Everything is Number

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 September 2001

30 June – 11 August 2001, Site Gallery

On the face of it, the recent exhibition Everything is Number at The Site gallery in Sheffield explored its thematic faultlessly: casting its cross-generational net around the work of six artists, it juxtaposed the abstract and apparently infallible logic of number‚ with the various cognitive, entropic and chaotic tendencies of its contemporary human lifeworld. In her Software That Outputs A Voice That Starts With A Very Large Number And Counts Down To A Very Small Number (installed simultaneously in the gallery and city station), Lucy Kimbell’s remastered voice was made to perform the same recombinant trick played by automated ‘192’ telephone directory or speaking clock functions in a countdown so enormous as to dwarf every numerical experience that might be had in its earshot. Similarly, Tony Kemplen’s second exhibited work, The End, lined up nine puny domestic light timers underneath a neon ‘The End’ sign to tick the time away to certain death rather than illumination. Elsewhere, Paul William Mulvihill’s beautiful (but hardly transparent) work harnessed multiple codifying transitions (text-to-ASCII-to-binary-to-musical notes) to turn an Arvo Pärt quote into sonic harmonies. Seven wineglasses, a robotic arm and a willing translation device illustrated what the accompanying leaflet described as ‘the constant translation between numerical codes and language[s] which goes on invisibly in everyday life.’

This slightly perverse but - given the right manual - fully legible exercise gives a good idea of why, ultimately, the exhibition itself seemed to be operating under numbered instructions. For a theme so fascinating and prone to exponential growth, it was unduly ‘shrunk’ to fulfil the role of curatorial prop. Like the historical era from which it cribbed its aesthetics, its take on number also felt long gone.

Luke Jerram offered an alternative interpretation with his piece Matrix, in which the retinal after-images of a row of laserhead dots morph into a ubiquitious grid. Sadly, you only grasp his uncanny, biologically and mathematically sophisticated contribution when you read about its rationale. Without it, this fairground style ‘hit-and-run’ is all too easy to dismiss.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <Pauline AT> is a writer and co-editor of Mute.