a 12-hour clock. The specially made mirror ball in Totality (2016) immerses us in a room-filling light show created from more than 10,000 images of solar eclipses from across the centuries. Using the vastness of space and our scientific understanding of it as a playground of possibilities, Paterson situates human knowledge and experience in a cosmic context. In doing so, rather than reducing humanity to a mere pinprick in space, she brings notions of collaboration, inquisitiveness, and progress to the fore.
An online viewing of the film Future Library: A Century Unfolds (which was specially commissioned for the exhibition), is now available on the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s website.