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How To Melt A Meteorite: Artist Katie Paterson Is Refashioning Some Ancient Space Rock

Get up close and personal with UK-based artist Katie Paterson and her latest project, Campo del Cielo (Field of the Sky).

It's not often you come into contact with an object from outer space. Even less so one lying under a tree in the middle of the pavement on a London street. But if you head down to Exhibition Road in West Kensington between now and the 5th August this is what will happen.\

Well, kind of. Because while the object that you'll be coming into contact with is a space object, a meteorite, it's one that's been recast. It's made from precisely the same stuff—92% iron and 7% nickel and 1% other elements—but it's been melted down and reformed exactly as it was. The artwork is called Katie Paterson. It was commissioned by the Exhibition Road Show, a cultural festival taking place on the same road that’s home to the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall.


It's quite a curious sight, this lump of cosmic rock, placed seemingly randomly (even though it's position was carefully considered by the artist) just outside the Royal Geographical Society next to a tree. The rock is grey/blue in colour and, if you didn't know it was a meteorite, or a recast meteorite, you might think it was a rock from earth. But that's what's so intriguing about it—once you know what it is you start to think about where it's come from, the journey it's had, and how, after millennia of hurtling through space before landing at Campo del Cielo, and lying there for over 5,000 years, this object was then melted down and reformed, and now is on an entirely new journey. For now, it rests stationary in west London, to be ogled at by passersby. What a strange fate.

I met with Paterson to discuss this mysterious lump of rock, where the next stage of its journey is, and her fascination with science.

The Creators Project: So why did you want to recast the meteorite? To put your own stamp on it?
Katie Paterson: Going right back to the moment that I had the idea about the artwork, I didn't really know why. It's usually the case that right at the beginning I try hard not to have any aims and just let the work flow within itself and let the idea unfold naturally, and through the process of making it, I start to figure out why the idea came to me in the first place.

So you come to it with kind of an idea of what you want and it grows organically?
Yeah, I usually have clear idea of the artwork, in under a second – it's too fast for me to process it. Here, I had a clear vision of a meteorite that had been melted and remade into itself. From the beginning I don't think "OK, I'm going to try and do this or that", it just happens naturally. And then it's maybe a few months later that I figure out why I had the idea in the first place.


How AB3 recast the meteorite

Have you figured it out for this one then?
I think so. I've created a lot of work relating to cosmology and astronomy, I was artist-in-residence at the UCL Physics & Astronomy Department last year. I immerse myself in different ideas and do quite a bit of research and reading on a huge number of different subjects. When I get in the right frame of mind, the creative frame of mind, things that I've been thinking about and reading about converge in different and unexpected ways and I have the idea for an artwork. Which through the process of its making can change quite a bit, but generally it comes right back to that original starting point. Time is a notion I'm often working with —space, time, the cosmos. Ideas about deep time, human time, geological time, and the collapsing of these vast expanses.

So what sort of time scale are we talking about with this, how many years old is the meteorite?
Four and a half billion years.

Inconceivable, isn't it?
It is inconceivable. Meteorites are the oldest objects on earth. The earth didn't even exist when this chunk of metal was floating about in the universe— it's very difficult to grasp quite how ancient it is. I was thinking about the different layers of time that are embedded in this rock that has been journeying around the solar system for billions and billions of years. By melting it, it's restructuring, relayering and changing the cosmic history of it.


Reopening it kind of?
Yes, but it retains its original form, so the meteorite itself isn't entirely changed, it's still the same.

So you reconstituted it.
I reconstituted the entire shape, all of the detail, everything it was when it arrived to earth. I like to think that it's still ancient, it's still got all the same atoms inside it—the meteorite hasn't changed it's just been reformed, transformed.

Photo ©MJC, 2012
Courtesy of Exhibition Road Show, London

The mystery of where it's been as well is kind of an interesting thing about it, the sense that it’s travelled through space and where it’s gone. Do you know where it comes from?
It fell to earth in Argentina, we know that. And it has been buried under the earth for over 5,000 years, but people only found it 12 years ago.

