Artist who works in time and space builds sand mountains on British beaches

Katie Paterson. Pic: Giorgia Polizzi

Scottish artist Katie Paterson speaks of her influences ranging from zen gardens to British architects, and gives a synopsis of her new exhibition series, First There is a Mountain, which opens this weekend. Londoners will be able to get to the first event, at Whitstable, using a special transport service from the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green this Sunday at 13:30. Tickets are £15 return, and children go free.

First Katie Paterson embedded a phone within a glacier, giving museum-goers the ability to call and hear it melting, broadcasting the sound of climate change. Then she worked with NASA to develop the recipe for the scent of Saturn’s Moon, Titan, which she transformed into a candle. She created a map of all the dead stars in the universe, just under 27,000 of them. This cosmological artist has made it her life’s work to move through time and space to connect us to the earth we live on and the solar system we exist within, in all its haunting beauty. 

Now, Paterson, 38,  is creating her first nationwide participatory project: First There is a Mountain. The work will go across 25 UK beaches, from tiny islands in Scotland to crowded city beaches in Southern England. Though the landscapes may vary, the project remains the same: to build sand mountains made from moulds of some of the world’s most famous ones: Kilimanjaro, Fuji, Uluru, Stromboli, and Shasta. Beachgoers build their micro-geologies and watch the tide wash them away, highlighting the ephemerality of time and the erosion affecting UK coastlines.

First There is a Mountain will span 25 UK beaches. Pic: Katie Paterson

Paterson’s work has always been linked to environmentalism. “It’s been in all of the works, some more quietly than others,” she says. The melting of the glacier was direct: one could literally hear the demise of the planet; the map of the dead stars was more nuanced, creating a link between us and the material inside stars. “Ecology is all around us and the way we relate to materials as phenomena,” she says. This will be especially present in the upcoming work, where the audience will be physical creators, hands touching earth.

Participants will build their own sand mountains. Pic: Katie Paterson

It’s very important to her that none of the moulds she created will be producing any waste. She doesn’t want to add the “islands of plastic cluttering up the oceans”, but she’s also fascinated by the idea of leaving nothing behind. “I really like the idea that at the end of this project when we compost it nothing will be left but memories and people’s imagination from the day they took part in.” First there is a mountain, then there is nothing.

In a cheery Scottish accent, she explains that the name of this work comes from a Zen kōan, a sort of parable used to train monks about intuitive belief over reason. This particular one had to do with mountains and the cyclic nature of their geologies, how they form and flatten through millennia. It’s also a lyric from a famous Scottish folk artist, Donovan.

Katie’s inspirations, however, diverge from her homeland. Poets like Basho and Li Po from centuries ago, Japanese and Chinese respectively, are both haiku masters. She’s just published her own book of haikus, another laurel to add to her already bountiful wreath. She’s also inspired by minimal approaches to sound in contemporary music and dance. She’s currently looking at Arte Povera from the 60s, Yves Klein and the void. Architects also play a part, she mentions John Pawson. (I know none of these, but “ahh” to give the impression I do.)

In this work Paterson will be collaborating with other artists. At each of the 25 beaches, a different author will read a piece. Geology writers, art writers, poets, folklore readers, and natural historians are among the chosen. The pieces will be short, taking just a few minutes to connect those present to their beach. It’s a quite lovely idea, comforting – like a mum reading her children a bedtime story.

In all of her works, audience has always been an integral part. The perception of the work is what brings it to life. In her past works, the connection between artist and viewer has been more one-to-one, however, here it’s going to be large groups of people, of all ages and backgrounds, interacting together. “I hope it’s going to be quite an inclusive project and that it’s fun and light as well, which will maybe be a bit different for me” she laughs. Yes, building sand castles with friends and family definitely has a lighter touch than listening to the melting of a glacier like a ticking time bomb of our planet’s destruction.

I ask Katie when she started working with time. “Right from the beginning,” she says. It sounds almost biblical, as if I’m asking a deity when they formed their first planet. “Geological time, cosmic time, the timespan of a human life and that inside rocks and planets, all the way back to the big bang,” have all been inspirations in her work. One of her more famous works, Future Library, is inexorably linked to time. Each year, a writer is contributing a text, including the likes of Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, to a library that will open in 2114. “It’s dealing with my own mortality, but at the same time that of everyone around me, and thinking and who and what is going to be alive beyond us,” she says. I’m beginning to think of her as an enlightened Scottish monk.

She tells me that she’s actually spent quite a bit of time in Japan. Having always been interested in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, she spent time in temples a few years ago. In a Zen garden, she explains, each piece is a representation of a larger whole: the rocks are mountains, the sand raked in the shape of waves in the sea, one tree is a forest. The idea of representation carries into her work more literally, with the smaller mountains made of 3D printed moulds of their predecessors, painstakingly digitally mapped using Google Earth.

A rendering of the 3D moulds of world-famous mountains. Pic: Katie Paterson

Japan, however, isn’t the only place Katie’s drawn inspiration from. Before she went to the Edinburgh College of Art, where she would develop the glacier work as part of her thesis, she spent a year working in Iceland at a hotel. “That was a very inspirational period. Out there in the landscape, with 24 hours daylight, you could see the Northern Lights and volcanoes erupting and the glaciers” she says, enumerating a list of geological phenomena as though they were names of friends, each well known and holding a place in her heart.

Katie has recently moved back to Scotland from Berlin. She resides in Fife with her husband and toddler. It’s a rural location, close to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, but an easy drive to the highlands. It’s hard to imagine her far from the wilderness. “I love being in the city but it’s just spectacular being in a really open land where the elements are all around you and you’re reminded that you’re on a planet that’s revolving and it’s not all man-made,” she laughs. It all sounds like dizzying existentialism. It’s no surprise that critics at the Turner Contemporary have described her work as “ontological vertigo”. She loves the term. “I hope my works transport people, off to these different landscapes, and maybe send them adrift for a moment.” It’s a poignant end to our interview; I feel afloat in the complex cosmology of this conversation.

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