The Twenty SS20 Issue

Katie Paterson: Personal Account

By Jo Phillips


Artist Katie Paterson is driven conceptually by cosmology, astronomy, and geology, revolving around how people interact with nature. In a past exhibition, Katie featured a glacier in Iceland that was connected via a telephone and available to call. Katie speaks to us about aquatically-based ‘Vatnajökull (the sound of)’.

Iceland is a place I’ve been drawn to from an early age, primarily because of its landscape; the wilderness, the remoteness, the wide open spaces, the light, the expansiveness. I lived in Iceland before moving to London to study. My experiences of the landscape obviously made a strong impression; I spent a lot of time on various glaciers carrying out different works, and there was a point when glaciers were all I was thinking about. However, ideas for my works tend to happen indirectly, there isn’t a clear method as such. Ideas form when I am ‘not-thinking’ or definitely not thinking in words, things that are related in more complex and less obvious ways settle and converge in unexpected ways (‘glacier” + ‘telephone’).

Though I am interested in the notion of ecology as the interconnectedness of our relationship to the landscape, and the interaction of parts within a whole, this work for me wasn’t directly related to issues of global warming. It’s a quiet work. Vatnajökull apparently might be gone in 50 years or so. I’m interested in the aesthetics of its disappearance and the melancholy of its slipping away. The Japanese concept ‘mono-no-aware’ expresses ‘the transience of things’ and ‘a gentle sadness at their passing’ reflects the uncertainty and fragility of the environment.

Only one person at a time could call the glacier, which was very important to the work. I was thinking of the mobile phone as creating an ‘intimate’ space with the glacier. It creates a connection,a live, personal link with Vatnajökull. Using communications technology to collapse distance, or to try to but in some sense failing – you can hear it and speak to it but there is always an insurmountable distance between yourself and the glacier that’s not just physical but conceptual. I’m interested in the notion of ‘geological time’ in relation to ‘human time’, glacial time as a massive expanse, and the ‘human’ time of a phone call.

I was amazed when the phone started showing phone numbers from very far away parts of the world, places I hadn’t heard of before. (When this project was live, I was camping next to the equipment, so I could view the numbers on the screen of the phone). I was glad that the work spread so far. I have recently made a book containing all the telephone numbers and the duration of each call. It will be presented as an archive, with the original white neon telephone number and a sound recording, at Frieze in New York this May.

A link between much of my work is the notion of generating an ‘idea-image’, often involving withholding the visual. Presences are withheld or made invisible and absences are produced, made visible (or audible). I tend to work with remote geological places and the landscape as they can be physically distant yet close in the imagination. Fallible technologies often feature in this connection: mobile phones, radios and almost defunct technologies like record players and Morse code devices; technology is a sculptural material, alongside others that coexist in my work.

Continuing in the vein of Vatnajökull (the sound of) some of my current projects involve forests, horizons and meteorites. I have an exhibition at Haunch of Venison, London, opening 9th March, where I will present several recent artworks, such as As the World Turns, a record player that turns in synchronization with the earth. I also have forthcoming exhibitions in the Modern, Fort Worth, Texas and Storm King Art Centre, near New York, and a large commission for the Olympics in Exhibition Road, London.