I could taste History of Darkness before I saw it. The hollowness of a black field to me tastes unctuous and salty, like butter. The pure white of the matte was like a napkin folded beside it, embossed with digits (the distance of the image from earth in light years). I squared up one of the four frames and paced toward it, looking through the viewfinder of a frame into a tidy little darkness.
I pressed my face closer to the glass and maneouvered my head to see past my reflection. With my toes against the skirting board, I leaned in further, narrowing my eyes, now close enough to make the guard shift in her creaky seat. I wanted to hook my fingers around the bevelled edges of the white and wrench the frame wider. I could smash the glass, I thought, peering sideways to meet the eyes of the guard, and unfold this square of darkness and wrap myself in it.
The smallness of the aperture was maddening. “BE BIGGER!” I demanded, screaming at the tiny photograph in my mind, “BE WIDER! BE LOUDER!” It couldn’t hear me, but I imagined I could hear my mind-voice echo in the frame.
Katie Paterson is from Glasgow, and her work looks at time, at history, at space, at enormous mass, and at how all these concepts break down when you hold them in your mind for too long. In previous works like All the dead stars, she mapped every star that has died and been recorded by a person. “A futile attempt to map everything, which can’t really be done.” In Vatnajökull (the sound of), she recorded the eponymous glacier melting, reproducing the sound on LPs made of spent water, refrozen (you could also call a neon cellphone number on the gallery wall and listen to the melt live via a phone Paterson submerged in the glacial lagoon). Finite human experience as a subject has been done, quite a bit - just look to the sublime. But we all know the feeling, and our minds have an endless capacity to be blown.
History of Darkness has been shown in a few different forms since it was born in 2010 - as a box of 2200 slides, or here as framed photographs.The darkness is from different points in space at different times, and the slides are arranged “from one to infinity”. As long as she is able to continue, Paterson will not stop mapping. My mind collapses slowly as I think about how much darkness there is.
The visceral punch packed by works composed of darkness is famously deployed by another British artist, Anish Kapoor. Until he patented the blackest substance known (Vantablack) last year, Kapoor used light-absorbing pigment to erase light from his work.
Kapoor and Paterson both involve people into their work, and their works work by letting darkness grip viewers. Paterson brings in scientists during her exhaustive research, and she pulls me and my deflated brain in, too. Kapoor uses darkness as a medium, and his silent dark spaces become proxies for people’s hidden places:
One of the phenomena that I’ve worked with over many years is darkness. Darkness is an idea that we all know about, in a way an idea about the absence of light. Very simple. What interests me however is the sense of the darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that’s akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror. A work will only have deep resonance if the kind of darkness that I can generate, let's say a block of stone with a cavity in it can have a darkness, is resident in you already; that you know already.
Paterson isn’t concerned with erasing light so much as mapping darkness, and I get the impression that her explorations of the infinite are not meant to terrorise us. Like On Kawara before her, by grasping bits of this unknowable unmatter and wrestling them into rooms for me to peer at, she makes me at once furious at her audacity and calmed by her staunch resolve. There are no absolutes, and even my unassisted eyeball can trace pale patches of light in these frames.
Darkness is all the things and none of them. It describes an object’s inability to reflect light; to participate in the process of illumination that governs all other things. This lack makes darkness symbolically and literally cavernous. Total darkness is chaotic and traumatic, but Paterson’s darkness is real and pregnant with things. This is no void. There is no void.
Paterson’s newest work "Hollow" opened last month in Bristol - it’s a chamber roofed by more than 10,000 different types of wood, which she hopes is like being “in every forest”.
SEE HERE is a monthly musing on a single artwork from anywhere, written by Amy Stewart: @A_L_STEWED // ASTEWARTWRITING.COM.