Afternoon Dust

What the senses understand: Recent works by Katie Paterson

I first came across artist Katie Paterson a few years ago when she made the streetlights along Deal Pier flicker in response to lightening storms for her work Streetlight Storm. Since then she has continued to make connections between ordinary, everyday objects and natural phenomena, ranging from nanomolecular technology to dead stars and quasars. In the process, she has developed close working relationships with scientists, often through residencies at leading research centres such as University College London’s Department of Astronomy and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The recent launch of two new works seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on her conceptually rigorous and aesthetically engaging practice.

For Second Moon a fragment of moonrock is being shipped round the world via courier for a year, roughly following the path taken by the rest of the Moon as it orbits the Earth. Even at the slowest speed of delivery, it was not possible for the lunar fragment to match the speed of the Moon; instead, it completes a full orbit roughly twice a month, at double the Moon’s velocity. An application for smartphones and tablets allows the moonrock to be tracked on its journey, displaying the position of the package relative to the Moon, other planets in the Solar System, and the user’s own location (unfortunately I have been unable to test it, so I don’t know if it is any more accurate than couriers’ own tracking apps). In common with previous works by Paterson, Second Moon connects an ordinary human activity with stellar phenomena in a way that is poetic yet easy to grasp, stretching the imagination that bit further to reach our closest rocky neighbour.

Though much of Paterson’s work concerns astronomy, her interests extend to objects found much closer to home, while again using simple, common forms to articulate something much larger. Fossil Necklace is a work that developed out of Paterson’s residency at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a major medical research centre, and constitutes a long string of beads, each one fashioned from a fossil. The beads are arranged in chronological order, beginning with the remains of some of the earliest life on Earth and ending with animal bones contemporaneous with the emergence and spread of modern humans — a timespan of approximately 540 million years. At the Wellcome Trust’s galleries in London the necklace was displayed in a small dark room, lit by spotlights; a chart seen before entering gives the name, time period and location of discovery for every fossil in the necklace, while handheld magnifying glasses were supplied to provide a closer look at the small beads.

The age and palaeontological provenance of the materials from which the beads were fashioned does not sufficiently account for the sense of wonder elicited by Fossil Necklace — after all, beads made from polished stone are commonplace, and they are often much older and formed through much the same geological processes. Nor does the fact that one can produce a fossil chronology that can be traced back to the origins of life on Earth seem that remarkable, being already widely known. Relating complex scientific ideas to the forms of everyday objects is part of it, and perhaps for some people this is enough. But I can’t help but wonder if the bringing together of art and science in Fossil Necklace doesn’t also accomplish something else: namely, the bringing to light of the aesthetic already at work within science itself. Were it not for the formal principles that structure scientific knowledge — forms such as the complex interwoven chains that trace out evolutionary paths, or the circular patterns through which the movements and interactions of stellar and interstellar bodies are understood — works such as Second Moon and Fossil Necklace simply wouldn’t be possible. The way in which scientific knowledge is thought already has an aesthetic.

Rather than thinking in terms of translation between separate domains of art and science, then, perhaps a more extreme interpretation of Paterson’s work could be summed up in the following dictum: no concept without form. Paterson verifies this notion every time she brings together scientific ideas with everyday objects in such a way that the form of the object comes to mimic the form of the idea. We recognise this mirrored form, because it is the form taken by thought engaging with the world. The moment of this recognition is expressed in the phrase “the penny dropped”, which has its own aesthetic form and is the source of our wonderment.

One could perhaps argue that the aesthetic forms of scientific knowledge are merely vehicles for the articulation of facts — that the form is not essential, that it is only a metaphor, that it could easily be exchanged for a different form. Wave-particle duality might be offered as an example of such interchangeability of forms. But I struggle to imagine a fact without form, even if it turns out that multiple forms are required to explain that fact; nor can I imagine how such a fact might be observed, or how such an observation might be repeated. In other words, it seems that the aesthetic is right there in the very happening of facts, not something imposed upon them later in order to make sense of them. From this perspective, then, the problem of wave-particle duality is an aesthetic problem. Paterson’s close working relationships with specialists in other scientific-aesthetic fields point the way towards practices that draw on aesthetics not only to articulate such problems, but to solve them.