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Calculating Reality

Calculating RealityTufts graduate Lun-Yi Tsai creates art inspired by mathematics to try to understand the world around him.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.29.08] When is a teacup not a teacup? According to artist Lun-Yi Tsai, when you're looking right at it.

"Everything that we experience, we've abstracted in our childhood," says Tsai, who graduated from Tufts in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in math. "When you see a teacup, you don't really see a teacup. We're unaware that we're actually abstracting reality constantly."

He explored this idea in a piece called "La Vie Priveé," which features depictions of a teacup, a donut and a bowl as well what he calls representations of the abstractions of these objects. This work, like his others, is inspired by applying principles of mathematics to an understanding of our surroundings.

Tsai explains how we abstract objects in our mind by explaining his work "La Vie Privée":

"I think mathematics provides us with this opportunity to re-experience at each turn this process [of abstraction]," Tsai explains. "It's a great tool to use to try to understand our experience of the world that we find ourselves in."

Tsai came to Tufts initially to study international relations. When he found himself enjoying his math classes more than his humanities courses, he switched majors, and also began taking art courses at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. After he graduated in 1992, he pursued a master's degree in mathematics.

"I was drawn to studying more and more math because of my great experience at Tufts," says Tsai.

On Oct. 3, Tsai returned to Tufts to give a talk at a colloquium in the Department of Mathematics on "Processes and Representation." During the talk, as he explained the mathematical principle of contraction mapping (which inspired the piece "Contraction Mapping with Picard's Theorem"), he noted that he had learned that theorem from Robinson Professor of Mathematics Eric Todd Quinto in the same room 18 years previously. Tsai often collaborates with math scholars around the world to create visual representations of mathematical theories.

Tsai talks about his piece "Contraction Mapping with Picard's Theorem":

"It was moving to be there," Tsai says of coming back to campus and meeting with his old professors. "I remember moments, in which classroom and when I learned what theorem and what kind of day it was."

Tsai spent the past summer working and exhibiting in Berlin, Germany, as a part of that country's "Year of Mathematics" and is now teaching at Miami-Dade College in Florida. While he has engaged in figurative painting, particularly during the time he lived in China in the late 1990s and in New York City after Sept. 11, today he firmly roots his art in the abstract school.

"It's strongly mathematically inspired. I like to say it's mathematically inspired and not mathematical art. I believe there's a pretty big distinction."

Tsai discusses another work inspired in part by Tufts professor Loring Tu that explores color and symbols of nationalism:

To some, math and art may seem dialectically opposed. But for Tsai, they are complementary.

"I have this mathematical, rigorous way of approaching life and reality and abstract things. Then on the other hand, I've got this artist side that wants to just jump away from all that," he explains. "Sometimes I do in the artwork. I just leave the math behind. But it's a struggle to make these leaps of intuition but at the same time come back to make sure you didn't make any mistake in making that jump from point A to point B."

Tsai views math as a grounding for his artistic exploration.

"The mathematical background that I have is a check on what I do in my art. There's always some amount of control that comes back and makes me want to check what I've done and make sure that it's authentic and has integrity and that I am really saying what I need to say."

Profile and slideshows by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications


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