Katie Paterson: 100 Billion Suns

Katie Paterson, 100 Billion Suns (Riva degli Schiavoni), 2011. Photo © Katie Paterson, 2011.

Surrounded by 100 billion suns, it is nearly impossibility to not let feelings of insignificance take over – simply a minute speck standing within a vast universe. The macrocosmic nature of Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s work cultivates these diminutive impressions – whether we are listening to the sounds of silence reflected off the moon, or looking far back into the universe to a place where the earth doesn’t exist, Paterson’s work constantly reminds us that we, as human beings on this particular planet, are an inconsequential part of a much larger whole.

The relatively small body of work that Paterson has made to date focuses on momentous themes of astronomy, geology, space and time. Blending artistic conceptualism with cold, hard scientific facts, Paterson makes the incomprehensible universe a bit more exoteric, whilst being engagingly poetic and austerely minimal.

Katie Paterson, 100 Billion Suns, 2011, confetti cannon, 3261 pieces of paper. Photo © Katie Paterson, 2011.

Paterson’s latest exhibition at Haunch of Venison in London serves as a mini-retrospective of the artist’s projects to date, and the element of performance permeates all of her works – whether it be on an astronomical or human scale. In 100 Billion Suns, a project first developed and executed at the Venice Biennale, a confetti canon is discharged daily within the gallery space. The canon contains 3261 pieces of paper, each one carefully colour-matched to a corresponding gamma ray burst, the brightest of all galactic explosions, burning at the luminosity of 100 billion suns. Here, the artist turns this rarely occurring, and even more rarely seen, event into a daily ritual, peppered with celebratory and nostalgic allusions.

Katie Paterson, The Dying Star Letters, 2010, letters written on different stationary. Photo: Peter Mallet. © Katie Paterson.

As we know, and as the artist continually reminds us, nothing is static and the universe is constantly in flux. With the ongoing project, The Dying Star Letters, Paterson draws upon the equally dying art of the post to build a sentimental archive that records and laments the death of each star in the universe. Informed by electronic telegram when a star has met its demise, Paterson sits down, wherever she may be in the world, and writes a letter, informing its recipient of the tragic loss and humanising the immaterial.


Katie Paterson, Black Firework, 2010, firework remains in a wooden display box. Photo: Peter Mallet. © Katie Paterson.

While much of Paterson’s work functions to make material the otherwise inaccessible, one project in particular relies solely on the imaginary. Like the oft-quoted adage, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’, Paterson’s Black Firework begs the questions of what happens to a black firework set off in the darkest of night with no one around to see it. Specially manufactured, and lit under a cloak of secrecy, the black firework has no audience, no reference point, and no documentation, other than the residual relic that lies in a coffin in the gallery. However, it does ignite the active imagination as one tries to envision just what a black firework might look like, and how it might sound.

Katie Paterson, As the World Turns, 2011, adapted record player, motor, pre-amp, amp, headphones, plinth, vinyl record of Vivaldi’s four seasons. © Katie Paterson. Photo: Peter Mallet. Courtesy Haunch of Venison

Converting human time into a planetary scale, As the World Turns, slows down a record player to match the rotational rate of the earth on its axis. Both the movement of the record and the sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons become virtually imperceptible, as is the movement of the planet that we inhabit. Instead of converting the astronomical into tangible form, here the artist takes the familiar and stretches it to a cosmic scale, as it loses its recognisable meaning it the process.

Katie Paterson’s combination of the empirical and the imaginary makes us acutely aware of the rules of space and time that govern this universe. Familiar objects are made galactic in reference, and the astronomical is brought back down to earth. Whilst grounded in the conceptual and minimalist aesthetic, the work in this exhibition ignites our imaginations, and translates between the incomprehensible and that which we see, hear and feel.