Tag Archives: Big Table Connections

At the intersection of art and mathematics

 

Photograph of Olafur Eliasson's Flower observatory courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Photograph of Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory, 2004 courtesy Christopher Hartman, July 2014.

Mathematics and art at first seem worlds apart. But is it so? Might there be a relationship between these disciplines? And if so, can it be explored in the BMA’s collection? Are there works of art at the Museum that draw on mathematical ideas, processes, and overlapping notions of beauty?

A stroll through the BMA’s Contemporary Wing invites pause as I – do I dare – walk on top of Carl Andre’s Zinc-Magnesium Plain, 1969. I look down and take in the textures of the metal surfaces. I think about the shape of the squares and their imperfect alignment and how the grid that this zinc and magnesium surface represents extends out infinitely in all directions.

I look up and see an explosion of geometric shapes—this time in brilliant stainless steel. Olafur Eliasson’s Flower observatory 2004 bursts forth and lures a viewer inside and around the hulking form.  It is quite a complex structure. Each triangular spike that pierces the gallery air has curious openings of various sizes where the tips would be. I stretch up and try to see through them like tiny keyholes and spy intricate forms. I cross the threshold, feel the shadow of the large form darken the space and look up. It is a dazzling canopy of star-like shapes as if a new universe is unfolding. I am inside the observatory, observing, marvelling. I don’t rush this moment; the marvel has its pleasures.

As the wonder subsides, I catch myself thinking about shapes—the glittering diamonds and flower-like forms, the rhombuses, the pentagon that inscribes the invisible base of the sculpture, the hex screws that connect the steel planes. I wonder if this is what a mathematical imagination might feel and look like.

To try to understand these questions and ideas, I invited mathematician Susan Goldstine and architect Fred Scharmen to the Museum for a conversation about the intersection of mathematics and art in these pieces. Fred uses words like “striking and beautiful” to describe geometry and art.  Susan poignantly said that “the beauty of mathematics – and the mathematics of beauty – comes from the ways in which simple elements combine and intersect to form dazzling structures seemingly out of thin air.”

As soon as Susan walked under Flower observatory, she said that it was based on a rhombic triacontahedron – a convex polyhedron with 30 rhombic faces. I’d remembered reading that in my research but couldn’t see it. She helpfully explained it to me and offered to show me how to fold the shape with paper, so that I could understand it with my hands as well as with my mind’s eye.

This conversation about the relationship between art and mathematics will form the basis of the next Big Table Connections. Both Fred and Susan have a natural, deep connection to mathematical forms, and they will bring their knowledge to the BMA on Saturday August 2nd at 2 pm. We will also get the chance to fold rhombic triacontahedra and make mathematical drawings too. I hope you will join us! You can also join in the conversation online using the #BMABigTable hashtag on Twitter.

In the meantime, be sure to visit the Sondheim semi-finalist exhibition at MICA to see Fred’s large wall drawing inspired by his mathematical research. The exhibition is on view in the Decker, Meyerhoff, and Pinkard galleries at MICA through August 3rd.

On W-120301 – Sarah Oppenheimer’s radical architectural intervention into space and time

Sarah Oppenheimer. W‑120301. 2012. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Endowment; and gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, BMA 2012.1. © Sarah Oppenheimer. Photo by James Ewing

Sarah Oppenheimer. W‑120301. 2012. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Endowment; and gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, BMA 2012.1. © Sarah Oppenheimer. Photo by James Ewing

The BMA’s Big Table Connections program brings together experts —from neuroscientists and engineers to choreographers and product designers— to explore ideas related to works of art in the Contemporary Wing. On June 7, Goucher College philosophy professor John Rose joined Baltimore-based artist Leah Cooper to discuss Sarah Oppenheimer’s W-120301, a radical architectural intervention that uses mirrors to provoke new experiences of space and time. Here are some of his thoughts:

Sarah Oppenheimer, Architectural Intervention W-120301 beckons to us from the open region of the timing of time and the spacing of space, from the open region of possibility.  This open region is the site of interaction of our conscious intentions and the resonances of the worlding objects around us.  The openness of the world is space/time where our consciousness and the world intertwine and meaning arises. Meanings have already arisen in that opening, and those meanings are our tradition and our history.  That tradition and history is often taken for the “truth” of the world.  The questions then arise, “How can we both engage and disrupt that tradition? How can we see the meaning arising in an opening of space and time, yet also step into other possibilities in that opening?”  Oppenheimer’s intervention achieves a rare opportunity to experience that opening by playing and subverting the ways in which we usually step into the meaningful space of a museum.

We know from Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness that perception is always perspectival and temporal. We have to walk around an object to see it from various perspectives. We have to retain the previous perspectives and anticipate future perspectives as we weave together those perspectives in time into a meaningful object.  Opening the space between two floors and the stairwell, W-120301 plays with our spatial intentions towards objects by unfolding multiple perspectives.

When we first see it upon entering the third floor gallery, it appears as another two dimensional painting in a room of paintings of abstract, yet colored, geometrical space.  We see a black parallelogram on a wall; its four sides with opposite equal acute angles, opposite equal obtuse angles are an already familiar shape.  “Might it be a rhombus?” we might ask ourselves, if we were to bother.  We might not even bother to have a look at it right away, as we glance around the room.  Without fore-knowledge of the intervention, we might not wander closer.  But when we do, we realize that we can see into its space.

We get a question!  “What is there in here?”  But the “in here” of its space takes us elsewhere.  We are not sure where we are looking.  Usually, we move around an object to pick up further perspectives that we weave into the story we tell ourselves about that object.  Paintings on the wall don’t allow us to do that so much, but this is no longer a painting on a wall.  It is an inviting space, a hole in the wall, a rabbit hole to jump down?  The guard keeps us back from leaning over into and looking down.  But we see something: more geometric shapes, glimpses into other rooms.  But where are we looking?  The questions grow.

Oppenheimer’s wormhole reminds us it is impossible to take in an object all at once.  But here, to have an intention towards this space, you have to be two or more people.  We send our friend out to find the other ways into this space.  Is it above?  We are on the top floor.  Below?  How far?  It cannot be viewed all in one “space” or in one “time,” which perhaps reminds us that no object can be viewed in an exhaustive way from all perspectives all in one time and space.   As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Truth can surely stand on one leg, but with two it will be able to walk and get around.”

We find ourselves doing what we never do in a museum: playing, engaging the space/time of the exhibit.  To a degree, we become ek-static; we are outside ourselves.  Both the object itself as space/time whose properties elude us and the gestural movement through it to the larger space/time it reveals in this musing space it makes manifest, takes us away from our usual modes of gathering of intentional experiences and make sense of objects.  It gives us the opportunity to do what we rarely get to do afresh: participate with the opening of the world in letting meaning arise.

John M. Rose, Professor of Philosophy, Goucher College
13 June 2014

What do you think? Have you seen Oppenheimer’s work at the BMA or other institutions? How did you react to it? Are there other works of art that you’ve encountered that have left you thinking about time and space in new ways? Tell us about them below.

The Big Table Connections takes place on the first Saturday of every month at 2 p.m. Meet experts in related fields as they share their insights in the galleries, then participate in art-making activities that delve into the ideas behind the artwork. Join us on July 5th as master lighting designer Glenn Shrum addresses Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”). Participate in a hands-on exploration of color mixing with light.