Place your hand on a map of the night’s sky and you will cover multitudes. Infinite pinpricks of light in patterns so unyielding, so precise, as to appear random. It can be maddening, and it can be overwhelmingly beautiful. This is the thesis at the heart of American artist Vija Celmins’ Night Sky series – drawings of photographs of segments of the sky, its holy mass of lights, bright and dead stars alike relaying their messages from across inconceivably vast tracts of time and space.
In Celmins’ work – the skies, the spiderwebs she lovingly represents, perhaps most of all her mystical, almost unbearable Ocean, a pencil drawing of a section of wave-rippled sea – is a beautiful acquiescence to the sublime. In it, we are given hope not by our own ability to overcome the vastness of our world, but by the knowledge that we are tiny: that our role isn’t to overcome but to complement.
She is one of the great artists of the age of hyperobjects – Timothy Morton’s theory of objects so massive, so sublime, as to be unknowable in their own form, only in their shattered moments. Climate change, extinction events, plastics – our lives in the dark reign of the pastoral noir.
The Shattered Vessel by Eva Kierten is a sonic heir to this legacy. A minimal selection of notes played on the piano in ever-changing order and a slow, evolving anti-rhythm; a few bars of music, it might seem, deconstructed and reassembled into a constantly cycling,, quiet onslaught of non-narrative pinpricks. The piano’s glacial pedals, its tectonic hammers, the galactic resonance of its wood and of the room are each given nearly as much space as the notes themselves. Listening to the two halves of The Shattered Vessel, I hear more of the outside world than the inside: the birds beside my home, the garden’s over-long grass whistling the wind, the hum of a busy A-road just two miles away, mimicked by the unnameable qualities of Kierten’s recording.
Everything about this release adds to its effect. I have no idea who ‘Eva Kierten’ is. In the few lines of text which Other Forms of Consecrated Life, the quiet bandcamp label that has released it, Kierten says her music is, ‘not concerned with narrative, drama or linear progression, but simply with motion, like the perpetual movement of stars around a fixed pole’. In this, the artist has succeeded devastatingly. If I were to find out that this music was produced by children or aliens; algorithm or accident, it wouldn’t surprise me much and I would love it no less.
I imagine there are those who hear The Shattered Vessel and want to scream at the terror of its precise unknowability – that motion-without-progression. Like the man who, in 2008, slashed one of Celmins’ Night Sky pieces for no reason he could explain: some people, as recent political events tell us again and again, cannot live in the knowledge of their being merely a part of a constantly moving whole. But give in, and a world of comfort awaits. I cannot imagine this year could provide a recording more perfectly holding both existential questions and their own redress.
It is a gift in a moment of angst. We need The Shattered Vessel, if only so we can see that even our disassembled pieces, scattered to the winds and the A-roads, remain an inseparable part of a whole. It’s not that there is no narrative, it’s that there are too many: lift your hand from any point on the star-map and stories are revealed in their multitudes.
(The Shattered Vessel and other recordings are available via the Other Forms bandcamp. With special thanks to Richard Skelton & Autumn Richardson at Corbel Stone, who suggested I check out this release.)