A Meteorite Returns to Space, In the Name of Art

Artist Katie Paterson discusses bouncing sonatas off the moon, mapping dead stars, and her recent collaboration with the European Space Agency.

Artist Katie Paterson. (Giorgia Polizzi, 2012. Courtesy of Exhibition Road Show, London)

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Do any of the scientists have reactions to your resulting artworks?

Professor Lahav has said that working together has allowed him to see his own subject through different eyes, and engaged their group in a different perspective on their work. We worked together on All the Dead Stars. I began this project by imagining what a dying star sounds like. I tracked down the sound, it is something like a middle C, and lasts a split second. This led to contemplating more about collapsing stars. I thought of mapping all of them, but had no idea if there were five or five million in the universe. So I wrote to 100 or so different astronomers, astrophysicists, and supernovae hunters from all over the world, asking them questions like ‘what is a dead star?’ ‘how many are there?’ ‘does a map like this exist already?’ etc. Lots of help later, after many conversations and finding masses of data on the internet, I catalogued and then plotted just under 27,000 supernovae, white dwarfs, gamma ray bursts, and other types of what can be considered ‘dead stars’ - all that have been recorded and observed by humans since the beginning of time. The map has been laser etched onto black anodized aluminum, 3 by 2 meters. In fact, 27,000 is only a fraction of what really exists, as one astronomer pointed out ‘You have gathered a representative set of stellar corpses. The list will forever be very incomplete. If it were complete your sculpture would need to be as big as the Earth. There are 100 billion stars in our one galaxy and a good fraction have died, and there are billions of galaxies.’

People are usually fascinated by the scale of the universe because its vastness seems impossible to fully grasp, which can either make one feel exceptional (that the ability to think about the universe at all is a gift) or terribly insignificant. Which do you feel? How does it affect the way you approach your artwork?

Contemplating the universe for me has the opposite affect of feeling insignificant. I can experience incomprehension in the face of sublime vastness, but I tend to feel an immense gratitude to have been born into something so astounding, so complex and vast. To be knitted together, intimately connected with it, rather than standing outside it. In my work I’m interested in the unseen connections that bind everything that exists together.

I was astonished to learn that all the matter that exists now in the universe is all that will ever exist, because everything - all the stars, galaxies and matter - is moving away from each other so quickly, it can no longer collide and produce new objects. For me, these are ideas that just can’t be rationalized, I think that’s why I’m drawn to art as a way to reflect about and convey these ineffable things.

Where do you get the images for History of Darkness? Why do this for a lifetime?

In History of Darkness I collect images of fields of darkness throughout the universe, make slides, and handwrite on the front their distance from earth in light years. The images are collected from telescopes all over the globe. The distances range from thousands to billions of light years away. Looking into these dark spaces, like oceans, perhaps we can imagine what has manifested there since – perhaps whole galaxies. Darkness exists everywhere and nowhere. It is latent with the past but also the future and all things.

Creating an ongoing series of black slides is a never-ending and absurd task, a futile one.

I’ve now catalogued around 8,000 or so slides of darkness. This is truly an ongoing artwork. The only end I can foresee is the decline in the production and development of slides. There is certainly an endless amount of darkness to continue on and on. I don’t find the scale of making the artwork daunting. When I first imagined the piece I saw that it had no end and accepted that fairly quickly. I work on History of Darkness in fits and starts.

The processes in all my works have different timespans, the almost instantaneous moment of forming ideas, and the collaborations and research stages, the material and production stages, which can span anything from one day to several years. Works like History of Darkness will go on throughout my lifetime. Within these durations are the time scales embedded inside the works themselves – millions of years of travelling light, billions of years of near-static darkness, ancient desert sands, the first signs of life strung on a necklace.

In a video where you speak with astronomy professor Ofer Lahav about All the Dead Stars, he says that “the boundaries between life and death are a bit fuzzy here…the end of one object might be really the beginning of another,” like a star that “dies” and becomes a black hole. Did you incorporate that idea at all in All the Dead Stars, or perhaps in another artwork? 

The fuzziness between life and death runs through several artworks. Fossil Necklace charts the evolution of life on earth through carved fossils – trees, rocks, creatures, coal, coral, even fossilised rain. On the surface Fossil Necklace might look like a discrete and aesthetic object, but when probed further its dark side is revealed, the death and mass extinction of life repeatedly. The History of Darkness images are uprooted, they refer to places/times/spaces that could be anything and anywhere, with no definite beginning or end. Future Library is an artwork which will outlive me and the great majority of us alive today.

For Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight I produced moonlight bulbs in sets of ‘lifetimes’ - 289 bulbs in each, 578,000 hours of moonlight, which is the average lifespan of a human being. A different number is inscribed into each bulb, and I supply a logbook with each set. The owner is asked to record the date each bulb is turned on, and the date it ends its life. All the bulbs could be burned together at once, or one by one, or never. So the owner enters into an ongoing engagement with the work. I like the idea of reclaiming the dead moonlight shells afterwards.

I hope it’s not strange to say that I found The Dying Star Letters to be delightfully morbid. Who do you fantasize as the recipient of such a condolence letter?

Professor Richard Ellis [of Caltech] was one of the recipients of the Dying Star Letters, which I felt appropriate. I’d quite like to send them out randomly. What a surprise to receive a letter like this instead of the monthly gas bill…


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