Can You See Infinity?

Hiroshi Sugimoto, one of Japan’s preeminent contemporary artists,  presents the Duncan Phillips Lecture this Thursday. In anticipation, Marketing Intern Annie Dolan considers two works from the artist’s exhibition currently on view at the Phillips.

Surface of Revolution Constant_Annie Dolan

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sculpture Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature (Mathematical Model 009) (2006) in front of his similar 2D work, Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature (Conceptual Form 0010) (2004)

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sculpture Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature (Mathematical Model 009), pictured above, aesthetically conceptualizes the indescribable phenomenon of infinity. Even mathematicians accept the enigma of the infinity concept, something that can grow so large that it never truly ends. Sugimoto’s upward-extending sculpture made of reflective aluminum may physically end, but the contour lines creating the edges of the surface don’t appear to converge to a point, and instead look as if they’re disappearing into thin air. We are meant to believe that these lines can continue forever without ever touching.

Such a concept is perhaps more easily understood in two-dimensional form. On a gallery wall nearby this sculpture is a black and white monochrome photo that the artist took. The same conical shape is featured, but the lines that extend three-dimensionally into thin air are shown cropped at the top border of the photograph. This cropping indicates more obviously that these lines can truly extend without end, and that the zoomed-in image of the sculpture is part of a much larger object.

When approached in this light, we can also find infinity among less abstract art forms. In a way, the cropped image that we see on the wall of a gallery is only a part of a larger scene. We could think of every landscape, still life, or portrait as existing in real, infinite space. While we might not be able to see such an infinity, we know that it is there. By prompting such conversations, Sugimoto connects the ideas of art and mathematics that might not seem so obvious. Infinity is therefore found in many art forms, and can, despite popular belief, be visualized.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Man Ray’s Shakespearean Equations: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Man Ray, Shakespearean Equation, Twelfth Night, 1948. Oil on canvas, 34 1/8 x 30 1/8 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2015. Photography by Lee Stalsworth

In contrast to other Shakespearean Equation paintings, which feature a single or a pair of mathematical models, Twelfth Night unites eight forms. Two additional “foreign” items—an ostrich egg and a phallic object—reference other Man Ray works. Like the love triangle and complex plot of the Shakespearean play evoked by the work’s title, this intricate gathering of many improbable objects suggests similarly complicated and overlapping relationships.

Manipulating Math with Formula Morph

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Trying out Formula Morph in the Man Ray–Human Equations exhibition

Man Ray–Human Equations showcases Man Ray’s depictions of complicated mathematical objects that he first encountered in the 1930′s. The models served as educational tools for mathematical students; however, Man Ray was interested in how they looked more than the specific mathematical equations they represented. Because the equations are fairly complicated and dense, The Phillips Collection incorporates a participatory experience, Formula Morph, into the exhibition to help visitors better understand the visual representation of the equations.

Provided by the Museum of Mathematics in New York City, Formula Morph shows some of the same models and equations that are featured in the exhibition. Users can select an equation, and adjust it using colored knobs that then alter the shape of the object on the screen. Formula Morph creates a visual connection between the objects Man Ray used with the complicated mathematical equations that they represent.

Kelley Daley, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures

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Visitors adjust colored knobs to alter the mathematical models on the screen.