Mathematics is one of humankind’s most astoundingly powerful inventions. (Or “discoveries,” if you fall on that side of the philosophy debate.) If design is broadly defined as “making things make sense,” then mathematics may be the ultimate design achievement of our species. And mathematicians, scientists, and other number-slingers often describe certain equations or numerical patterns in the same way designers talk about their favorite products: “elegant,” “beautiful,” “true,” et cetera. But the aesthetic appeal of math is hard for most people to even notice, much less appreciate. Which makes a new French exhibition at Fondation Cartier called “Mathematics: A Beautiful Elsewhere” not just interesting, but essential.
The exhibition pairs mathematicians with artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto and David Lynch “to transform the abstract thinking of mathematics into a stimulating experience for the mind and the senses, an experience accessible to everyone.” The result looks like a science exhibit crossed with a gallery opening: huge vaulted spaces, flickering with video-projected equations and interactive artwork, short films, and alien-looking sculpture. “A beautiful elsewhere” is definitely the right way to describe it: If appreciating math is all about a new way of seeing the world, this futuristic/atavistic melange definitely evokes a transcendental state of mind.
But fusing the abstract with the sensually visual is not just a clichéd play by the Fondation to sex up equations. The best mathematicians throughout history have tended to conceptualize their breakthroughs visually first, and resort to the relatively unintuitive symbolic notation we call “math” only to get it down on paper. In other words, this is what math is meant to look–and feel–like, not the dry stuff filling calculus textbooks. That’s not to say that manipulating symbols and the other “elbow grease” of doing mathematics isn’t important and essential, too. But if there can be a more intuitively graspable foundation behind it, one that speaks to the emotional and sensory impulses that all human beings share, maybe those symbols won’t have to seem like such a turn-off to so many of us.