The limits of reason: Boolean links between art and science

Two exhibitions in Cork celebrate George Boole, a son of the city and the genius who laid the foundation of all computer systems

What do grids of coloured glass and hazelnuts, a flickering fall of bright LED numbers, a crazy construction of timber and a 19th-century genius living in Cork have in common? The answer is that, in the different fields of art and mathematics, they are each trying to find ways to reach beyond language and make sense of the world, to map and express its underlying patterns.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole, a man so far ahead of his time he invented a system of algebraic logic that didn't come into its own for a century, but which is now the foundation of all computer systems. Boole, the self-taught son of a Lincolnshire shoemaker, was the first professor of mathematics in what is now University College Cork.

In two exhibitions in Cork, the city where he lived and worked, artists explore Boole’s ideas and his life and prove in the process that art and maths aren’t necessarily so very different. At the Triskel Arts Centre, artist Marie Foley has been working since December last year on a project that spans the period from the 150th anniversary of Boole’s death to this November, the date of his birth, “reverse time” as curator Jobst Graeve puts it.

Foley’s delicate assemblages of found objects and ceramic sculptures have been installed on the top floor of Triskel, in an antique cabinet, which originally housed part of the Egyptian Collection at the National Museum.


Extraordinary daughters

On my visit, five seed-pod style pieces perhaps represent Boole's five extraordinary and extraordinarily talented daughters. These include Lucy Boole, first professor of chemistry at the Royal Free Hospital in London; and Lily, more famous as EL Voynich, author of The Gadfly, which inspired Shostakovich's film score of the same name.

These installations change over time and have parallels with a further evolving series of pieces in a matching cabinet in Foley’s studio in north Cork.

This gives rise to the idea of invisible messaging across space and time in ways not immediately obvious – until you think of how Boole’s algebra ultimately enabled all digital communications, from email to text messaging.

To emphasise this, Graeve has added a changing series of computer code as wall text. It is interesting to see in context: it’s as impenetrable as certain forms of contemporary art are to the uninitiated.

Boole was known during his life for his extraordinary decency. His achievement, driven by his reading of Aristotle, was to find a way to write logical questions in algebra, to break down reasoning and expressions of right and wrong into formulas.

His maths is all about patterns: it is a language, but one expressed through numbers and symbols, and with a greater potential for accuracy than clumsy words and systems of allusion, simile and metaphor. Far from the dry equations we were told to learn rather than try to understand, maths can be an attempt at true expression.

Puttnam’s frustration

But if mathematicians think in patterns, what about artists? At the opening of Boolean Expressions, an exhibition at Cork's Glucksman Gallery, renowned film-maker David Puttnam spoke of his frustration at what he saw as the repeated need to emphasise the links between science and art.

“We shouldn’t have to remind ourselves every five or 10 years that science and art are indivisible,” he said. From synchronised sound in film to the creation of colour, “every innovation has been art interpreted and science generated”.

This is an idea almost perfectly summed up by Irish artist John Gerrard's three-screen piece Exercise (Dunhuang), from 2014. Gerrard has been building a strong international career, and with works now in the permanent collections of Tate Britain, Moma and the Los Angeles County Museum (the latter a gift of his extraordinary piece Solar Reserve, 2014, by actor Leonardo DiCaprio).

It’s great to have the opportunity to see such a strong work in Ireland. In Boolean algebra, values are designated either 1 or 0, true or false, and Gerrard’s work shows what the artist describes as “a very basic knock-out game” and “a physical manifestation of a machine vision”.

In a simulated desert landscape, avatars of Chinese factory workers walk the grid. When two meet, one must fall. It is gently mesmeric. As I watch a character sink to the ground, Gerrard reminds me how “that character is pulling pure flows of data from the machine”.

Less immediately arresting but subtly thought-provoking, Mel Bochner’s grids of hazelnuts, glass, chalk and stones map out Pythagoras’s theorem on the gallery floor: another clue to the mathematical expressions of the underlying structures of the world around us.

Structure is also a feature of Aisling O'Beirn's timber sculpture, Boolean Logic, made for this exhibition. It is seemingly chaotic but has its own internal logic.

“It was all done by eye,” O’Beirn says. “I had three rules for where to place the timber, based on Boolean algebra.” These are mapped out on an accompanying vast scroll as a series of Venn diagrams.

UK artist Darren Almond shows a pair of large-scale black-and-white paintings, Stream and Chance Encounter 004, that look like those digital clocks that flip time at train stations.

“We say: a million, billion, trillion, but we can’t really grasp the actual scale . . . ,” writes Almond, calling to mind our attempt to grapple with the infinity of time and space and measure them out in ways we can control and understand.

Constant battles

Aram Bartholl's series Are You Human? is a set of large laser-cut versions of those enormously frustrating computer generated Captcha codes that websites use to prevent attacks by other computer-generated programmes. Humming away in the background, the machines wage constant battles in code, underwriting our lives.

This idea builds to a persuasive and pervasive presence with Tatsuo Miyajima’s electronic wall pieces, made from LEDs, electric circuits and microcomputers, blinking incessant streams of numbers into the gallery. Big data, as Puttnam reminded us, is the issue of our age.

Philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, who lived 200 years before Boole, is quoted on a wall panel in the Glucksman exhibition: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things that are beyond it.” In trying to pin down the limits of reason, Boole came up with something visionary that seemed useless, until suddenly, a century later, people realised it was vital. The same can frequently be true of art.