Conceptual art and outer space: Katie Paterson and the cosmic sublime

Throughout this book, it has been recognised that representing and experiencing outer space has not only taken place through configuring acts of exploration and spaceflight. Indeed, as British efforts to establish space programmes have been limited in comparison to other national and international programmes, a diversity of imaginative discourses has come to the fore in British cultures and politics of outer space, some of which has involved the anticipation of spaceflight and some of which has found expression through more passive contemplations of the cosmic environment. While the notion of the sublime has been a factor in imagining space exploration, as noted in the above example, the sublime has been central to these alternative understandings of outer space, sometimes in opposition to the idea that outer space is to be explored, exploited and colonised, and this trope has been identified in various parts of this book (see Chapters 2 and 4). Speaking to this theme, a final case study considers the sublime in the works of the Scottish conceptual artist Katie Paterson, whose works reflect on the nature of outer-space phenomena and the human relationship with the cosmic environment. In setting some of these works in context, while recalling some of the preceding case studies of this book, the sublime is confirmed as a consistent touchstone for understandings of outer space in Britain since the start of the twentieth century.

Originally theorised in the writings of eighteenth-century philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the sublime has come to represent scalar concepts of immensity, infinity, and deep time, while also aligning with certain emotions and affective resonances in the human body and mind, such as feelings of awe, fear and incomprehension.26 One important influence on the emergence of the sublime in Western culture was the scientific revolution, during which new understandings of geological eras, the evolution of species, and the immensity of the Universe challenged many existing perceptions of time, space, and life itself. The sublime has been expressed in many ways through creative practice, particularly in the tradition of Romanticism that took hold in European and American imaginations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of this, the visual arts have pictured the sublime in various ways, most notably in the painted landscapes of artists such as J M W Turner and John Constable in the nineteenth century, who considered the sublime in nature, from the ferocity of raging storms to the beauty of sunlit meadows. Later iterations of the sublime in art have embraced a variety of forms, from the abstract expressionism of Mark Rothko to Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde. It is through such artistic, poetic, and philosophical traditions of the sublime that a distinctive set of engagements with outer space can be identified, noting also the sublime’s association with that which is held aloft, or transcendent. In such ways, the sublime has become a proxy for the emotional impact of spaceflight in the modern age, and such frameworks help to understand outer space as a space of contemplation, perhaps engendering feelings of fear or reverence, and above all, a renewed sense of cosmic perspective.

The sublime and outer space have been understood together in various ways, in some cases combining scientific and artistic perspectives. Indeed, pictorial renderings of outer-space phenomena formed an integral part of scientific practices of observation and recording, especially when combined with telescopic sightings. This has been seen in lunar astronomy from Johannes Hevelius in the seventeenth century, to James Nasmyth in the nineteenth century, who were both expert draughtsmen as well as scientific observers.27 These associations have continued into the Space Age, with astronomical imagery from space telescopes being understood in the context of the Romantic sublime in art.28 More broadly, the visual arts have been understood as significant in shaping the ‘social imaginary of outer space’, and the sublime has represented a substantial part of this significance.29 Elements of this can be seen in contemporary artworks such as James Turrell’s ‘Skyspaces’, which entice viewers to behold vertical celestial spaces from within architectural and landscape installations, and Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, that filled London’s Tate Modern with an immense glowing replica of the Sun.30 In the American context, older traditions of the sublime in landscape imagery, from the Hudson River School to the photography of Ansel Adams, have acted both as a prompt for imagining the future exploration of space, as well as a means of subverting such imaginaries. As such, the mid-century science-fictional landscape paintings of Chesley Bonestell have been understood as extensions of the frontier sublime tradition to the imagined spaces of planetary conquest, whereas the situated landscape photographs of Trevor Paglen intend to problématisé the surveillance activities of military satellites and other ‘geographies of the black world’ in twenty-first-century America.31 In such ways, the sublime has acted as a potent field of representation in understanding the complex geographies of outer space.

