I recently visited The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Their permanent collection is well worth the visit, but I was lucky enough to see a pair of exhibitions: Man Ray — Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models.

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Man Ray, Julius Caesar, images via The Phillips Collection

The centerpieces of Human Equations, Ray’s series of paintings Shakespearean Equations, are simple compositions, but they resist attempts to enter them. The paintings’ titles push back, resurrecting Shakespeare’s ghost in the titles of his plays without grounding us in the plays. They toy with the question of the authorship of the plays, linking to Modernist tomes that slowly reveal layered meanings in the lengthy end notes, but the doors they seem to reveal remain locked. This feeling is compounded by the incomprehensibility of the objects depicted in the paintings — undulating, vaguely organic — a referentless surrealism. These veils over the paintings fall away, however, in the context of the objects and photographs throughout the exhibition.

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Real Part of the Function w=e

The mysterious objects in the paintings are three-dimensional renderings of mathematical equations – Real Part of the Function w=e ; Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Elliptic Function; Algebraic Surface of Degree 4.The objects were first photographed by Ray at the Institut Henri Poincaré years before he made the paintings. The objects and photographs of those objects bring the exhibition to life. I could not take my eyes from the vitrines filled with the models, absorbed in the physicality and human touch of these immaterial mathematical concepts made tangible. The models demonstrate that the paintings are the culmination of a long process of many individuals engaging with these mathematical concepts over years, places, and materials. The transformation from concept to object to photograph to painting exemplifies a deep engagement with the many manifestations of mathematics — the idea, the manifestation, the lived experience. The multiple individuals considering, crafting, photographing, and painting these objects layer a human experience onto these distant, complex concepts. Ray’s paintings are one iteration, one exploration of what it means to live with these ideas.

Man Ray, All's Well That Ends Well, 1948

Man Ray, All’s Well That Ends Well

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Algebraic Surface of Degree 4

Sugimoto’s spare exhibition is stunning in its starkness and simple beauty. He presents photographs of models similar to those in Ray’s paintings and machined aluminum sculptures of computer-modeled mathematical concepts. His prints magnify the human touch and imperfections of the handmade models. The sculptures are perfect beyond human observation. If Ray’s paintings exemplify a layering of meaning iteratively accrued over time, Sugimoto’s sculptures embrace a further step beyond the human into a technological age in which humans can produce objects that surpass our understandings of perfection. However alien they may seem, Ray’s paintings are decidedly human; they attempt to make sense of the worlds we cannot see. Sugimoto simultaneously memorializes the human and enshrines an ideal which we will never be able to perceive.

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Hiroshi Sugimoto, Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature

In contrast to the cerebral, contemplative temporary exhibitions, Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone — where are you going?), permanently installed in The Phillips Collection, surrounds and envelopes you. The small room is enclosed by walls and ceiling completely covered in beeswax, illuminated by a single bare bulb. The scent is overpowering, as you approach and enter the small room. It saturates your nose, immediately reminding you how little your nose is purposefully stimulated in this context.

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Wolfgang Laib, Wax Room

The smell says that we enter the realm of bees, but we have again entered the realm of humans. The visual texture of the walls does not resemble bee hives or at least what we think of as the perfection of bees’ work  stacked hexagons and danced communications. The room does not evoke the ideals of community and industry of Langstroth hives that dot the sides of farm roads or the skeps on Utah’s highway signs. The mottled, fleshy walls are imperfect, fragile, human. The clinging weight and scent of the walls is palpable, grounding us in the human experience of flightlessness, as it reminds us of the manifold power of its winged pollinator originators. We do not enter the world of bees, as we enter Wax Room. It does not help us understand them and everything they do for us. It lays bare the folly and destruction of mankind as we continue to believe we can control and manage the abilities of billions of lives without consequence.

Laib reminds me that it is hot and humid in our world; he grounds me in the messy, complicated days I wake up to and fall asleep in. My lived reality cannot exist solely within the frigid, perfect world of mathematics and its representations. I need tools and experience and compassion that can move beyond perfection to encompass my human failings. I leave those rarefied worlds behind, but they pollinate my mind. I await its fruit.

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