Boolean Expressions:
Contemporary art and mathematical data

Darren Almond, Aram Bartholl, Mel Bochner, Hanne Darboven, John Gerrard, Sol LeWitt, Tatsuo Mijajima, Aisling O'Beirn, Matthew Ritchie, Lynne Woods Turner.

Curated by Fiona Kearney in association with the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science, and George Boole 200.

Boolean Expressions explored the ways in which artists use mathematical concepts and systems in their work. Inviting audiences to investigate ideas of Boolean algebra, the impact of ‘big data’ on contemporary life, and how systems and codes support creative production, the exhibition captured the ways in which artists have used logic and technology in their artistic practices.

Boolean Expressions also commemorated the legacy of George Boole, the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College Cork and a pivotal figure who can be described as the ‘father of the information age’. His invention of Boolean algebra and symbolic logic pioneered a new mathematics, and his legacy surrounds us everywhere, in the computers, information storage and retrieval, electronic circuits and controls that support life, learning and communications in the 21st century.

Throughout Boolean Expressions, the processes of calculation and computation utilised by mathematicians – and by conceptual artists – are realized through physical and performative gestures. In Boolean algebra, values are designated either 1 or 0, true or false, and this binary logic structures all computer programming. John Gerrard’s three-screen work Exercise (Dunhuang) portrays a simulated maze-like desert landscape populated with the avatars of Chinese factory workers, setting off in different directions according to the algorithms used in GPS systems. Occasionally, two of these characters meet, and the participant closest to his/her goal continues as the other retires from the exercise. The passive resignation of these figures is more akin to a Beckettian play than the intense violence such encounters usually generate in video games and blockbuster movies.

Gerrard’s digital worlds are framed in three brass boxes hung directly on the gallery wall recalling the austere sculptural forms of Donald Judd and the geometric configurations of Minimalist artists. Hanne Darboven (1941-2009) belonged to this first generation of artists who used numerical systems and notation to measure her everyday activities. Kalendar 94 consists of 192 sheets of paper, with the artist methodically counting and marking the passage of time in a process that she equated to a sense of “responsibility, work, conscience, fulfillment of duty.” This rigorous approach also informed the practice of her close friend and peer Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). In his celebrated wall drawings, architectural spaces are transformed into fields of grids, arcs, circles and patterns according to a precise set of instructions. For Boolean Expressions, LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 119 (1971) was installed throughout September 2015, allowing members of the public to witness the gradual accumulation of lines and arcs in the environs of the Glucksman.

Mel Bochner’s seminal conceptual artworks of the 1970s also explored mathematical ideas through seemingly simple gestures and humble materials. His Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras series refers to the equation of a2 x b2 = c2, marking out the formula on the gallery floor in arrangements of chalk, stones, glass and hazelnuts. A set of related drawings demonstrates Bochner’s abiding interest in mathematics, with their diagrammatical sketches, algebraic formulas, and scribbled over equations. While of a younger generation, Matthew Ritchie’s practice explores similar ideas and, for Boolean Expressions, he has produced a new series of drawings that respond to Bochner’s works. Ritchie is also presenting a number of related works: The Temptation of the Diagram, a wallpaper installation of abstract patterns and interlocking lines, and the film Monstrance, an animated exploration of choreographed performance and diagrammatical networks created in collaboration with the musician Bryce Dressner (of the Grammy-nominated band The National).

In Lynne Woods Turner’s series of Untitled drawings, sparse lines and shapes are meticulously rendered in graphite and gouache on parchment paper. The images are understated yet her sophisticated handling of materials reveals a deep understanding of complex structures, bilateral symmetry and repeated motifs. Aisling O’Beirn’s work also reveals an innate awareness of materials and, in the sculptural work Entropy, she uses Boolean algebra to construct a seemingly erratic yet structurally stable assemblage of salvaged timber lengths. Built by balancing these timbers to test the structure’s tipping point, her work explores the ways in which physical forces interact and adapt to one another in the process of their creation.

The legacy of Boole’s algebraic system is realized in works that explore the digital era and its impact on our everyday lives. Darren Almond’s paintings Stream and Chance Encounter 004 portray sequences of numbers, fractured and fragmented by the artist’s use of several distinct panels to create large, black-and-white compositions. Seemingly created by chance and reminiscent of abstracted digital clocks, Almond’s practice reflects upon our modern age, how we are subjected to timetables to become victims of our own technological progression. In Aram Bartholl’s work, the CAPTCHA codes used for online password verification become sculptural objects. His series Are You Human? renders these randomly generated strings of numbers and characters as physical forms - a rusted steel monument presented prone on the floor or a laser-cut aluminium relief that hovers against the gallery walls. This interest in permanently capturing the ephemeral elements of the digital world is also seen in a body of work by the acclaimed Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima. His wall-based sculptures use a range of high-tech components, including LEDs (light-emitting diodes), electrical circuits and microcomputers to illuminate the act of counting. Repeated rows, grids and networks of numbers, flashing in continual and repetitious – though not necessarily sequential – cycles from 1 to 9, represent the relentless calculation inherent in computer data banks. While employing new media technology in his practice, Miyijama’s work also points to more philosophical mediations on time and being, and the exhibition closes with his 2004, Counter Window, a liquid crystal glass display with an internet content time controller that evokes digital clocks, Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fresh Widow sculpture, and in the context of this exhibition, the George Boole Window in the Aula Maxima, UCC.

The mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote that “Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” Perhaps, this is also the point where science turns to art. Boolean Expressions considers these connecting moments between contemporary art and mathematical data, and in doing so, explores the very processes of deliberation that connect artistic and scientific modes of enquiry.


Boolean Expressions exhibition catalogue available from the Glucksman shop