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Blog – An interview with Katie Paterson

Posted on March 24, 2012 in Artist and curator Interviews.

Katie Paterson is one of eleven international artists chosen by MCA Senior Curator Rachel Kent to be part of the MCA’s inaugural exhibition Marking Time.

Katie, all your works in Marking Time mix the ordinary and sublime magnitude. Let’s take for instance 100 Billion Suns. This semi-performative artwork requires someone to shoot multi-coloured confetti from a hand-held pop gun then let the little paper discs accumulate on the gallery floor, eventually swept into a pile over the course of the exhibition. What the viewer doesn’t at first realise is that these little pieces of paper match Gamma Ray Bursts, highly rare events which are the brightest explosions known in the universe – if one were to occur in the Milky Way it would mean total extinction for life on Earth. How did you come up with the idea?

In my work All the Dead Stars, I mapped every dead star that has been observed and recorded by humankind. One of the types of dead stars etched onto the map are Gamma Ray Bursts, extremely bright explosions that light up a vast area of the universe. They burn with the luminosity equivalent of 100 billion of our suns. I was taken with this notion, which seems impossible to visualise or conceptualise, and had the idea to create a small burst which contains all of these universal bursts. I’m interested in ways to conceive and relate to that which cannot be easily seen or known. Often my work seems on the borderline between the possible and impossible. Sometimes I have ideas that seem out of reach, but I do what I can to realise them.

How do you create Gamma Ray Bursts with confetti?

To create 100 Billion Suns I collected 3,216 images of Gamma Ray Bursts, and colour matched their centres, using a simple tool in Photoshop. The colours were then gridded, printed, and cut into thousands of small circles.

Your installation Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) requires a moon bouncer to transmit a Morse code version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon and back; the composition is then re-translated into music and played on a self-playing piano. The viewer at first sees a piano and hears a familiar tune, but it soons becomes apparent that the notes are distorted or missing because of their epic journey. Firstly, what is a moon bouncer and how did you find one?

Moonbouncers are people who send messages to the moon and back to earth, using ‘Moonbounce’ technology, or ‘Earth-Moon-Earth’ (E.M.E). I was researching the moon and stumbled across this form of technology, which dates back to the 1940s. At first I thought Moonbounce was science-fiction, how could it be real? But in fact people all over the world are sending messages to one another, via the moon.

Secondly, why Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, aside from the reference to the moon?

I went through a long process mulling over what I might send to the moon. Most things can be broken down into zeros and ones, and hence Morse-code. I decided to send a piece of music, as once reflected from the moon, it would come back to our planet in pieces. I sent the Moonlight Sonata – such a grand, immense, and melancholic piece of music – thinking that the losses may become mournful. It was rather a grand gesture, and one which was bound to fall apart from the beginning. I was thinking of failure, failure to communicate with this barren, distant place – offering the moon the music, but the music is thrown back shattered. A link between much of work is the encoding and loss of information, presences are made invisible and absences visible (or audible). The Sonata loses part of itself in its journey to the moon and back, and as it plays on the piano these gaps become pronounced and present in the imagination.

And thirdly, why again this draw to space and experiences beyond our earthly ones?

My interest in space has developed over the last 8 years or so. I’d say my first encounter with thinking about the cosmos begun in Iceland, where I lived for a short while after I graduated from art school. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the sky, and the changing light, the energy of the landscape. I began to reflect more and more about our connections to the planet and the cosmos at large. As human beings we are not apart from nature, we are nature – it sounds obvious, but we are made of atoms like everything else. It’s easy to forget this.

Can I ask you to describe Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight?

I worked with lighting engineer Dieter Lang of Osram to attempt to re-create moonlight through artificial means. On the night of a full moon, Dieter measured the moon’s light spectrum, temperature and amperage, and translated his findings into an incandescent light bulb – exactly as how Osram created their standardised ‘day light’ bulb. The artwork contains a whole life’s supply of moonlight – that is 289 bulbs, which if burned one after the other glow for 66 years, the average lifespan of a person. In Marking Time the moonlight bulbs are displayed in a cabinet, and a logbook documents their history.

Even when your work remains within the realms of our planet, it conjures ideas of time – more than distance – beyond human reasoning. In Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull, sound recordings from three Icelandic glaciers were played once on records made from frozen meltwater from these same three glaciers. Over time – nearly two hours – the ice records melted, distorting the sound until eventually all that remained was a puddle of age-old water. In Marking Time, these recordings of cracking and shifting ancient ice are visible and audible on three television sets. Again, how did you come up with the idea? Why Iceland?

Iceland is a place I’ve been drawn to from an early age, primarily because of its landscape; the wilderness, the remoteness, the wide open spaces, the light, the expansiveness. My experiences of Iceland’s landscapes obviously made a strong impression; I spent a lot of time on various glaciers carrying out different works, and there was a point that glaciers were all I was thinking about. However ideas for my works tend to happen indirectly, there isn’t a clear method as such. Ideas form when I am ‘not-thinking’ or definitely not thinking in words, things that are related in more complex and less obvious ways settle and converge unexpectedly.

Interview conducted by Kelly Stone, MCA Public Relations Manager

Check out Katie Paterson’s website.

Marking Time runs 29 March-3 June 2012.