Signs and Wonders, Brian Dillon, 2013

‘We would have to go out into space until the breadth and mystery of new discovery would force us to comprehend the world once again as poets, comprehend it as savages who knew that if the universe was a lock, its key was a metaphor rather than measure.’

Norman Mailer, A Fire on the Moon (1970)

In the early decades of the nineteenth century a thesis held sway regarding the origins and composition of heavenly bodies that was soon to be undermined, at least for a time. The nebular hypothesis – originated in 1734 by Emanuel Swedenborg and upheld a century later by William Herschel and Pierre-Simon Laplace – proposed, on the evidence of a bright hazy medium that seemed to hang around some distant clusters, that stars were born from this ethereal or nebular substance, and planets from the same: flung out by stars, and subsequently condensed and solidified.

By the 1840s this belief had come under ruinous pressure from observations made by such astronomers as Lord Rosse, at Birr Castle in Ireland. (The hypothesis would return in the twentieth century, and a modern variant is now widely accepted.) Subjected to powerful new telescopes, the nebulae in question seemed to resolve or clarify themselves into congregations of distinct bodies, the wondrous intermediate haze vanishing under scrutiny. Still, a certain awe persisted. Not least with respect to the Orion nebula, for which even Herschel’s son John, who had continued his late father’s research, struggled to find an adequate language: ‘No simile exactly represents the object.’

In 1846 the essayist and autobiographer Thomas De Quincey seemed to take up the challenge to find a comparison sufficient to the Orion nebula and the startling engravings of it that had recently been published. De Quincey’s essay ‘The System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes’ readily accepts that Rosse has dispatched the nebular hypothesis, seemingly for good, but like John Herschel he finds that the illustrations now current of the complexly teeming mass require some poetic supplement in language. It’s as if in the absence of the nebular substance some other medium must bind these disparate points of light together. The medium in question is metaphor. ‘The System of the Heavens’ is an instance of extreme allegorical over-reading of the night sky. In a kind of cosmic theatre, De Quincey writes, Rosse has revealed the ‘phantom’ or ‘abominable apparition’ of the anthropomorphic nebula. It resembles ‘a head thrown back, and raising its face, (or eyes, if eyes it had,) in the very anguish of hatred, to some unknown heavens.’ The nebula can only be described or understood by comparing it to something else.

With the art of Katie Paterson we’re assuredly some distance from this interstellar Gothic or cosmic phantasmagoria. The works of hers that engage present researches in astronomy and astrophysics, with their invocations of deep distance and time, have no need of the melodrama that animates De Quincey’s eye; Paterson does not spy ghosts or monsters in the recesses of space. And yet she shares something with the author of ‘The System of the Heavens’: her work is not only metaphorical, it is partly a deadpan inquiry into the nature and limits of metaphor. The Greek term metapherein literally means to carry across; the transfer of meaning from one object or image or word to another is imagined as an actual trajectory in space. Metaphor, like curiosity, wonder and the adventure of discovery, takes us out of ourselves, deposits us at some amazing remove or makes distant things seem close and intimate – the latter much in the way, for example, that Paterson’s Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) brings the moon’s radiance to the space of a gallery and the timescale of a human life.

Paterson’s art not only invokes vast distances in space and time; it is fundamentally about the kinds of transformations or translations (that is, metaphors) that distance and time allow. Consider for instance two of her early works and their employment of sounds derived from remote points or projected across ever vaster intervals. When she graduated at the Slade in 2007 she showed Vatnajökull (the sound of); a mobile phone number in white neon on the gallery wall connected visitors to a microphone submerged in the lagoon of the Icelandic glacier that gave the work its title. In a later work the creaking of the ice as it melted and retreated was recorded and mastered onto three LPs made of frozen water from the glacier itself, and the records filmed playing before they liquified. In the same year, Earth-Moon-Earth involved bouncing the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, recast as Morse-code radio waves, off the surface of the moon; back on earth a player-piano performed the rebounding sonata, now somewhat degraded.

Since then, Paterson has produced work that time and again effects a kind of metaphorical conversion or transmutation of some original event or matter: distant flashes of lightning turn into flickers of ordinary street illumination in Streetlight Storm (2009), dying stars into multicoloured confetti in 100 Billion Suns (2011), the same lapsed heavenly bodies into laconic letters of condolence for The Dying Star Letters (2011). For Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky (2013), she melted down a substantial meteorite and had it recast as, in effect, a model of itself. Among the strangest and most eloquent of these works is Second Moon (2013), for which at the time of writing Paterson plans to Fedex a small piece of the moon around the world for a full year, so that it is continually travelling and orbiting the earth once every three days. Among other things, Second Moon turns the circulation of heavenly bodies into mundane, everyday logistics or transport. Once again in her work, the movement of metaphor is also a movement of return: physical or astrophysical fact becomes wondrously estranged but is brought succinctly down to earth. The work is ambitiously metaphorical and at the same time oddly literal.

In 1965 Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a collection of short stories that playfully elaborate on certain facts or past conjectures about the composition and behaviour of the universe. The nebular hypothesis is among these, Calvino writing: ‘The planets of the solar system, G. P. Kuiper explains, began to solidify in the darkness, through the condensation of a fluid, shapeless nebula.’ The comically domestic story in question, ‘At Daybreak’, describes life before the nebular medium resolved itself into solid matter; other stories involve embarrassing revelations signalled across the vasts of time, and the Milky Way interpreted as a vast game of marbles. It is hard to say in these stories whether Calvino makes astrophysics seem more wondrous or more familiar, more literal or more symbolic – most likely, it is both. So too with the art of Katie Paterson: her great metaphorical skill is to make the most sublime aspects of our universe seem at once astonishing, absurd and newly near at hand.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and Tutor in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art. His books include Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2013), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011) and Tormented Hope (Penguin, 2009). He writes regularly for frieze, the Guardian, the London Review of Books and Artforum.