Inside this Desert | Katie Paterson
BAWAG Contemporary, Vienna, 12 September 11 – November 2012

Katie Paterson‘s work investigates unfathomably large or distant events in nature and the universe, posing the biggest questions of all: How could the universe arise out of nothing? Is nothing nothing, or something? How is the explosion of stars connected to our lives? Simultaneously rigorously conceptual and extremely romantic, Paterson’s art is based on serious scientific research while at the same time casting a humorous sidelong glance at metaphysical topics and material phenomena. Whether she is letting music disappear into outer space, making audible the melting of Icelandic glaciers, or sacrificing Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons to the Earth‘s rotation – the non-visible is always at the heart of these beguiling meditations on our universe.

Interestingly, Paterson often combines her work on cosmological experience with elements of the mundane.This entanglement focuses – not without irony – on a poetic concept of unity that is less far-fetched than it might seem. In recent years, a number of brilliant insights and amazing discoveries have shaken the founda- tions of our knowledge of the universe – for example, the fact that every single atom in our bodies was once part of an exploded star. What is more, the atoms in our left hand are probably from a different star than the atoms in our right hand. We are all literally children of the stars, our bodies made of stardust. In connecting distant and intangible phenomena like the moon or dying stars to the Earth, Paterson makes use of everyday technology such as door bells, record players, pianos, and moonlight lamps. She pursues. a rigorous and at the same time ironic concept of the sublime, simultaneously following a tradition of emptiness and the romanticism of the poetic nocturne.

Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand (2010) tells the story of a sculpture, the tiniest imaginable grain of sand in the world, contrasting the monumentality of the desert with an ephemeral gesture that recalls W.G. Sebald‘s grain of sand in Emma Bovary‘s dress: In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary‘s winter gown, said Janine, Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara. For him, every speck of dust weighed as heavy as the Atlas mountains. How tiny can an object be before it ceases to exist? Nanotechnology experts created an unimaginably small fragment from a grain of sand, 0.00005 millimeters of the original, which Paterson then reburied in the Sahara. Ambivalently merging irony and sincerity, a black and white photograph depicts the artist at the edge of the desert, silhouetted against a vast sky, directly referencing historical Romanticism à la Caspar David Friedrich.

By means of such ephemeral gestures, Paterson pushes her work to the limits of immateriality and invisibility, following in her approach a well-established tradition in conceptual art. Ever since Marcel Duchamp declared an empty perfume bottle to be a sculpture (50 cc of Paris Air, 1919) and somewhat later Yves Klein organized the exhibition The Void, non-visible art has become a significant part of the conceptual landscape. Consider, for example, Robert Morris‘s planned steam sculpture, Carl Andre‘s “monuments” made by trickling sand from an upper floor into a conical pile on the ground below, or Sol LeWitt‘s elements hidden within other elements. In each of these works, it is up to the viewer to complete the work by contributing his or her own imagination, interpretation, or participation.

Sublime Darkness, by Christine Kintisch. View catalogue.