Take a moment to imagine a Cubist meteor shower, in which a whole sky full of points of light fly through the darkness, through otherwise empty space, yet suddenly come to an edge where none should be, pause as they might at the top of a cliff, then alter course and plunge ahead together in a different direction, faster or slower so dots become streaks or streaks turn back into dots. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque captured the outsides of objects, but here we are inside, where a maelstrom of light flows over, under, and all around us. In some places, the entire field moves as one, but elsewhere two overlapping flocks move through the same space at angles to each other. Spatial perspective brings them closer together in the distance, while they fly apart as they approach. If watched for more than a few seconds, these constellations may fade into darkness like the eclipsed face of the sun, then come back and shine again.
Floating in this night sky, streaked by the passing lights, words hang in space like something familiar: like titles in a motion picture, street signs on a rainy night, or disembodied ideas, which is what they are. On careful inspection, there are six of these Ideas, as she calls the series, spelled out in immaculately cut silver letters. They read like poems, like haiku or perhaps Zen koans. “The milky way compressed into a diamond” reads one, “Gravity released one unit at a time” says another. There is no telling how many of these Ideas the artist has had, but while six can be read here, a seventh is also present in an alternative form, which could be its material realization, or could just as conceivably be its earlier, pre-literate incarnation. As it happens, the one not present in words once said “A mirror ball reflecting every solar eclipse.” It became “Totality,” a material elaboration giving form to what is taking place. Each Idea, then, has at least three possible forms: in the mind, in words, and in metaphorical materials installed like this.
Scotland’s Katie Paterson is the 13th polymorphous art maker to be featured in UMFA’s salt series, wherein an artist of international renown is invited to install one or more works in a space customized to showcase her artistic identity. For UMFA, though, Paterson represents what’s come to be called a ‘reboot,’ since unlike the dozen artists that preceded her, her work is inaugurating the newly constructed salt gallery, one of several spaces that were carved out of the museum’s original floor plan during the recently completed, two-year-long redesign and retrofit. The seven Ideas mentioned above, six written out and one realized, will be joined later, when two more Ideas will be brought to fruition inside the museum. More on that later.
In “Totality,” which takes its title from the iconic moment when the shadow of the moon falls upon an observer and appears to completely blot out the sun, Paterson proves herself an excellent choice to demonstrate the potential of the gallery. The physical elements of “Totality” include two high-intensity, theatrical lamps, tucked away in opposite corners, that each produce a beam of light aimed at a massive, black, glass-covered ball, about a meter in diameter, hung from the ceiling at the center of the room. The computer-controlled lamps, in particular, were intended to be ignored and fulfill their role as stage machinery by disappearing into the performance. On the other hand, the slowly rotating ball, hung at about chest height, demands attention—because of its central location, and because it is the sole focus of the intersecting beams of light. Faceted with approximately 10,000 thumbnail-sized black mirrors, it suggests a dark planet—or a primordial, pre-Star Wars death star—as it spikes the surrounding space with more than 10,000 invisible beams of light that become visible only when they strike the walls and the bodies of the audience, producing uncountable gyrating, dancing, luminous spots. It’s the intricate way these gems, burning in the dark by the thousands, flood across the walls, ceiling, and floors that on first encounter make the room’s activity seem to exceed its capacity. In fact, like the Tardis, the consciousness-altering space- and-time-machine from the BBC’s long-running series, Dr. Who, “Totality” appears to be larger on the inside, and to express more energy, than the gallery’s outsides can contain, even spilling out the door to involve the artworks and audience in the Contemporary Gallery outside.
Like any good work of art, “Totality” rewards a closer look. Because each mirror presents an image of the crescent sun recalled from an actual eclipse, the projected spots of light should theoretically each take a variation on that shape. But transparent materials—the water drops that produce the rainbow, or this glass that bears the images of the eclipsed sun—always have two surfaces, and each is able to both refract and reflect a beam of light. Parallax, the technical term for the discernible difference between two points of perspective, allows the luminous crescents to split into two separate images that circle each other, revolving around each other as the earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the earth, and, at other points, merging back into a single disc. This happens as the surface of the ball passes into, across, and out of the source beam of light. Add to this the viewer’s movement, and the available variables on display seemingly become infinite in quantity and subtle variation.
No doubt there will be some in Paterson’s audience who will question how something they might expect to see in a science museum or planetarium can be art. Science is generally thought to be precise, cut-and-dried, measured rather than felt. In other words, not like art. Yet we accept that no two artists contemplating nature would produce the same image, even when they start from identical subjects and points of view. In the same way, there is no inevitable link between Paterson’s understanding of total solar eclipses and the expression that follows. She clearly wants to make the manifold objects and relationships that science has enumerated — which scientists tend to comprehend and discuss among themselves primarily in numerical language — as palpable and wonderful to us as the earlier, more mundane discoveries mankind made before the gap between quotidian miracles and the so-called cutting edge grew so vast. In the case of “Totality,” Paterson’s response to the most unlikely fact that our tiny moon can, and often does, obscure the mighty sun, may have been compounded by her realization that every star in the sky shares its nature in large part with our sun. Thus, the plethora of eclipses she found in the human record may have put her in mind of some long-established literary tropes: the rain of stars often said to fall from the sky, something lost to modern city dwellers, or the ultimate comparison of any large number of terrestrial things to “all the stars in heaven.”
Given how far today’s instruments can carry us beyond what we can perceive with our senses, the more science understands, the more imagination is required to comprehend it. The view of sun and moon painted by a Romantic artist like Caspar David Friedrich brought forth deep and lasting subjective and emotional feelings, but said little that was new concerning knowledge of our place in the universe. Scientific ways of knowing and showing may be thought alien by some gallery visitors, but of course they’ve always been part of art. Knowing how light behaves and the many ways our eyes can translate it was crucial to capturing appearances, even if the meticulous study that went into, for example, the highlights applied by Vermeer to the objects that filled his interior scenes were forgotten and overlooked for more than three centuries. Yet Vermeer’s canvases and Katie Paterson’s shower of stars each translate esoteric and challenging kinds of knowledge into forms that can be experienced directly through the senses.
While sight may be our newest and preferred means of apprehending the external world, it by no means exhausts the ways we have to encounter what waits for us beyond our cerebral domain. Katie Paterson knows this, and to that end she will bring two more of her Ideas to UMFA early next year. On Saturday February 17, 2018, her “Scent and Sound of Space” will involve burning a candle that, as it consumes itself from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., will release successive aromas meant to suggest the experience of leaving Earth and falling into a black hole. During that same event, a pianist will perform a score that, while it began as a digital transcription of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, was bounced off the moon in the form of radio waves and returned to Earth. The resulting score, including some parts that were “left in space” and became represented as rests, will demonstrate in yet another sensual dimension an approachable analogue Paterson has created for the too-often remote and otherwise intangible wonders her scientific sources have shared with her.
salt 13: Katie Paterson, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through May 20, 2018.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.