Two exhibitions opened in Cambridge last week, and they could not vary more in character. ‘Make This Space’, at SixOneSix King’s Street, has aimed (amongst other things) to leave the ‘conceptual’ behind: the curators chose works visually, to be accessible to a wide audience. By contrast, each piece in Katie Paterson’s exhibition at Kettles Yard relies on an idea which informs our encounter with a particular object. The works are, to an extent, the ideas.
One criticism frequently levelled at ‘conceptual’ art is that it doesn’t have to be seen to be appreciated. Without making the journey to a gallery, we can grasp at least the main premise of Martin Creed’s infamous ‘Work No. 227: The lights going on and off’. The same cannot be said for paintings. Paintings are compromised in reproduction; ideas (to generalise) are not.
This is not true of all of Paterson’s work. Some pieces, admittedly, survive in description: As The World turns, a vinyl LP of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ spinning imperceptibly slowly in time with the earth’s rotation, largely maintains its appeal written on the page (though I found the experience of straining to see the slow, constant motion thought-provoking). ‘Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand’ (a photographic record of a project which saw Paterson produce a 0.00005nm grain of sand and release it into the Sahara), whilst similarly cerebral and provocative, can be appreciated from the comfort of one’s room.
Paterson’s work is, however, most successful when she deals with the ‘stuff’ of things: when the actual object she places in the gallery has real meaning and significance. ‘Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky’ does just that. Taking a sizeable meteorite, Paterson produced a detailed silicon mould of it, then had it melted down and re-cast in its own shape. Seeing this object in the flesh, we are faced with a dilemma. Is it the same meteorite which crashed to earth from space? Its form is the same, as are its atoms. The re-arrangement of those atoms within the volume of the form surely doesn’t change the thing’s essence. What we realise, though, faced with touching its mass, is that cognitively we can’t overcome our knowledge of the change it has undergone. We realise that actions cannot be undone; facts cannot be un-known: the identity of the original meteorite has not survived reproduction. All this, though, only comes from the experience of being face to face with the matter of the thing. Like the meteorite, the ‘idea’ of the work does not survive reproduction. It needs to be seen.
‘Poetic’ is (second only to ‘tension’) one of the most cliched terms applied to contemporary art, but it is hard to avoid in relation to Paterson’s work. Perhaps to excuse my resorting to it I can offer a fuller explanation of what I mean. Coleridge defined prose as being ‘words in their best order’, and poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’. Paterson expresses the ‘best’ ideas in the best possible way, with great eloquence and concision: like great verse, her work is a catalyst for thought and association. The catalogue essay quotes Jim Ede: ‘both words and stones need the intelligence of human insight to endow them with powers.’ Paterson’s stones are, one feels, her words.
The exhibition’s piece de resistance is the product of Paterson’s residency at the Wellcome Sanger institute. Working with evolutionary scientists, she conceived the idea of a necklace, with hundreds of minute beads each crafted from a fossil. Spanning the history of the earth, the fossils trace chronologically a 3.5 billion year progression, encompassing life, space, geology and time. It is both an object with momentous association and profoundly beautiful thing. That she chose to display it in the serene St Peters Church is, for me, seismic: human theology cannot help but be eclipsed by the sheer weight of the deep time it evokes. To stand close to it is deeply humbling. I cannot think of an object as far-reaching in its association; it is a religious relic for the modern age, and one which warrants the arduous pilgrimage up Castle Street.