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Skolem - Une sculpture mathématique
Jessica Stockholder

Patrons - Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, mathematician and head of IHES, Max Leguem, initiator of the "mathematicians in short trousers" project, currently running the Torcy MJC (Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture – youth club and arts centre), the pupils of the Parc du Château primary school, Chilly-Mazarin.
Bures-sur-Yvette, France

The commission

In 2000, to coincide with the World Year of Mathematics, the Mathematical recreations for mathematicians in short trousers" project was set up by Max Leguem, at that time head of Chilly-Mazarin MJC. In two of the region's state primary schools, a weekly workshop for mathematical games was organized for level CE2 (cours élémentaire 2) and CM1/CM2 (cours moyen 1 and 2) classes. The idea had been worked out by Jean Brett, a mathematician and head of the Mathematics Department at the Palais de la Découverte, in close collaboration with Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the head of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques; moreover the two men followed the pedagogical implementation of the project by regularly visiting the programme on the spot. In order to offer the same experience to a wider public consisting of a mixture of adults and children, the patrons wanted to have a monumental version of a mathematical game located out of doors. Bringing about a meeting between mathematical sciences and artistic creation struck them as being a relevant approach with this perspective in view.

The artwork

The composition of the sculpture rests on the principle of the Jeu des Cavaliers (Knights' Game) invented by Jean Brette. It results from a puzzle based on a complex mathematical problem arising from combinatorics and first raised in the 1950s by the famous mathematician Albert Skolem. Two parts facing one another structure the work: one gives a three-dimensional representation of four solutions, the other is similar to a play area accessible to the public. The volumetric part is composed of eight elements that can easily be identified by means of their material, colour, shape and height, resting on a cross-hatched and numbered floor. Discovering the relationships established between the base of each element and the numbering is the key to the rules of the game. Bands of coloured concrete with rails running through them enabling steel bars of different lengths to be slid along constitute the second part. It is by positioning these steel elements counting as Knights that the public is prompted to find solutions resolving the mathematical principle. The puzzle will be more or less complex depending on the number of Knights involved. The aesthetic experience offered here turns out to be rich and complex, requiring a very active dimension from the viewer, while at the same time preserving the playful dimension and visual enjoyment.

Jessica Stockholder

The mediator suggested bringing in Jessica Stockholder, an artist who has been engaged in sculptural work based on endowing the pictural with spatiality since the early 1980s. Often monumental, and always introducing a connection with the place in question, the works she produces proceed from assemblage – a deployment of materials, objects and other various elements through which the combinatorial aspect is explored in all its manifestations: relationships between the parts and the whole, experimentation with multiple permutations, assessment of probabilities. The interplays of tension inherent in the principle of accumulation, a choice of materials arousing astonishment and a jubilant chromaticism also constitute recurrent characteristics of her installations. What is more, for this artist laying claim to randomness in her work, matter makes it possible to reach an abstract space. It is a question of discovering the analogy between the processes inherent to artistic creativity and the thought processes. Furthermore each work invites viewers to apprehend in a physical manner, which will lead them to discover the multiplicity of the points of view that exist for each installation (a perceptive dimension of the combinatorial aspect), and to become aware of the ways and means by which thought emerges.