a House of Mathematics
by Anna Campbell
Bliss Studio Publication, Salt Lake City,
53 pp., illus. Paper, $15 USD
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 mathematicsblack,
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.