A place that exists only in moonlight

Visiting Turner Contemporary, Margate and Katie Paterson’s new show for the Financial Times, 30 January 2019

Cyril Connolly, literary lion of the 1930s, reckoned that the surest way of killing off writers was to baff on about their promise. Calling artists “visionary” might have the same effect now.

A new show at Turner Contemporary in Margate juxtaposes JMW Turner watercolours with work by Scottish-born conceptual artist Katie Paterson. The fit seems reasonable. Both artists are fascinated by light. But Turner was a visionary artist, while Paterson, born 1981, is not.. Her value (and it’s considerable) lies elsewhere.

Turner’s deft atmospheric squiggles hang next to an airfreight parcel, a shelving unit full of light bulbs and several thousand photographic slides depicting nothing. Paterson defends the wheeze with spirit: “I don’t find my work itself scientific,” she writes, on wall information at the head of the exhibition. “It deals with phenomena and matter, space-time, colour and light, the natural world as materials. Like Turner’s work, it is rooted in sensory experience.”

True, you can find sensory experience if you go looking for it. Her 2007 piece “Earth-Moon-Earth” used Morse code to bounce the score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off the Moon. An automated piano performs the rather gappy version that survived the round-trip. The moment you wonder where the missing notes went, you enter dreamland. 289 replacement light bulbs sit ready to power Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) through the course of an average human lifetime. They are tuned to exactly recreate the effulgence of a full moon. I stepped into the installation expecting nothing, only to be propelled in my imagination back to the night walks of my childhood.

But sensory experience doesn’t sit at the heart of every Paterson work, or even many of them.

There’s lots of precision. “It needs to be accurate to be imagined,” says the artist of a 2008 wheeze in which people phoned up Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier to hear it melting in real time. If all you got was the artist splashing about in her kitchen sink, what would be the point of the work?

Her literalistic approach pushes Paterson into entertaining contortions. Alongside her concern for accuracy and truth, I think we should add a love of logistics. Second Moon (2013-14), a fragment of the Moon sent on a year-long journey counterclockwise around the earth via air freight, is a game of scale in which human and astronomical perspectives vie for contention. Other projects haven’t gone as smoothly. For five years Paterson sent letters of condolence to friendly astronomers, marking the deaths of individual stars. Dying Star Letters (2011-present) threatened to overwhelm her, however as improvements in observation caused her inbox to overflow with stellar deaths.

A core of necessary failure is present in many of Paterson’s pieces. Some projects are threatened by technological obsolescence. The 2,200 slides of empty space that make up The History of Darkness (begun in 2010) can only be added to for as long as someone makes slides (they’re already difficult to get hold of). A brand-new piece for this exhibition is a spinning wheel depicting the overall colour balance of the universe throughout its history. Its inks are pinpoint-accurate for now, but in two years’ time, when they have faded ever so slightly, what will The Cosmic Spectrum (2019) be worth?

Turner never had this problem. His criterion of truth was different. Paterson cares about measurement. He cared about witness. An honestly witnessed play of light against a cloud can be achieved through the right squiggle. An accurate measurement of the same phenomenon must be the collaborative work of meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, astronomers, colour scientists, and who knows how many other specialists, with Paterson riding everyone’s coat-tails as a sort of tourist.

As a foil for Paterson, we need someone who invents the world out of words, who thinks in conceits and metaphors, and who explores them with an almost naive diligence.

We need John Donne. “On a round ball / A workman that hath copies by, can lay / An Europe, Afric, and an Asia, / And quickly make that, which was nothing, all”. These lines from A Valediction: of Weeping come far closer to defining Paterson’s practice than anything Turner can offer. Donne’s Holy Sonnets, especially, are full of the sorts of questions that power Paterson’s art. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” “Why are we by all creatures waited on?” “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

Mounted on the wall of Turner Contemporary, Paterson’s ideas include “The universe rewound and played back in real time;” “A wave machine hidden inside the sea;” “A foghorn set off at sea every time a star dies.” Not content with setting down her ideas in words (though you can buy a book of them here, printed in ink mixed with ground-up meteorite), Paterson tries to make the more doable ones actually happen. Her artworks are the koans of Zen meditative practice made real — or as real as the world allows.

Paterson’s out to celebrate the hugeness of our imaginations, while recognising our physical and temporal littleness. She’s not visionary; she’s metaphysical. The show’s terrific, but Turner’s not the right foil.

Liquid Crystal Display: Snap judgements


Visiting Liquid Crystal Display at SITE Gallery, Sheffield, for New Scientist, 31 October 2018

Untitled Gallery was founded in Sheffield in 1979. It specialised in photography. In 1996 it was renamed Site Gallery and steadily expanded its remit to cover the intersection between science and art. Nearly 30 years and a £1.7million refit later, Site Gallery is the new poster child of Sheffield’s Cultural Industries Quarter, with an exhibition, Liquid Crystal Display, that cleverly salutes its photographic past.

Most shows about art value the results over the ingredients. The picture matters more than the paint. The statue matters more than the stone. Exhibitions about photography give rather more space to process because photography’s ingredients are so involved and fascinating.

Liquid Crystal Display follows this photographic logic to its end. This is a show about the beauty, weight and messiness of materials we notice only when they’ve stopped working. It’s about the beauty created by a broken smartphone screen, a corroded battery, a cracked lens.

