Public Art

—there lay the Days between—, 2022

Katie Paterson
A white rectangular box is hung on a gray wall. There is a black "ticker clock" with white numbers inside the box.

—there lay the Days between—, 2022. © Katie Paterson. Photo: John Mackenzie

Cecil and Ida Green Building (Building 54)
Katie Paterson
Bespoke Ticker Board
9 13/16 x 53 1/8 x 7 7/8 in. (25 x 135 x 20 cm)

Gift of The Shifting Foundation in honor of Robert D. van der Hilst

Katie Paterson’s work displays the number of times the sun has risen since the birth of planet Earth. The artist’s retooling of a split-flap display evokes a cosmic transit station, marking the departure of the night and the coming of the day.

At sunrise each day in the location where the work is installed, a faint ticking sound can be heard as the number flips forward by one. To come up with this figure, Paterson worked with a team of astronomers and astrophysicists. Their task was more difficult than it may appear: the length of a day has changed throughout the planet’s history due to factors like the moon’s gradually expanding orbit, tidal friction, and thermal evolution of the Earth’s core. Paterson and her collaborators researched these factors as well as theories of the planet’s origin and the history of human timekeeping. The sheer length of their final number creates a sublime sense of deep time and is also somewhat absurd in its pretention to precision. 

Much of Paterson’s work seeks to materialize geological time and its human-driven acceleration. She has broadcast the sounds of a melting glacier (Vatnajökull [the sound of], 2007–08), filled a vial with dust from throughout Earth’s history (Requiem, 2022), and created a library of manuscripts that cannot be read for a hundred years (Future Library, 2014–2114). The placement of —there lay the Days between— within Building 54 resonates with the work of the building’s atmospheric and planetary scientists. It also converses with other nearby public artworks that serve as timekeepers of a changing planet, such as Julian Charrière’s suite of artworks in the building and Alicja Kwade’s Against the Run, installed in the Kendall Square Open Space Plaza near the MIT Welcome Center. The title of Paterson’s piece, drawn from a poem by Emily Dickinson, conjures both endlessness and a sense of bracketed time. There is enough space on the ticker for it to keep registering sunrises until the end of the Earth, some seven billion years from now.

Katie Paterson (b. 1981) was born in Glasgow and received an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2007. She employs concise and poetic forms to represent vast expanses of planetary history and deep time, often working closely with scientists and researchers to realize her projects. Her work has been exhibited across the world, including solo presentations at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Her public artworks include Mirage at Apple Park, California; Ideas at the University of Edinburgh; and To Burn, Forest, Fire at IMHE Helsinki, Finland. She is based in Fife, Scotland.


Listen: Katie Paterson on —there lay the Days between—