"An eerie, magical feeling": Katie Paterson takes a history of life to Kettle's Yard

By Culture24 Reporter | 16 April 2013

Exhibition preview: Katie Paterson, Kettle's Yard Gallery and St Peter's Church, Cambridge, April 26 – June 23 2013

Fossil Necklace (2013). Carved rounded fossils, silk thread© MJC, courtesy Katie Paterson
Hotly tipped since graduating from the Slade in 2007 and most recently seen as the youngest artist in the Hayward’s Light Show, Katie Paterson is a rising star with a residency at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute, in Cambridge, to her name.

In the culmination of that project – aimed at researching the way genetics and cells work – this exhibition will show off some of the amazing results from a studio team working with mammoth teeth, bear bone, dragonfly wings and ancient corals, to name a few of their materials.

“When I look out of the window I’m beginning to hear the drumming of dinosaurs’ feet,” says Paterson, reporting the arrival of sponges and jellyfish among daily fossil deliveries, helped by her own mini-excavations.

“I am completely engrossed in this artwork, and I’m starting to see fossils everywhere – including future fossils. Our studio table has taken on a life of its own.

“An eerie, magical feeling, an inexplicable energy seems to be emanating from these ancient remains. We are unravelling a miniature history of life, modestly, with piles of bones and dust on our desks.”

In what could be the most eyecatching highlight, Paterson has made a chain from more than 170 specially carved beads, each representing a moment in time, informed by the wisdom of the scientists she met.

“I was fascinated to find out about the architecture of the African genome, which is the most diverse and ancient of all human ancestry, and the genome of the platyfish and how it relates to the tree of life and connections between species,” she says, having also contemplated potential cancer breakthroughs, DNA pipelines, “incredibly complex machines” and the ancestry of Genghis Khan.

“I am like a magpie, collecting and piecing together ideas from a multitude of places. We are collecting fossilised organisms that represent the first emergence of life on this planet.

“These are the first colours to exist on the planet and the first creature to open its eyes – the first living being to step foot on the land from the sea and the first creature to take flight.

“They are living fossils and creatures that will never again exist.”

The oldest is more than 3.5 billion years old, displayed in a church with Roman details rebuilt during the 18th century.

It’s full of the wide-eyed distinctiveness of an artist previously known for transmitting a Beethoven sonata to the moon, wiring a live phone line to an Icelanding glacier and, in 2009, plotting a giant map of the 27,000 dead stars known to humanity.

Next door, at Kettle’s Yard, she’s pitched the miniscule against the monumental in an incredibly small grain of sand, carved alongside nanotechnology experts. There’s also As The World Turns, in which a record player mimics the “imperceptibly slow” speed of the Earth, and Campo del Cielo, Field of Sky, in which a buried meteorite has been casted, melted and re-cast so that visitors can touch it.

Paterson wants to return it to space one day, so perhaps we should make the most of it while it’s on Earth.

  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 11.30am-5pm. Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @kettlesyard.
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