Site Gallery’s new exhibition – a cabinet of curiosities if ever there was one – collides science and art, the natural and the manufactured, the old and the new. It puts the exquisite sketches of 19th-century Scottish chemist and photographer Mungo Ponton (detailing his observations of how crystals polarise light), next to their nearest contemporary equivalent: microscopic studies (pictured) of liquid crystals caught in the process of self-organisation by Waad AlBawardi, a Saudi molecular biologist who’s currently in Edinburgh, researching the structure of DNA organisation inside cells.

This provocative pairing of the relatively simple and the manifestly complex is repeated several times. Near a selection of crystals from John Ruskin’s mineral collection sit the buckets, burners and batteries of Jonathan Kemp, Martin Howse and Ryan Jordan’s The Crystal World project, a tabletop installation recording their hot, smelly, borderline-hazardous effort to extract the original minerals from bits of scavenged computers. Curated by Laura Sillars, assisted by Site Gallery’s own Angelica Sule, Liquid Crystal Display reveals the material, mineral reality behind our oh-so-weightless holographic world of digital imagery. “Liquid crystals polarise light, produce colour and yet, as a material form, recede into the background of technology,” Sillars wrote in the catalogue to this show.


This awareness is not new, of course. In the 1960s, liquid crystals were being burned on overhead projectors to create psychedelic light shows. J G Ballard’s novel The Crystal World (1966) concocted a paranoid vision of a world and a civilisation returned (literally) to its mineral roots. That story receives a handsome homage here from the scifi-obsessed Norwegian artist Anne Lislegaard, whose stark monochrome animation (above) turns the sharp shadows and silhouettes cast by contemporary domestic furniture into insidious crystalline growths.

Arrayed within Anna Barham’s peculiar hexagonal cabinetwork, a gigantic piece of display furniture that is itself an artwork, the pictures, objects, films and devices in Liquid Crystal Display speak to pressing topical worries – resource depletion, environmental degradation, the creeping uncanny of digital experience – while at the same time evoking a peculiar nostalgia for our photochemical past.

The exhibition lacks one large signature object against which visitors can take selfies. A peculiar omission in a show that’s relaunching a gallery. And a bit of a shame for an exhibition that, in its left-field way, has handsomely captured the philosophical essence of photography.

Brilliant by Jane Brox


Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox (Souvenir Press) reviewed for the Telegraph.

Jane Brox’s fascinating history is let down by its subtitle. Artificial light good enough to live and work by did not “evolve”; it was, as Brilliant ably demonstrates, the grail of an ugly, stumbling and occasionally farcical 40,000-year quest.

If the first half of Brox’s account is more engaging than the second it’s because, since Edison and Tesla fought their electrical duels in the 1880s, light has ceased to be something we make.

Most of the time, it’s not even a product. It’s a utility – ignored until it fails. Brox’s engagement with her subject never falters, but really, how do you follow tales of Shetland Islanders, threading a wick down a storm petrel’s throat and setting it alight? Or the Javanese thief whose shuttered lantern was powered by fireflies?

Brox handles this sense of diminishing returns head-on. Toughened by her earlier studies of hardscrabble American farm life, she absolutely refuses to succumb to nostalgia.

The first forms of artificial light were smelly and gruesome. According to Herman Melville, even in the bowels of a whaling ship it seemed an outlandish thing that “mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp”.

If ever a technology were welcomed without reserve, it was the technique of making candles and lamp oils from something other than the stuff of “the barnyard and the slaughterhouse, from blood and sinew and bone”. Even pure, white candles made from spermaceti – the waxy substance scooped from the head of a sperm whale – were no match for candles made from paraffin, which first appeared around 1850.

The small, independent British publisher, Souvenir Press, is brave to have snapped up this United States title. Popular science from overseas is hard to import. Indeed, Brox does omit much European experience, missing out the 1900 Paris Expo entirely, though 1900 was a vital coming-of-age moment for electric light.

It doesn’t matter: Brox’s concern for the local, the everyday, the rural and the poor gives her book a universal appeal. There’s real passion in the way she uses the tale of power outages to unpick the excesses and inequities of California’s deregulated energy market, and traces the cringing historical correlation between an American’s access to light and the whiteness of their skin.

Enthusiasm for new and better forms of light is powerful and iconoclastic. In the 1830s, thousands were killed and maimed by newfangled camphene lamps, powered by a fuel distilled from turpentine and mixed with alcohol. The stuff wasn’t even cheap. Newness was its only selling point.

Towards the end of the 19th century, massive steel towers were erected over modest cities like Wabash, Indiana. The arc lights they supported were so bright, you could see colours at night. The enthusiastic townsfolk soon found these “second moons” unendurable: they replaced them with street lights.

Brox might have brought this story of Promethean error up to date by exploring the problem of light pollution more deeply than she does. Light pollution isn’t driven by mere carelessness. Our ancient, star-obliterating obsession with more and brighter light shows no sign of abating. Now it’s marring our sunlit hours. Across Europe, vehicles are being fitted with daytime running lights in spite of a pile of ophthalmological evidence that they cause more accidents than they prevent.

Instead, Brox reaches for a sense of closure, and suggests artificial light is losing its significance. It’s being replaced by data. “Any mariner of the 18th century would have found it impossible to comprehend that one day a marker on the Eddystone reef would emit a light equivalent to 570,000 candles,” she writes.

But stranger still is Eddystone’s new obsolescence, replaced by radar, GPS and electronic charts. “Data,” Brox writes, “would become the new lamp.”

This is neatly put, a clever capstone for a narrative that could so easily have petered out – and it’s perfectly true. In 2006, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte launched the One Laptop per Child campaign to promote world education and citizenship. In one Cambodian village where there is no electricity, Negroponte’s solar-powered and hand-cranked laptops are the brightest light source in the home.