In Britain, Katie Paterson has emerged as one of the most original voices in contemporary conceptual art. Her work has been exhibited in over thirty solo exhibitions and over a hundred group exhibitions in many countries around the world. Often taking a simple idea as a starting-point. Paterson’s art combines detailed logistical, scientific, and technical research with sublime contemplations on themes such as the scale of the Universe, the nature of deep time, and the elemental make-up of stars and planets, considering both cosmic subjects and natural processes on Earth. As conceptual art, or the art of ideas, Paterson’s works find meaning in the cognitive space between artist and audience and, like much of modern art, has moved beyond just pictorial representation to embrace a wide variety of artistic formats, including installations in gallery spaces but also artworks that are embedded in landscapes and the extended spaces of the natural environment. Installations in particular have been investigated for ‘the critical spatial sensibilities instigated through [their] configuration of bodies, spaces and objects’, acknowledging the involvement of affect and embodiment in the experience of such works.32 Although Paterson’s installations draw influence from post-war conceptual art, as well as land art, thematically her work is connected strongly to the tradition of the Romantic sublime. This connection was affirmed in a 2019 exhibition of her works alongside a selection of paintings by J M W Turner at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, Kent.33 As such, her works have been seen both to exploit the sublime and subvert it with ‘humour and absurdity’, creating ‘a vertiginous sense of human relativity’, a notion whose origins can be found in the imagined descriptions of cosmic ascent in some Classical and Renaissance works.34 While recognising these deeper traditions, considering Paterson’s works of the past decade can help bring meaning to broader cultures and politics of outer space in Britain, and serve to demonstrate the ways in which the sublime experience of cosmic space has evolved into the twenty-first century. Three works in particular resonate with this notion of the ‘cosmic sublime’, that have assembled scientific data about astronomical events, catalogued photographic imagery of deep space, and re-constituted an object from space.

All the Dead Stars (2009) is a map of outer space that documents every recorded instance of a star reaching the end of its life and exploding in a supernova event (Fig. 8.2). Over 27,000 such events in human history have so far been chronicled, mostly in recent years using specialist astronomical instruments, but also historically, and some with the naked eye. The vast majority of these recorded supernovae have occurred outside of the Milky Way galaxy. Each is represented in the artwork by a white dot on a black background, in the form of a three-by-two-metre, laser-etched aluminium panel. In constructing the artwork, Paterson collaborated with Professor Ofer Lahav, Chair of Astronomy at University College London, along with dozens of amateur ‘supernova hunters’ from across the world, to collate the data sets and configure them spatially.35 The map itself reveals patterns that provoke reflections on the nature of the Universe and human relationships to it. Traces of a graticule, along what could be lines of latitude and longitude. can be observed in the supernova recordings, suggesting a regularity of observation patterns on Earth, while broader sweeping arrangements of dots denote the density of supernova observations in particular parts of the night sky. Such patterns are revealed through absence - the stars the supernovae extinguished no longer exist - while the title of the work denotes death and the reciprocal possibility of life in the cosmos. The life and death of stars and their conceptualisation as living entities resonates with certain

Katie Paterson, All the Dead Stars, 2009

Figure 8.2 Katie Paterson, All the Dead Stars, 2009

Photo © Mead Gallery installation view, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, 2013

Source Credit: Katie Paterson Studiodescriptions in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, which was written amid regular observations of the night sky and a changing understanding of cosmic evolution and deep time (see Chapter 2). The form of AU the Dead Stars provokes comparisons with other mappings of interstellar space, such as the Daedalus research team’s attempt to plot a course for future humanity through the stars (see Chapter 6). While sharing a novel use of astronomical data, Paterson’s map differs fundamentally, in that it is not a course for future space travel, but a means for contemplation on the limited life-span of cosmic entities, including perhaps humankind itself. In such ways Paterson’s work can be seen to question the purpose of space exploration, promoting instead more melancholic reflections on the nature of the Universe.

History of Darkness (2010-) similarly deals with deep space and the constitution of the Universe. Inspired by the research of astronomers at Hawaii’s Keck Observatory, it is an ongoing collection of thousands of images of cosmic darkness, each annotated with a number representing its distance from Earth, from 100,000 to 13 billion light-years away, thereby assigning each slice of darkness a place measured in time as well as distance. The images themselves, in the form of 35mm photographic slides, are also numbered on a scale from one to infinity, playing with the convention of multiple editions of a particular artwork. The work acknowledges darkness as a principal characteristic of outer space, a quality that has perhaps been forgotten in the modern pursuit of light and enlightenment.36 Paterson’s preoccupation with darkness is said to invoke ‘the apocalyptic and the inevitable dissolution of the universe’, while her repeated evocation of deep time, infinity and unimaginable scale has been noted to ‘induce a frisson of terror’ in the observer.37 The systematic nature of her cataloguing of darkness also suggests a search for meaning in the cosmic void, and the resultant imagery - complete darkness - perhaps denotes a lack of divine purpose in the Universe. As such, her documenting of interstellar space has diverted data from the quest for scientific knowledge to something which is ‘felt but not understood, known but not sensible, shown but not comprehendible’.38 Aspects of the sublime are central to the impact of this work, including a sense of awe and incomprehension at the extent of cosmic darkness and the feeling of fear or terror at the prospect of human solitude in the Universe. Sublime understandings such as this have been recognised as the means by which certain cultures of outer space have been communicated in twentieth-century Britain, including the anticipated terror of malevolent alien life in literary imaginations (see Chapter 2) and the ontological paradox at the heart of UFO contact narratives in post-war Britain (see Chapter 4). Paterson’s artwork thereby animates and extends conceptions of the sublime in outer-space cultures in Britain.

Campo del Cielo (2012-14) consists of a small metallic meteorite that has been melted, re-cast into its original shape, and sent back into space. The re-casting process fundamentally altered the chemical structure of the meteorite, although its elemental make-up and shape were identical to its original state. It was sent to the International Space Station on board an automated supply vehicle operated by the European Space Agency, which was then returned, along with waste material from the ISS, burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere in a planned destructive re-entry procedure. This act of object performance is part of the process of ‘making the strange familiar’ that permeates much of Paterson’s work.39 In its enactment, the artwork ‘reverses a terracentric perspective’ in what has been described as a ‘Copernican gesture’, de-centring the Earth from understandings of the Universe.40 This sense of re-alignment of humanity’s place in the cosmos further picks up on themes identified in the literary geographies of Stapledon and Wells, whose works foregrounded the multiplicity of worlds and the cosmic downgrading of humanity in the context of a Universe filled with potential forms of other life (see Chapter 2). Furthermore, in returning a celestial object back from whence it came, and in the ultimate intended destruction of the object, Campo del Cielo subverts many of the dominant imperatives of spaceflight that have been established over the past century, including the British Interplanetary Society’s utopian-inflected plans for space exploration, and performances of nationalism in space exploration (see Chapters 3, 5 and 7). This inversion of expectation questions the underlying motivations of space exploration, presenting it as a circular, almost redundant exercise that is futile with respect to the immensity of the cosmic realm.

In Paterson’s work, represented by these three examples, a broad synthesis of alternative understandings of outer space can be identified, drawing from the sublime, while combining techniques from across the arts and science. In this way, the recording of astronomical data has provided a way of contemplating life and death in the Universe, while the appreciation of cosmic darkness has provoked reflections on the constitution of interstellar space, and the manipulation of a metallic meteorite has queried the existing conventions of spaceflight. Such understandings can help to bring together work in geography that has explored the embodied and affective meanings of installation and landscape art. with an appreciation of the sublime, and thereby deepen understandings of how people have connected with outer space through the experience of the sublime. As such, while understandings of art and landscape in geography have in the past favoured the visual as a route to understanding, a renewed appreciation of the ways in which people ‘move in, feel for, and are affected by. the material world’ helps to enrol a fuller range of emotive and sensual understandings of the geographies of outer space.41 These examples also illustrate how the sublime has had the capacity to invert or displace the anticipation of space exploration, as defined by certain groups and individuals who promoted spaceflight in the twentieth century. As such. Paterson’s work, and the sublime more broadly, will continue to inspire deep contemplations of cosmic spaces and reflective considerations of humanity’s role in the Universe, drawing from the basic imperative to look up at the night sky that has long preoccupied the human mind.

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