At Blenheim Palace with Ai Weiwei

I’m as agnostic as anyone about contemporary art, but if one of an artist’s intentions is to make you look at something with a fresh approach, then I had something of a Road to Damascus moment earlier this year.

It’s nearly six months ago now, but as part of the golden wedding celebrations in April we took ourselves off to Blenheim Palace for a slap-up meal. It was the most beautiful day, and we strolled around the grounds – or at least some of them, for Blenheim isn’t your common or garden palace.   The building itself is reputed to cover seven acres; it contains a library 55m long. It was designed by Vanbrugh in 1705 and the landscaping was done by Capability Brown.


It’s the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Winston Churchill was born there.


When we visited, there were a number of pieces of contemporary art both inside and art, but the one that took my eye consisted of a square array of blue porcelain sort-of-three-quarter-spheres. Neither Jill, nor our son, were greatly impressed, but each time I looked I saw something more in the layout.

Guardian Bubbles
Looking down a corner I saw a diagonal of six near-hemispheres. To each side of the diagonal there were further diagonals, of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.   So 6² = 1+2+3+4+5+6+5+4+3+2+1, and I could write a similar statement for a square of any size.

But another look brought out that the 5+4+3+2+1 grouping is the fifth triangular number, so it’s also true that 6² = T5 + 6 + T5     So this is another way of looking at square numbers.

Another one is to count the long diagonal in with one of the sets of 5+4+3+2+1. So this time we have (6+5+4+3+2+1) + (5+4+3+2+1)  – in other words T6 + T5

And then I could use the near-hemisphere at one corner as the central point of an L-shape, in which nestled a series of smaller and smaller L-shapes. Numerically, 6² = 11+9+7+5+3+1

I don’t think any of these visualisations were actually new to me, but the array certainly brought them to life in a way that was original and powerful. To me, at any rate – neither Jill nor Simon was ever convinced.

Blenheim Palace, April 2015 (18b)

You’ll gather that we don’t usually move in such circles, but we discovered that quite by accident we’d visited an exhibition of the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Though confined to his home and studio in Beijing, he created the largest exhibition of his work in the UK via 3D computer models. The exhibit with the near-hemispheres is called Bubbles, and took him two years to create as he experimented over and over again to find the precise details of the shade and glaze of the porcelain ceramic.






One response

  1. Mathematics is everywhere. Thanks for sharing!

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