On the Beauty of Unresolved Problems
By Andreas Bee
Mysterious prime numbers. Unfathomable and capricious, like cats. Not compliant. There is an infinite amount of them and yet nobody has so far discovered a reliable formula to predict their appearance or behaviour. Yet, precisely for this reason, they are indispensable. Cats and prime numbers. They amaze, surprise and stimulate us to such an extent, that we are quickly transported and apt to proclaim: Life without cats, life without prime numbers is perhaps possible, but not desirable. It would be a life without secrets, without unresolved problems. Einstein probably cannot be quoted often enough and we should be inclined to postulate with him, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”(1)
Any artist who deals with numbers knows, of course, that the world is not made up only of what we can experience through our senses, but also of the iridescent models of a fantasy existence. In the universe of art, by combining ostensibly austere mathematics with form and rhythm, we obtain a treasure with a musical effect that not only gives us food for thought, but which we can also hold in our hands and see with our eyes. Just as the value of prime numbers is ultimately immeasurable—as immeasurable as the quantity of prime numbers themselves—the same also applies to the visual arts and their works, as revealed by Lucía Simón Medina’s oeuvre in a sensory, illustrative and powerful way. Sin titulo, Librettos [Untitled, Librettos] represents, first and foremost, the fascination that springs from unresolved problems in general. They have, of course, the advantage that we can carry them around with us, like a persistent memory of something we have not yet been able to understand. Moreover, an unresolved problem points to our own as- yet untapped resources because, in the hopeless attempt to resolve the problem, we become aware of how and where to seek a solution. In other words, while we are focused on unresolved problems, we at least know where we are and therefore constantly think about things other than those we intended.(2) Like the metaphysicians of Tlön, artists like Lucía Simón Medina “do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.”(3)
Prime numbers are windows on another world. Many of us associate a special joy and significance with prime numbers. In some ways this appears linked to a feeling for formal beauty and symmetry, but in others to the peculiar “potency” of these figures. Logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel noted that prime numbers can represent ideas, people, places or anything else. And time and again, attention is rightfully called to the multi-layered analogies between numbers and music. Indeed, Gottfried Leibnitz was convinced that the pleasure we get from music comes from counting. Music, Leibnitz asserted, is nothing but unconscious arithmetic. It is therefore unsurprising that the 42 notebooks that make up the work of Lucía Simón resemble musical scores. Yet unlike these, the books contain not musical notes, but rows of figures. In total, there are seven series of multiples of the first seven prime numbers. The sequences of multiples of 2 are written in two notebooks, those of 3 in three, those of 5 in five and so on. Libretto One contains a number of empty spaces equal to the number of prime numbers which the series contains.
The fact that there are 42 notebooks in the artist’s tribute to the enigma of prime numbers reminds some observers of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this mixture of comedy, satire and science fiction, the figure 42 is the definitive answer to the ultimate question. The only problem is that it gives us an answer to a question we still do not know. Prime numbers, too, could be seen as an answer to that all-important question which nobody has yet asked.
Finally, the artist makes sparks fly and creates artistic tension with the friction between fantasy and reality. Those who can engage with the work of Lucía Simón Medina will soon share her fascination for prime numbers and understand their own admiration for the subject and the way it has been tackled as a kind of intermediate
stage, or limbo, in which the mind and the emotions fluctuate between
ignorance and enlightenment.
(1) Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941, p. 6
(2) Cf: Dirk Baecker/Alexander Kluge, Vom Nutzen ungelöster Probleme, Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2003, p. 57
(3) Jorge Luis Borges, Donald A. Yates (trans.), Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, New York: New Directions, 1964, p. 10