Katie Paterson grasps the slippery concept of Time; somehow managing to hold it still for a fragment of time, only for the concept to slip away, become huge, and impossible to hold in one’s head. Tantalisingly close to an explanation, but at the same time exposing its refusal to be held down, its refusal to be understood, she manipulates the deep philosophical thought processes required for an understanding, only to declare that it is simple. We are reassured and gently returned to an easy articulated explanation, or at least an expression of an idea, only to be bamboozled by revealing its apparent complexity once again, masked by a simple object or image. This ability to engage and repel, explain and obscure, expand and limit, release and restrain, draws one in to the possibility of making sense of the world, but then accepting that it is too great for a mere mortal to understand.
Future Library 2014 by Katie Paterson is one such project with a wide and expansive view of the enormity of Time, of its progression, almost as an unseen force, with only its effect on things proclaiming its presence. We witness the passage of Time in the faces of ourselves and those we love, without feeling any different inside, except, perhaps awareness of our greater understanding of the world, but at the same time that understanding revealing the obvious impossibility of knowing everything. Knowledge begets knowledge, the black hole of what we don’t know is exposed by what we do know.
The seemingly ordinary image of concentric circles, reminiscent of the growth rings of a tree, perfectly illustrate the passage of time, the changes in seasons by the varying width and strength of the rings, the simple representation of a truth of nature. Katie Paterson may have been satisfied with this image alone, but no, this is the starting point…or is it the middle, or the end, of her encoded message to the world? Paterson planted a forest of 1000 pine trees in 2014, the trees will be felled a hundred years later in 2114 to make paper. This paper will be used to print a hundred books by a hundred authors, and in the meantime, while waiting the hundred years, the project trustees will be tending the trees, and appointing a different author each year to write one book, keeping the text safe, unread and unpublished until the fruition of the project. Owners of a Future Library print will each receive a copy of each of the hundred books published on completion of the project.
Maybe Paterson’s starting point was the tree, or maybe it was the written word, but whatever it was the circles of thought, ideas and resolution perpetually revolve. In conversation with the author David Mitchell, a contributor of text to the project, Katie states “When I’m thinking about time I see it in circles” she also suggests “If there was a material that I worked in as an artist it would probably be the material of time.”1 Paterson manages to harness Time, if fleetingly, or is it in perpetuity? The strong belief that there will be people in 2114 who will be able to read, to want to engage in the written word is in itself an act of faith, especially in the new digital age of communication. To be convinced that the project will continue and thrive, and then be a resource for the future’s present, which is our future’s past, is playing with the passage of time that somehow draws everything together and restores the circularity that Paterson is referring to in her circles. Margaret Atwood, the first contributor of a text in 2014 says Paterson’s work is a “communication across space and time”2 and this is evident in other works such as Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) 2007. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata transmitted in morse code to the Moon and back, but losing some of the notes in the journey. Where are those notes? Will they return without anyone noticing, in the wrong order, or are they randomly floating in the galaxy? Has the Soup Dragon from the Clangers kept them?
The Hollow 2016, is another Paterson project of immense scope, a collection of 10,000 unique tree species: some of which are in danger of extinction and some fossilised for millions of years; common trees and those with their own story to tell etched in the surface, telling of conflict, natural, with the vagaries of nature, light and water upon the trees, and manmade, such as a damaged tree from Hiroshima. These make a forest of samples of the wood that can be experienced directly by entering the sculpture created by the shaped sticks of differing lengths. Paterson shows us the diversity of our planet and the fragility of the things we have, but also shows the strength and longevity of a natural resource if the environment is correct. The Hollow is another example of Paterson collapsing time by highlighting current issues of caring for the planet and our need to treat both with reverence.
Fiona Parry, Senior Curator at Turner Contemporary, where Katie Paterson’s retrospective exhibition was staged in January 2019, describes Katie’s intention as an invitation “to stretch your imagination, to imagine things that you might think impossible to imagine, but at the same time drawing your attention to the limits of your imagination.”3
Future Library 2014 can be seen at the University of Warwick Art Collection.
The Hollow 2016 can be seen at Royal Fort Gardens, Bristol University