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Art for a House of Mathematics

by Anna Campbell Bliss
Bliss Studio Publication, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2006
53 pp., illus. Paper, $15 USD
ISBN: 0975491512.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


"Wow" is the expression many visitors use when first seeing Anna Campbell Bliss' artwork installation in the Mathematics Building at the University of Utah. "Wow" was also my impression when I first leafed through Bliss' slim book, Art for a House of Mathematics. The book is beautifully illustrated in both black & white and colour, and is mainly a documentation record of Bliss' commission "to create an environment for mathematicians in a building that consists of small lobbies on three floors and extensive corridors in an older structure" (p. 7). The production quality and graphic layout of the book, which Bliss also designed, is quite stunning. The photo documentation is by Skylar Nielsen, and the consulting editor was Ann Poore.

The commissioning committee wanted an artwork that would "identify the building as a "House of Mathematics". Bliss worked through the various conceptual and deployment problems and came up with a work that occupies the entrances and corridors of the 'three' levels of the building. The murals consist of numerous 18" square, laser etched, anodized and hand finished aluminium plates. Each plate has a self-contained concept concerning mathematics——black, grey, silver and the primary colours predominate. This gives the work a crisp, clean, almost minimalist feel. After a short introduction, the book discusses the works on each building level in three separate sections. The work of many of the greats of mathematics such as Fibonacci, Pascal, Buckminster Fuller and Pierro della Francesca is represented as are some of the Islamic masters such as Yaqut Al-Mustasimi. Bliss openly acknowledges, in both her text and artwork, the great contribution Arab and Muslim culture has made to the world of mathematics.

The work was not "to be a history of mathematics or a literal textbook" (p. 9) but present aspects of mathematics in a visual way that showed the scope and beauty of numbers, numerical series, theorems and how the mystery of numbers is an integral part of nature. "Each plate was to be a work of art but related to its immediate context and part of the general intellectual, mathematical and visual concept" (p. 9). Visitors and workers in this rejuvenated building must pass such mysteries as DNA spirals, Mayan calendar excerpts, Fibonacci sequences and Golden Mean images each time they enter or leave the building. Just walking to their offices, mathematicians are subtly reminded of the great achievements and yet to be fully understood secrets of their science-art. The first floor lobby leads physically and artistically to the first floor corridor which shows, "calligraphy as spiritual geometry", Einsteinian curved space and Moiré patterns. The second floor lobby has a nature and architecture theme with Truchet studies and fractals in natural landscapes. There are also images of the mathematically inspired structures of architects like Calatrava and Mies Van Der Rohe. The third floor concentrates on outer space and ancient global navigation maps. Images of the Antennae Galaxy via the Hubble telescope and images of the Ptolemaic world system and the planetary orbits of Andreas Cellarius are simply amazing. All these beautiful images are shown in sequence throughout the book.

The thing that makes the artwork itself and the book all the more amazing is that Anna Campbell Bliss is 81 years of age! She seems to be as much at home using a computer to generate fractals and binary loops as any 20 year old. She acknowledges much of her ability results from her training in architecture (she has a Master's Degree) and painting, printing and computer studies at MIT. Her philosophy and resultant works epitomize the Leonardo charter to explore the intersections of art-science-technology. She has a healthy respect for a balance between computer use and traditional "intuitive artistic expression" (p. 53). I think this understanding comes from a wisdom gained over a long lifetime of creative expression and observing nature.

My only minor criticism of the book is it could have been longer. Firstly, so we could indulge in it all the more, and secondly, it would benefit from inclusion of more details of actual production processes such as how the plates were etched, techniques of painting on aluminium, how they were installed and so on.

Bliss has created an astonishingly beautiful work of art, which I'm sure will inspire students, artists and mathematicians that work in the "House" for a long time to come. If you cannot make it to Utah to view the artwork in person, then the purchase of this delightful book will be a great addition to the 'inspirational section' of your personal library.



Updated 1st September 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

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