Contemporary Turner? Katie Paterson & JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate

“A place that exists only in moonlight” – Katie Paterson and JMW Turner (26th January – 6th May 2019)

What a surprise it was to find the Turner Contemporary Gallery. I have to admit, the seafront at Margate looked fairly forlorn on a chill, wet Friday morning in January until we came on the Gallery and went in, not knowing what to expect. We were met by Cornelia Parker’s whimsical, gorgeous Perpetual Canon installation in the fabulously light space of the Sunley Gallery: 60 Brass instruments, once part of a band, now flattened to two dimensions and suspended in perfect, shining balance in front of windows overlooking the North Sea and Antony Gormley’s Another Time.

Upstairs, we had an informal preview of the Katie Paterson exhibition, due to  open the next day. We had no idea this was on, let alone that we would have access to it before the formal opening. I was a fan of Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, which I’d seen at the RA, and was thrilled by Perpetual Canon, but I’d never come across Katie Paterson’s revelatory work before. It would be impossible to express the full extent of its mind-opening impact, you really need to experience this work for yourself.

Paterson’s thematic range is apparently infinite in one way, admirably focused in another.  She works with ideas about light, space, time, matter, colour and form, collaborating extensively with engineers, astronomers, technologists, geologists, paleontologists and foresters. Many of her projects will span a lifetime’s work and one, Future Library: 2014-2014 reaches beyond her own lifetime. This project has seen her plant 1,000 trees in Norway, destined to be used to make paper for a series of books, to be written at a rate of one per year, each by a different writer and held in trust, unread until they are all printed at the same time in 2114, by which time none of us are likely to be around to read them. We can have a sneak preview though: a title page of manuscript is on display, part of this exhibition.  Text by Paterson explains that her project “questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time …”

Time, she explains in another panel of text, features in all of her work. It’s hard to describe why she is drawn to it, but “it’s to do with being outside myself, and being inside a more universal network where distance and time might not necessarily exist.” A string of ordinary-looking beads suspends from the ceiling as though from the sky, each bead turns out to be a fossil, a dated piece of geological evidence of the passage of time.

In another room, an automated grand piano plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, hitting an occasional wrong note, missing the odd beat. This is Earth–Moon–Earth. A wall panel explains the installation.  The musical score of the Sonata was translated to Morse Code, which impulses were then transmitted to the surface of the moon. The sound that was reflected back was altered due to irregular features on the Moon, some being lost (presumably in craters) while others were partially absorbed or deflected – this is the same principle used in diagnostic ultrasound, which negotiates the inner spaces and physiology of our bodies. On the grand piano at Turner Contemporary, the left hand plays the original, perfect, score while the right hand plays the altered version returned from the moon. (I know, you might have to read that bit again.) The effect is uncannily human.  You hear an odd note here, a hesitation there, a missed bar somewhere else. Two separate wall panels display the score-as-code: one perfect, the other with gaps and alterations.

The ambition and scope of this work is mind-blowing. Paterson herself doesn’t seem to find anything unusual in its fusion of art and science. Another wall panel offers her view that “I don’t find my work itself scientific: it deals with phenomena and matter, space-time, colour and light. Like turner’s work, it is rooted in sensory experience.”

And here is the link with Turner. Paterson has chosen about two dozen of Turner’s paintings, representations of light and colour: earth sea and sky; the moon and cosmic events – to be displayed in conjunction with her own work. Turner’s awe-inspiring Eruption of Souffrier St. Vincent, for example, is displayed opposite Paterson’s Cosmic Spectrum, a spinning colour wheel made in collaboration with light engineers to approximate a colour for the universe, a colour that changes over eons.

Caroline Herschel’s annotated copy of Flamsteed’s 1729 Atlas Coelestis

An extension of the collaborative principles of the exhibition (a video shows Paterson in conversation with local residents in order to choose three works from the Ideas series for development), Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville are also represented in the exhibition via notebooks.


It would take a normal mortal a lifetime of looking and thinking at Paterson’s work to absorb even a fraction of its implications. There is far too much to describe in a mere blog and in any case,  this artist will also be several steps ahead of us – another lifetime’s work already in progress is Ideas: a series of artworks designed to be completed in the viewer’s imagination. The artist expresses short bursts of ideas in silver lettering. It’s up to us to do the rest:

“Precious metals/returned/to their stars”

“A night light/the colour/of the end of time”

And, of course:

“A place/that exists/only in moonlight”

(The Ideas series is published in book form, available to buy at the exhibition)

See more about the exhibition here


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