Art reviews: Katie Paterson | Willie Rodger | Geoffrey Roper | Modern

Katie Paterson’s new show sets the puny scale of human civilisation against the immensities of astronomical space and time, writes Duncan Macmillan

Katie Paterson with Requiem PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
Katie Paterson with Requiem PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Katie Paterson: Requiem, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Willie Rodger: Life’s a Beach! Open Eye, Edinburgh ****

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Geoffrey Roper: Paintings, Open Eye, Edinburgh ****

Endling, by Katie Paterson
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Modern, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh ****

As they looked up at the night sky, our ancestors saw an unchanging world quite unlike the ever-troubled sublunary world beneath. The stars and the planets seemed to move in perfect, unchanging harmony, a heavenly dance, the music of the spheres. Even before history, people built circles of standing stones to count the years and measure the movements of the heavenly bodies. The contrast they recognised with the brevity and troubled insecurity of human existence gave them the idea of heaven, eternal home of the gods. We still look up to the heavens. With the self-confidence of the machine age, however, this all started to seem a bit quaint. We knew better. If anything however, recent advances in astronomy have called to account our sense of superiority and named our hubris for what it is. They have put us right back to the condition of our ancestors, gazing in awe and wonder at something that is so impossibly immense that we simply cannot grasp it.

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Our own planet was not so long ago the centre of the universe. When Galileo opined it might be otherwise, he was threatened with torture by the Inquisition. Now it seems our solar system itself, though bigger than anything Galileo could see, is little more than a single atom. Calling out our hubris and at the same time enumerating some of its consequences seems to be the object of Katie Paterson’s remarkable work Requiem at the Ingleby Gallery, informed by her evident acquaintance with the latest scientific thinking. The Requiem is for the earth we know and love, though it is to be hoped that Paterson is pessimistic, not prophetic. Implicit in the work is the idea that the choice is ours.

Requiem is beautifully presented, although, like much contemporary art, a metaphor certainly, but not exactly a visual one, although certainly poetic. A glass jar sits on a pedestal in the middle of the tall, square, beautifully lit gallery space. A narrow shelf runs round the four walls and arrayed on it are 364 small glass jars, each containing a handful of dust. There are echoes here of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of futility, A Handful of Dust, of the funeral service, dust to dust and ashes to ashes, or beyond them, Ecclesiastes, “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” This theme is echoed in turn in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, whence Waugh took the title of his bleak novel. “There is shadow under this red rock/ (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/ And I will show you something different from either/ Your shadow at morning striding behind you/ Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Evergreen, by Katie Paterson

With its image of geology, time, mortality and anxiety, Eliot’s lines seem to be an apt text for Katie Paterson’s work. Arranged chronologically, each of her handfuls of dust represents a moment in time, for the dust is made from ground-up relics of the past, starting with dust from a meteorite whose origins lay before the birth of the solar system, through the geological ages, fossils representing the dawn of life, evolution and its setbacks, down through early humanity and recorded history, finally to represent the extinctions of the present Anthropocene as scientists have recently christened our moment in geological time. The metaphor of a year as a measurable passage of time is implicit in the number of jars, although I could not find an explanation of why there were only 364 and not 365.

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As the show progresses, these handfuls of dust are being tipped into the jar at the centre, not day by day as the show won’t last a year, but as opportunity arises. The resulting layers will together be an epitome of the astronomical and geological age of our planet with the implication in the title that eventually the jar will sit like a jar of cremated ashes on some cosmic shelf in memoriam of the earth, our home that was once alive and beautiful. I had the privilege of emptying little jar 134 into the big jar. The jars are not labelled but a printout gives the age in millions years of the contents of each one and an often lively commentary by Jan Zalasiewicz. Jar 134 was filled with dust made from Auricaria mirabilis, a fossilised pine cone from an ancestor of the monkey puzzle tree in a forest in Patagonia that was fossilised after a massive volcanic eruption 160 million years ago. Many of the jars contain material that was once organic like this, including all sorts of life that once flourished but is now extinct, down to the present day. The last jar, number 364, does however offer a hint of optimism. It is labelled “Rebirth of a species” and its dust is derived from a Polynesian snail rendered extinct in the wild by the thoughtless introduction of invasive species, but preserved genetically with the hope that it could be one day reintroduced to its native habitat. Zalasiewicz ends his commentary on this final jar saying of such efforts at the preservation of genetic material: “At this critical time for life on earth, the biosphere needs such a sense of care and ingenuity to grow in human hearts.” So perhaps at the end she does hint that there could have been a question mark after Requiem.

There are also other, smaller works in the show. Endling is a circle divided into 100 segments, each painted with a watercolour pigment made from the same dusts as Requiem and progressing chronologically. Evergreen is an embroidery of images of 351 extinct plants. There are also aphoristic ideas for art works inscribed on the wall. “An urn built to house the ashes of future earth,” for instance, has a clear echo of Requiem. Perhaps most telling, however, is The Moment, an egg timer (in effect) filled not with sand, but with dust from a pre-solar meteorite. Turn it and it runs for 15 minutes. It certainly gives you an appropriate sense of our puny human scale against the immensities of astronomical space and time.

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Back down to earth, at the Open Eye, the prints and paintings of the late Willie Rodger are a delight. He was known for the visual wit of his prints, but while his paintings too have elements of humour in them, there are one or two simple scenes here, a view of Eyemouth, for instance, that are simply beautiful. Also at the Open Eye, the late Geoffrey Roper’s views of Venice have echoes of Monet and Turner, but some smaller darker pictures suggest James Pryde and an altogether more mysterious poetic language.

Eyemouth, by Willy Rodger

Finally, across the road at the Fine Art Society there are several striking things in Modern, a collection of 20th century Scottish works. Most notable among them and certainly the most unusual are two big plaster maquettes by Eduardo Paolozzi for a medal he designed for the RSA.

Katie Paterson until 11 June; Willie Rodger and Geoffrey Roper until 28th May; Modern until 21 May.

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Drill Ship off Issambres by Geoffrey Roper