And they don't mind you taking meteorites?
Anyone can buy meteorites on the private market.
I did a lot of research into which kind of meteorite to use, I didn't want be altering something that's too precious or rare, or has specific scientific value. I decided to use a Campo del Cielo meteorite, which is the name the place it fell to in Argentina. It was an extremely large meteor shower, a huge amount of material fell to earth, over 100 tonnes. It broke up entering the atmosphere and shattered to earth. Some Campo del Cielo meteorites weigh so much they can't even be moved.

What makes up the meteorite, what’s inside it?
It is amazing what's inside it – 92% iron, 7% nickel and then 1% of different trace elements. Cobalt, sulphur, phosphorous, there's a long list of others. We had the meteorite spectrally analysed, which was exciting because it proved there's nothing like it on earth.


Photo © Giorgia Polizzi, 2012
Courtesy of Exhibition Road Show, London

I was reading that you work a lot with space objects like the moon, and they’re obviously full of awe and mystery, which are good enough reasons to work with them, but are there any other reasons that intrigue you about working with them?
Working with meteorite material is completely new to me. Their cosmic history is something that interests me a lot, the deep layers of time engrained within them, and the mystery of where they've come from. When we see and touch this ancient object—how does that make us feel and how do we experience and relate to it in terms of its ancient history?

And I suppose your making people part of its journey as well aren't you? Creating an end for it?
I actually want to send it into space in the future, so it's got another leg of its journey still to come.

Maybe some other race will find it and go “what”? It’s been melted down and reformed, what’s going on?
My hope for it is that it will go up into space, burn through the atmosphere falling again to earth.

What were some of the technical problems, because I was going to ask you about working with engineers and technicians—what did you enjoy about the collaborations?
I've really enjoyed the process of making this artwork. I approached AB3 Workshops in Hackney Wick—they produce large scale, difficult, technically complicated artistic projects. I was working with them every step of the way. We started with a sample piece of meteorite, and tested the casting process and eventually used a special silicone, ceramic and wax casting process. We got the test piece to work which made everybody confident to do it on a larger, heavier scale.


Were there any other kind of specialists that you were working with?
I was given a lot of advice from meteorite specialists before we got to the making stage. I'd been speaking to scientists at UCL, the National Museum of Scotland, and recently Monica Grady, a world expert on meteorites. I've researched meteorite types, where to get them from, what they're made of and a whole number of things, the whole research process has been about a year from start to finish.

Photo ©MJC, 2012
Courtesy of Exhibition Road Show, London

Science and art, there's a kind of dynamic between them and because you’re working with scientists and you're an artist, how are they the same, for you?
I'd say some of the creative processes are similar in that there's a lot of abstract thinking and curiosity that's driving completely different forms of research. There's that initial sense of wanting to do something or find out something or delve into an area that hasn't been delved into before.

Do you think artists are becoming ever more multidisciplinary? I mean they always have been, but more so now?
I think they always have been but now we have more opportunities to make the crossovers happen a bit more easily. Often I contact scientists out of the blue and explain that I'm an artist and that I'm interested in what they are doing and find they're receptive to it. Perhaps there's a heightened awareness of artists working in different fields, so people are more open to being approached.


Eye-opening I imagine as well?
Yes and for me the best moments and collaborations happen when people let down their guard about what they're expecting. I think expectations can stand in the way of letting things happen.

Photo © Giorgia Polizzi, 2012
Courtesy of Exhibition Road Show, London

Do you think people will be stopped in their tracks by this, so they stop and stare and ponder it?
I hope so. It's quite a stumble-across artwork. The meteorite is installed beside a tree outside the Royal Geographic Society, and for me relates to ideas of geography and place. It's not often you encounter a meteorite in the middle of a busy London road, particularly one that has been melted and remade, that can be touched and interacted with.

And I suppose looking at it as a work of art rather than a scientific specimen is a different way of approaching it?
If you go to a museum to look at meteorites, you have a certain level of expectation of what you might see. Here there will be people walking on the road from all walks of life, and who knows, they might just think, what on earth is this thing. To actually touch this 'ancient/new meteorite' and to know that it comes from a time before ourselves and our planet existed — maybe it will jolt them a little, send their imaginations in new directions.