Katie Paterson
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK, 26 April – 30 June 2013

“Katie Paterson’s art enables us to engage with forces that are too intangible and too immense for us to experience in other ways”— Art Monthly

Katie Paterson has earned widespread acclaim for work that tackles some of the key questions about our place on earth. Her work often involves collaborating with leading scientists and researchers across the world. The exhibition brings together previous projects and new work.Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand saw Paterson working with experts in nanotechnology to take a grain of sand and carve it to just 0.00005mm across – which she then buried deep within the Sahara desert. A photograph of Paterson standing amongst the dunes, features in the exhibition, a contemplation of the monumental elevating the minute.

On display in St Peter’s Church is a new piece, Fossil Necklace, a culmination of her residency at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The necklace comprises over 170 beads carved from fossils that chart the evolution of life on earth. From a dinosaur tooth to a squid’s backbone, the oldest fossil is around 3.5 billion years old. Other works in the exhibition approach the themes of time and scale in different ways. As The World Turns is a record player moving imperceptibly slowly, in time with the rotation of the Earth. An ancient meteorite, fallen to earth and buried, is discovered and remade in Campo del Cielo, Field of Sky. The meteorite has been cast, melted then re-cast into a new version of itself that visitors can touch. The artist hopes to return it to space one day.

From the tiniest grain of sand lost deep in the Saharan desert to the death of a star in a distant galaxy, Katie Paterson’s works are simultaneously minute and intergalactic in scale. Time and space are compressed into concise, poetic gestures that are later unravelled as they reverberate through the imagination.

The appropriation of materials in Paterson’s work is met by a lightness of touch that leaves only the subtlest traces of the artist’s hand. For Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky (2012), the artist sourced a meteorite that she could melt down and then recast in its original form. In doing so, Paterson subtly realigned its constituent particles before our eyes, and plans are now in motion to send it back into the depths of space. Her intervention here is as invisible as that of Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand (2010), where she had a grain of sand chiselled to a fraction of its original size, before returning it to the desert. The work now exists as a single photograph documenting the moment of its return. These often elaborate and technically challenging projects involve lengthy and complex research, in which the artist draws on scientific and technical expertise from across the globe. The beguiling objects that mark the completion of each of her projects – a modest, meteorite-shaped sculpture, or a black and white photograph of a figure on a sand dune – belie the ambition that inspired them and the enormous effort and commitment required to realise them. 

Fossil Necklace is a string of worlds, with each bead modestly representing a major event in the evolution of life through a vast expanse of geological time. From the mono-cellular origins of life on earth to the shifting of the continents, the extinction of the Cretaceous period triggered by a falling meteorite, to the first flowering of flowers, it charts the development of our species and affirms our intimate connection to the evolution of those alongside us. Each fossil has been individually selected by the artist from all corners of the globe, and then painstakingly carved into spherical beads in a secondary process of excavation.

Necklaces are a universal form of body adornment almost as old as human civilisation. Represented by only a relatively small number of beads in Fossil Necklace, our modern species has been present for a fraction of the history of life.  In a circular gesture, Paterson joins the ancient beginnings of life (an Archean Stromatolite) with the present (deer, horses and hippos) and in her unique way effortlessly concertinas time and space into a graspable form. In an earlier work, Vatnajökull (the sound of) (2007), viewers were invited to dial a telephone number displayed in neon on the gallery wall, which linked them directly to a microphone submerged in the heart of a melting Icelandic glacier. The violent sounds of ice cracking thousands of miles away instantly collapsed the physical and intellectual distance between the world we live in and the remote natural world. Pay heed, say these reticent objects. 

The fossil beads in Paterson’s necklace, hung in the tranquil surroundings of St Peter’s Church, find an echo in the spherical pebbles that Jim Ede collected at Kettle’s Yard next door. Although Ede and Paterson sought different things in the rocks they collected, they seem to share a belief that by allowing our imaginations to unpick the layers of history and time in the dense array of objects and materials that surround us, we can gain valuable understanding of ourselves and the world, if not the universe in which we live.

Words are strange things with which to express feelings and stones are strange expressions of miracles. Both need the intelligence of human insight to endow them with these powers. The poet’s vision is an act of robust rarity… So too is the well shaped stone – you may search a wide seashore or the reaches of many rivers and never find one, and then suddenly it lies before you – an ordered unit, shaped of this order from the countless vicissitudes of nature’s course’ H.S. (Jim) Ede, undated manuscript

Guy Haywood, Kettle’s Yard

We can all appreciate how fossils can be transformed into beads on a necklace to become a work of art and provide the basis for this exhibition. But how does genetics, which is what we study at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, fit in? The answer is actually simple: DNA. To appreciate this link, consider the following ideas. Every individual living now, in the past or the future traces their origins (and DNA) back through an unbroken chain of ancestors to the origin of life. There really is a ‘tree of life’ linking every living and extinct species. In the past, the only way to reconstruct this tree was using anatomy, from living species and especially from fossils. Now we also do it using DNA: the more similar the DNA, the closer the species are on the tree. 

Fossils and DNA both provide partial glimpses of the same tree. The information is complementary. From DNA, we can make inferences about the ancestors of the individuals or species we sequence. Fossils show us what species were around at any particular time in the past, whether or not they now have descendants among living species. The Sanger Institute has been involved in sequencing the DNA of several species whose ancestors are represented on the necklace. One of these is the pig. The final bead in the Oligocene period comes from a Peccary ‘skunk’ pig who lived 30 million years ago in South Dakota, USA, while we concentrate on the Duroc breed of the modern domestic pig. The DNA sequence shows just how powerful the sense of smell is in pigs, and how complex the origins of the domestic pigs were. Now we are taking an in-depth look at their X and Y chromosomes.

My main interest is in human evolution, and many of the more recent beads link to our lineage. As Darwin speculated, human origins are in Africa and our ancestors split from chimpanzee ancestors 6-7 million years ago, a time and place reflected in the Miocene bead constructed from glowing Kenyan Miocene amber – fossilised resin from ancient forests where these ancestors may have resided. Soon after two million years ago, the early species Homo erectus spread out of Africa as far as Southeast Asia, where Java man fossils were found more than a century ago: a time and place echoed by the Gastropod bead (a type of mollusc) in the early Pleistocene. Our ancestors were scavengers and hunters, and would have appreciated, in a culinary sense, the Mammoth who lived 300,000 years ago in the Netherlands and contributed D50, if their paths had ever crossed. Fully modern humans evolved very recently, less than 100,000 years ago, again in Africa. 

It is perhaps fitting that the first bead on the Fossil Necklace was found in the same vicinity, containing extremely early single-celled microorganisms, the first signs of life on earth billions of years ago, with whom we humans share our basic genetic code. Genetics shows that all non-Africans are descendants of a single group who expanded out of Africa around 60,000 years ago and colonized the rest of the world. Devastation and ecosystem collapse invariably followed our arrival. Humans reached Australia 50,000 years ago and extinctions of large animals (megafauna) occurred 46,000 years ago. Katie obtained a fossil from an extinct kangaroo to represent this; appropriately, perhaps, it crumbled and there is no kangaroo bead. But there is the mud lobster bead, a species that survived the megafauna extinction only to be driven to endangered status by our own generation. The story is the same in Europe and in the Americas. There, human entry around 15,000 years ago was followed by megafauna extinctions a few thousand years later, so the bead from a Texan horse represents one of the last survivors of the native horses in America. We humans are not a pinnacle of evolution, but we have affected our planet in a way that no other species has done – and we are the only species who can make art that reflects upon our journey.

Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, Human Evolution, The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute