'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 19 March 2012

I used to love Katie Paterson's work. I (and more or less the entire art appreciating cosmos) adored her from the moment she planted a microphone in a melting glacier in Iceland in 2007. Via the neon advertisement of a mobile telephone number on the wall of her Slade MFA degree show she invited the public to listen live to the sound of time melting into itself. On your own mobile telephone you could access the visceral, other-worldly clicking and popping sounds of the earth in flux. Entitled Vatnajokull (the sound of) it was poetic, startlingly fresh and poignant.

Vatnajokull was accompanied by the soulful sound of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata spilling gently from a self-playing grand piano, not even a hand to caress its tragic keys. The music we listened to had been sent, via radio transmission in Morse Code, quite literally to the moon and back. Only the moon didn't return every note. Some of them it kept for itself, absorbed into its shadows. This music that we all knew so well, we perceived as faulty, incomplete, and yet, curiously, even more beautiful for that imperfection, for the loss experienced through intimacy across a universe.

From that moment on Katie Paterson was everywhere. What she's achieved in the five short years since her MA degree show is staggeringly impressive. Nine international solo shows, twenty-seven groups shows - Tate, Performa, BALTIC, Venice – we're talking high, high end. So I headed to 100 Billion Suns, the inaugural exhibition at Haunch of Venison's new 2,750 sq ft space, with a lightness of heart. Perhaps too great a lightness of heart for I left feeling a little flat. Not because the work isn't good. The work is good. But something isn't quite right. Somehow, after such an awe inspiring beginning, it felt thin.

As far as I can ascertain none of the work in this show is new. 100 Billion Suns was a piece commissioned for last years Venice Biennale. The project involved explosions of confetti at 100 or so unspecified locations across Venice. Each piece of confetti was colour matched to the brightest explosions in the universe, gamma ray bursts, which burn at a luminosity 100 billion times that of our own sun. The work manifests itself in Eastcastle Street in the form of a proliferation of whole punched paper circles that burst from a contraption in the ceiling at 1pm every day. Accompanying it are five large scale prints showing the original events - charming views of the canals and streets around Venice foregrounded by a snow storm of metaphorically cosmological ruptures.

There are a lot of other works in this exhibition. As the World Turns (2010) is an adapted record player that rotates in synchronisation with the earth, that is to say one revolution per year, playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Headphones are supplied but, at that rate, there's nothing to hear. Black Firework for Dark Skies (2010) is the vitrined remains of a firework that's been set off at an 'unannounced location'. Neither quite works.

Then there's Dying Star Doorbell (2008) in which the symbolic sound of a dying star, a tiny hum close to middle C, plays every time a visitor opens the door. But why do I care if middle C plays when the door opens? The simple answer is: I don't. Not in the way I cared that notes of Beethoven's cherished sonata had been absorbed by the moon, never to be heard again.

I don't want to be critical of Katie Paterson's work, I like her work very much. But I do feel (my usual curatorial criticism) that in this particular exhibition there's too much of it in too small a space and that in overloading the work in this way it's cheapened it, made something that isn't gimmicky seem as though it might be. I'm afraid to say it comes across as a sort of celestial Hamleys.

But maybe it's not all the fault of the curatorial team. Maybe there is something missing from the work. Maybe such astronomical success over so short a time does take its toll. One can understand of course why an artist, why anyone, would want to take the opportunities when they arise, don't look a gift horse in the mouth and all of that. But by the same token there does come a time when you must recognise your limits or suffer the consequences. This is all stuff that her gallery, or in Katie's case galleries – she has three, London, New York and Seoul - should be advising her on, helping her to manage her career to the optimum, neither under nor over producing. I don't know what relationship the three galleries have with each other but I wonder if she wouldn't be better choosing one and sticking with that for the time being. Perhaps it's too much to juggle for so young an artist working at so high a level, incredibly talented though she indubitably is.

All that aside I very much hope this is a minor aberration in her otherwise faultless career and that my next encounter with her will be every bit as loving as was my first.

Katie Paterson
100 Billion Suns
Haunch of Venison
Eastcastle Street London
9 March to 28 April

written for Spoonfed

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