Monday, 21 July 2014


As a recent article in Yes Magazine explains, creativity is not exclusive to artists ; ‘Creativity is simply our ability to dream things up and make them happen.’ Yet sometimes great art is needed to examine and value to the creativity of others.

This is certainly the case with the work of John Holstead in THE ART OF MATHEMATICS exhibition, which is run by NUI Galway Arts Office  and The School of Mathematics, Statistics and Applied Mathematics, NUIG as part of the Fringe Festival. In his sculptures John seeks to demonstrate that beauty, creativity and wonder are as integral to mathematics and mathematicians as to art and artists. The exhibition as a whole has much to engage the eye, the brain and the heart, but one piece in particular stood out for me.

‘The Three Punctures’ is a solid enough looking sculpture, resembling perhaps

a giant screw or something a Deity would use to bolt together the panels of the sky.  It is dyed the blue black colour of a raven’s wing and is punctured by holes. On first look it seems simply an interesting and pleasing object. But on closer examination the structure reveals itself to be something far more intriguing. The shape is not simply a shape and the gaps within it are not simply gaps. In fact, what the artist has created with this piece is a beautiful, sensual and tactile representation of the ‘Costa Minimal Surface’, which was discovered in
1982 by the Brazilian mathematician Celso José da Costa. To quote Wolfram Mathworld  the ‘Costa Minimal Surface’is a surface which ‘has no boundary and does not intersect itself’.

The sculpture challenges our perceptions of how a solid object is experienced. It also challenges a reviewer’s ability to find non-mathematical language to describe his interaction with it. The front of the sculpture opens into a contorted funnel, which has two holes in it. Looking through the hole on my right, I could clearly see the room on the other side. Yet no matter what angle I looked into the hole I could see no physical passage through which the hole went. It did not seem to go through anything. I put my arm in, and then keeping my arm within the hole I leaned forward and looked over the funnel. I did not see my arm. Instead I saw the solid physical darkness of the structure, the solid form through which the hole passed. Yet when I looked again at the hole I could see absolutely no evidence of the passage way. The hole was utterly lacking in depth.

I spent a long time walking around the object trying and failing to understand how it managed to contort and play with solidity and nothingness. Bewildered, I took time out to speak to John Holstead, who told me he had thought about the structure for two years before he began planning it out: ‘One mistake and the entire thing would have failed.’   

John then explained the math of the sculpture. As he spoke in his soft easy way it all began to make sense. For a moment I almost grasped it, the whole incredible mathematical artistry of it. But when I looked again at the object the words in my head vanished. All I could do was look, touch, wonder and finally accept the object for what it was; an object of beauty and contemplation.

The exhibition runs until the 1st of August, and is open weekdays from 11am in The Mechanical Soils Lab, by the Bank of Ireland Theatre  on NUI Galway campus.

NB Another one of John’s beautiful sculptures The Ventry Egg is also in the exhibition. Check out John talking about the piece on TG4
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