Katie Paterson 100 Billion Suns REVIEW

Jack Castle reviews the current Haunch of Venison exhibition

How glamorous the art world is! “100 Billion Suns” was first seen at the July 2011 Venice Biennale, and you probably weren’t there. I certainly wasn’t, and I’m quite miffed about it. I’m miffed about it in the same way that I am when I hear about Frank Sinatra or Monroe, or a swell cocktail party where someone fell into the swimming pool and surfaced with a quip. I’m upset not to have been invited, even though I wasn’t born then and probably wouldn’t have known anyone anyway.

But I wasn’t born yesterday: I was quite long born when, in 2011, the confetti cannons were fired in various locations around Venice. The confetti is specially picked and coloured to recreate a “history of Gamma Ray Bursts, the brightest explosions in the universe, which burn 100 billion times brighter than the sun… Every burst of confetti creates a miniature explosion of all these vast explosions in just under a second.” I wonder where I was when it was fired for the first time, and what star was dying.

While Katie Paterson owes a debt to the self-effacing-art genre, or perhaps the inevitably eroding ”Land-Art” of the 70s, this exhibition is odder than those experiments in temporariness. The show never had anything to efface, not even itself: it was already over; you have already missed the show, or you can’t go – it is ended, in the same way you will never see me write this sentence at 8:24, 3 April 2012, or Sinatra laughing as he drunkenly fishes a drunk guy out of his pool. The traces remain, but the event is gone forever, like photographs of a cannon firing.

The Haunch of Venison show, then, is composed entirely of the quite sorry-looking remnants of things that don’t themselves have duration/body to exhibit, and so aren’t quite themselves (piles of confetti on the floor are not the same as a confetti cannon’s explosion). This does not sound especially promising, but it is at least honest in the way art deals with death. Art “about” death is never actually about death – it is about the process or the outcome of death, not the precise, indivisible moment where the word “alive” ceases to be appropriate. So actually, in acknowledging this, Katie Paterson speaks honestly where narrative painting (say) only ever tricks its viewer into thinking it is “dealing with” something. And Katie Paterson’s subject is this burst of change – the split-second of time.

There is something intrinsically sad about the past tense, and this is what “Dying Star Letters” taps into. The same single sentence informing the gallery of a star’s death – written on different notepaper from different addresses – seem like letters informing you, the next of kin, about the death-in-combat of a daughter you loved but had forgotten about. A light extinguished, etc., and the simple phrase helps with that abrupt transition between life and death. It is as though the star had not died until you read the note, and then it dies suddenly, abruptly, in your arms and eyes. Life becomes death before your eyes. You are made to focus on how that time is not there anymore.

But why is that sad? It certainly is sad, but it shouldn’t be by now. We know that time isn’t there anymore, because that’s what it does: it goes. We should be used to it. Perhaps it is horrible to note comparisons between something like old Elvis and young Elvis, but real proper stars we are alive at the same time as?

We have sentimentalised stars, probably second only to our sentimentalising of animals. But the difference between stars’ and animals’ sentimentalisation is that no one has seen the occasionally un-humanlike “stupidity” of animals: moths flying into windows and lights; dogs never working out the “pretend-to-throw-slip-ball-behind-back” trick. In the absence of this, stars can seem like lost noble humans, and we have definitely claimed them as like our own. Nebulae get referred to as “star nurseries”; stars get born; they have a long middle age; and then either explode or wither in death. Astronomy seems to have built the metaphor for us. We can weep: “a star is dead, it was young once.”

So how does this relate to Katie Paterson’s stated ambition: “to communicate unimaginably large or distant occurrences in nature or the universe, transforming them through the medium of everyday objects or materials and reducing them to a human scale”? Well I would say, for one thing, that this exhibition is testament to the inability of human beings to talk about distance. The Archangel Metatron is described as the height of 500-years’ worth of walking, and here with Katie Paterson’s “Ancient Darkness TV” – which broadcasts darkness from the very edge of the known universe – we get “ancient” light from 13.2 billion years ago. It is much easier to think about getting old than being far away, partly because we can just pretend they are slightly different humans doing exactly the same aging.

But this is where the split-second comes in, because it eliminates time’s pesky quality of always changing. It throws the emphasis back onto spatial relations, and I suppose the shocking thing that this exhibition highlights is the weird feeling that if these spatial events are (seen by us as) happening right now (even though we are seeing light from 13.2 billion years ago) then why can’t we feel it next to us? Space is cast in terms of time: why are these simultaneous things so remote? Why didn’t I notice when a star died in my lifetime, and why can’t I remember where I was when something as significant as that happened?

And I suppose this is what is meant by mapping the human scale onto large and unimaginable natural occurrences. Why don’t we notice the simultaneous events that are always happening? Why do we not even think of them? And why do some of them make us look back to think “damn, I really missed Frank Sinatra’s party that night? Man, I don’t believe he’s gone…”

Because there is one way of doing this that is selfish: the life of a star is a metaphor for me; a way that condenses the entire cosmos into a sentence about a star dying, or uses confetti to condense the immense energy of a gamma ray burst inside its metaphor. To use the physical remains of an event to both mourn and glorify that period of gone time, like Pietà scenes.

But there is another way, and I think it is this way that Katie Paterson’s pieces actually function. Cèzanne used to organise his still-lives how he liked, and then bring to them all the skill and the immensity of landscape. The little piles of ornaments would grow to the majesty of temples while still remaining small as a human. In a similar way, I do not see Katie Paterson’s work condensing vast distances inside symbols: confetti, or sentences, or a minute’s worth of black screen for 13.2 billion years’ worth of travel. It is not – for want of a better word – figuration, where something is pressed beneath something it looks like. Rather, I see this work as utterly expansive. The single-sentence death letters are thrown as wide as the cosmos, and stretch. The minute is a chunk of forever. The loads of confetti is just part of the cascade. These aren’t corpses to be mourned over, they are remains of an instant that throw you back to that instant (although, again, arguably, like Pietà scenes). A star does not get its significance from its metaphorically human life cycle, but humans gain significance by sharing, in a small way, that cycle with a star. They race your little human back, out into the cosmos, into the infinite and unimaginable, and make you think what you were doing with your flown instants of time. It is a brilliant marking of a spectacular event that you could’ve been a conscious part of, but found out about too late, like getting to Hollywood and finding the golden age over, or turning the corner of a Venice street in July 2011 and seeing confetti very still on the ground.

Words: Jack Castle © 2012 ArtLyst

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