This essay was originally published in the spring of 2009. It was written for the now defunct online arts journal “Refutation.”
The Alienated Object, Imaginary Space: Katie Paterson, Ben Washington and Landscape Art
On first seeing Katie Paterson’s map of dead stars – laser-made pin pricks in a sheet of metal – I had two simultaneous responses. The first was disappointment that All The Dead Stars, which was on show in a high profile Tate Britain exhibition, had been so neglectfully displayed, as if as an afterthought in a room otherwise filled with largely uninteresting and conservative work. The second and more surprising response was that it reminded me forcefully of Ben Washington, an artist whose work I had never previously connected with Paterson’s. The immediate connection was a simple one: Washington turned his own body into an artwork in 2005 when he had a map, taken from the side of a satellite, tattooed on his back. Washington’s map, which shows the route back to Earth from anywhere in the known galaxy and shares a poetic visual simplicity with Paterson’s, was photographed for a piece called Pioneer 11. That Washington and Paterson have both made forays into extraterrestrial cartography might initially appear to be no more than a diverting coincidence, but in fact I think the symmetry of subject matter and approach points to a broader set of connections and similarities which can provide a key to reading the work of both artists.
Neither map represents the artist’s first work concerned with Outer Space. Washington, at the time of Pioneer 11, was engaged in a complex series of works which considered Space travel and our relationship to our galaxy. This included a mixed-media conceptual work called Lunokhod 1 which revolved around a Soviet probe lost on the moon, somewhere in the Sea of Rains. Washington collected objects and information relating to Lunokhod 1, including contemporary news stories and an official Soviet report from 1971, he drew pictures of the probe from research books and finally purchased an acre of the Sea of Rains on the Internet, in a bid that he might personally come to own the probe. And perhaps he now does, it’s impossible to say since its precise location is unknown. Paterson, for her part, sent the Moonlight Sonata to the moon in Morse Code and bounced it back, having the fragmented material which returned played on player piano and recorded to a set of vinyl records.
Paterson’s riff on the name of Beethoven’s piece obscures an even simpler pun. These pieces aren’t necessarily about Space, but rather about space. They consider space in the sculptural sense of the spaces between objects, in the imaginative sense of location and its meaning. How do we measure the distance to the moon? And as soon as we do so, aren’t we confronted again with our inability to understand what that means? Are we able to regard the moon as a stone orbiting at over 230,000 miles away when we know full well it is a cold blue circle in the corner of our sky? Washington wants an object he can never touch, like a Second Life player wants a new virtual suit. I put it to Washington that his concern in these pieces was with Outer Space as an internal, imagined terrain, existing necessarily in the imagination because it’s never directly experienced. “But the fact is…” he explained, “even though it’s imagined – that’s what we do with most space. It’s like we imagine Africa’s actually there.”
This idea becomes clearer in the context of Washington’s contribution to I Have Never Been to Japan, a group show in New York last year, in which he exhibited a perfect paper sculpture of Mount Fuji, complete with a gold-leafed snowline. The piece, entitled Advanced Military Layers, was geographically accurate, down to minute detail, the artist having taken his data from cutting-edge military laser technology used to map the mountain from Space. He was interested, he says, in “the fact I could dislocate bits of Earth and then relocate them to my studio via the computer and paper and my hands and fingers and glue.” One of the most iconic landmasses in the world becomes alienated from its context and reproduced accurately without the artist even having to leave his room, without even referring to his encyclopedia to glance again at Hokusai. This is the treatment of all space as virtual space, objects and landmasses easily disembodied, alienated, removed from context. It can be no accident that Washinton’s sculpture appears to float disembodied in space.
Paterson, who came to attention with Vatnajökull (the sound of) in which she displayed a phone number that connected the caller to a microphone placed in a melting glacier, has spoken of removing the object from view in order to confront the audience with it; aiming to “Get the viewer to imagine distant places by withholding the visual”. When the number was dialed, another huge section of the Earth’s landscape was “dislocated” via technology, stripped down this time to only the telephone’s aural version of its natural processes and “relocated” to wherever you happened to be calling from. Although this piece got sonic arts enthusiasts excited, it seems to me sculptural in its concerns, with a focus on space, size and representation. At its core lies the landscape, with both the breathtaking scale of the glacier and the apparently shrinking nature of our world brought powerfully home by the object’s simultaneous real-time intimacy and absence.
A certain relationship with technology is clearly central to all these works. Indeed, Paterson has spoken of beginning All The Dead Stars with a Google search. That some of the technology chosen for use by the two artists is similar – lasers and telecoms for example – should not be surprising. Our entire relationship to space and our environment has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years and continues to change almost weekly, as the man whose trip into a sex shop was publicly broadcast on Google Street View last month can attest. Even if, as Washington suggests, most space is and has always been imaginary space, we experience it now in ways we have never been able to before. Technology has evolved at a speed we have no way of matching either intellectually or spiritually and the insight of these artists is not that they can use technology to represent space once again, but that technology has actually changed space, making landscape a crucial subject in art once more. The landscape has never before been represented in quite the form it now takes. That both artists were born in 1981 is, in this context, another interesting parallel. They came to adulthood as the Internet finally reached its adolescence, the technology they exploit is a natural part of their vocabulary. It is very much their landscape we inhabit.
This is not to say that Washington and Paterson’s work is interchangeable in terms of concerns, far from it. Examining Advanced Military Layers and Vatnajökull (the sound of) side by side serves to highlight their differences as much as their similarities. An instructive difference is that Washington is deeply concerned with the physical creation of the object, with the manipulation of materials – with an artisanship which is arguably at odds with the contemporary art world’s emphasis on theory and cold conceptualism. In fact he is constantly engaged in a dialogue with representational art and with the physical act of making, interested too in his ability to re-present a representation of an object, crafting models of buildings seen in films, or combining a sculpture based on pictures of a 14th Century cathedral with a paper Martian landscape. This relates to a further complexity in Washington’s work; as his sculptures have become more abstract, they have begun to incorporate more and more disparate elements.
This bringing together of what the artist calls, “visual noise,” reflects the idea that in a world now so saturated in visual stimuli and cultural narratives it is impossible to make clear and definitive connections between objects, ideas or stories. Looking again at his sculpture of Mount Fuji, there are the obvious art history connections with Japanese woodcuts, but also perhaps references to origami, Japanese folk law, Baroque gold-leaf, the modern technology which he used to make the work and the intended military application of that software. All of these are narratives which are pre-existing and which fall together organically through the creative act. Washington is interested in conflating history and narrative in the way he does space, creating “layers of visual noise” and “collisions of histories,” which might confuse or might encourage us to find new connections; moments of sense in the already unintelligible mess of culture.
Paterson on the other hand seems closer to the typical post-70s Art School model, and although her work is implicitly concerned with objects and space, she is not nearly so focused on materials or her own physical engagement with creating. It’s also true that while Earth-Moon-Earth takes the narratives of classical music, space exploration, telecommunications and – in the player piano – the late 19th Century drawing room and folds them together, none of her other works have yet shown such a broad scope. She seems far more interested in making a single concise yet somehow elusive statement each time. If as a result her work does not appear as complex, it is perhaps more haunting in its approach to impermanence and fragmentation and in its apparent removal of the human hand. What she and Washington certainly share is a radical commitment to placing the landscape at the centre of their work, and – through the fragmentation, alienation and occasional removal of its aspects – an ability to confront us with the unintelligibility of our world, by extension our universe, and with the shifting and intrinsically subjective ways in which we perceive it.