If you ever feel like contemplating infinity, try copying out by hand, several thousand digits of pi (π). It sounds like the sort of punishment a cruel geometry teacher might inflict on an underperforming student. Yet there are those — like the conceptual artists Jiayi Young and her physicist husband and collaborator Shih-Wen – who find such exercises revelatory because of their ability to inspire and direct a seemingly infinite number of visual possibilities from raw data.
Using the numbers zero through 9, the Youngs create a variety of formulas – games really – that allow the digits of pi to dictate how colors, lines and shapes will be committed their chosen substrate, drafting film. The results, contrary to what you might expect, are not at all mechanical. The drawings feel surprisingly organic, and they encourage you to reflect back on the impulse – to wrest meaning from chaos — that generated them. It’s a refreshing example of conceptual art providing an actual aesthetic payoff.
Data visualization” is not new. John Cage started the trend in music, and a great many visual artists have followed, including Mario Merz who uses mathematical principle known as the Fibonacci Series to determine the size and scale of glass-and-steel igloos, one of which graces the rooftop garden at SFMOMA. The Youngs, for their part, cite as their role model, the famed thinker, Edward Tufte (dubbed “the Leonardo da Vinci of data” by The New York Times), whose monumentally scaled sculptures were recently on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.
The Youngs began experimenting with pi in 2005 during a residency in France when Shih-Wen, on a whim, inscribed several thousand pi-derived digits on a sheet of paper. The act induced a deep meditative state and a profound sense of awe – particularly when strings of personally significant numbers (birthdays and anniversaries) and surprising combinations (like four consecutive zeroes) kept popping up. The upshot was “The Pi Project” whose latest incarnation, π, is at Axis Gallery through April 25.
Pi is, of course, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. A non-resolving fraction (or irrational number), commonly shortened to 3.14 to calculate the area of a circle, it is also a critical component of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (used in quantum physics), Einstein’s calculation of relativity (used to describe gravity) and Coulomb’s Law, which describes electrical force. Japanese supercomputers have run pi out to mind-bending 420 billion digits.
The Youngs haven’t come close to hitting that mark; their furthest excursion, enshrined in a hand-stitched, 350-page volume printed on Chinese paper, contains a mere 712,000 computer-generated numerals. The book is displayed on an empty desk in a darkened room. It has the feel of a well-preserved artifact, and it sets an appropriately mysterious tone for a show that seeks to translate meaningless numbers into something we can grasp visually. The raw materials for this exercise come from three (20” x 26.5”) drawings that together contain more than 25,000 pi-derived numbers. These (as seen in “Black π”) are embossed on uneven grids to form spectral, figurative shapes that suggest the mathematical underpinnings of human DNA or perhaps some other form of sequencing that has yet to be discovered and decoded.
From those drawings, the artists pull out various “data sets” – strings of numbers – that dictate colors, lines and forms, but never exact compositions. In “Colors of π”, rainbow hues are assigned specific values to make a picture of wavy vertical stripes that recalls a slightly tipsy Kenneth Noland. “Lines of π” uses a different aggregation to specify distances between points, which when connected, resemble the herky-jerky geometries of Etch-a-Sketch drawings; while “Values of Pi” uses numbers to order various styles of crosshatching for a crazy-quilt effect that might, in another context, pass for the work of a talented obsessive.
Collectively, these drawings are a small measure of how the incomprehensible can be made tangible. The possibilities, as π demonstrates, are infinite as they are visually intriguing.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Yiayi and Shih-Wen Young: π @ Axis Gallery through April 25, 2010.
Cover: (Detail) “Black Pi”, 2010, acrylic on paper, 20”x 26.5”