Hi-low tech: Shelley James, Platonic solids and quasi-crystallography

26 Aug

Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here.  


Let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors.

(Variations of the sign that hung above Plato’s academy)

In August, I met with Shelley James and, in the prismatic glow of her contribution to the Jerwood Makers Open 2014, we talked about her ongoing exploration into Platonic solids, Euclidian geometry, quasicrystalline structures and visual perception.

Physical forms, for James, are dense, layered, complex things suspended within a wider, less visible or knowable world. Linking philosophies of form and spirit via intensive technical processes, her shapes, installed in Jerwood Visual Arts, are deeply contemplative and beguiling. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange, with additional links, images, footnotes and further materials for thought.


How did these shapes evolve? 

My research at the RCA was on visual perception, and the ways in which the brain processes information from the eyes in order to understand space. This led to my exploration of how to suspend structures within glass. I wanted to create a special trick with the eyes, because with this medium you can find patterns and structures that are apparently floating, or you can replicate one set of patterns to appear as if their facets are multiplying – the optical and material qualities of the glass can be manipulated to create a confusion in the brain. And so I developed various techniques for doing this.

I realised that in order for this to operate really strongly, the patterns needed to be perfectly regular. Otherwise you shortcut that illusion and simply make a narrative. I developed a technique for layering very precise patterns within the glass, which involved working with a glass blower, but I also used classic printmaking tools, for example an Intaglio technique – where you cut away at a material. Together we worked out how to build up layers with these pocketed parts of air inside each one.

Elemental Symmetries, 2014


Elemental Symmetries, 2014


If you look at the forms closely, you can see there’s an embryo, then another layer, and then the next layer has some printed effects on it, so it’s mixing additive and subtractive techniques together.

In the past, I’ve mostly worked with curved surfaces, and I’ve spent a lot of time observing how they create a ripple and magnification effect. Here, I wanted to deal with patterns and archetypal forms but also the metaphysical, metaphorical, philosophical side of such forms. It’s about the essential, about our experience of the world. I developed another technique to cut them in to perfect shapes – slicing them from a cylinder into something else. I worked from an old book on geometry, which gave me the angles between the Platonic solids. They are sort of the ideal sculpture, because they look so beautiful from all ends.

Platonic multiplications

So their combinations with themselves and with each other give rise to endless complexities, which anyone who is to give a likely account of reality must survey.
The Timaeus, Plato

Using a milling machine and a CAD programme, I ensured that all the forms were facially regular, and then I used the same technique they’ve used since Egyptian times to smooth each piece of glass using grit. You rub the glass over the grit and it slowly wears away, gradually using a finer and finer grit until you graduate to a pumice wheel, to perfectly smooth the surfaces.

How do you see them?

I suppose what was paradoxical about making them was that although they are very technical and time-intensive, each one actually relates to one of the elements, and so I spent a great deal of time thinking about that, too.

This one, the dodecahedron is aether, the divine; this one is an icosahedron, and these are water, fire, air, earth [pointing to each shape]. I found as I made each one, I kept thinking about these elemental qualities as well. They started to have a strong emotional resonance, more than just a technical quality. My hope is that they transcend their material, technical presence to offer some way of thinking about other dimensions of our experience. That’s why I like working with print and materials, because at worst, they need to be well made. But if they transcend to something else, then that’s fantastic.

The knowledge of which geometry aims is the knowledge of the eternal. 
—Republic, VII, 52.

And why is a dodecahedron aether? What is the relationship between the geometry and metaphysics?

Plato and some of the other Greek philosophers were trying to work out the distinction between what they could see, and what lies behind or beneath the visible. They understood that there must be more than what we can visually obtain in the world. They were trying to get to the essence of what we were seeing and perceiving, and they felt that by looking closer at forms, and phenomena around them, they could identify particular shapes which had a philosophical and material resonance with what they were observing.

Plato’s idea was that our view of what we see is like a sheet, thrown over some divine reality which is just beyond our gross mortal ability to see things. A sheet thrown over a rich, fabulous, extraordinary world, and all you see are these shapes poking out. These Platonic solids are as close we can be to seeing behind that sheet. They described the elements via different shapes: a cube is solid, it has an up and a down, cardinal points. An octahedron is air, and it has a kind of forward motion, it has a movement to it. Fire is pointy, fire creates prismatic effects, it’s sharp. Others are mobile.

[Plato wrote most about the solids in Timaeus (c.360 BC). Earth, a cube. Air, an octahedron. Fire, a tetrahedron and water, an icosahedron. According to various sources, these related to the sensations or visual phenomena of the matter itself. For example: the burning heat of fire is sharp, like tetrahedra. Or, the flowing form of an icosahedron, which pours and tumbles, fluid-like.

Of the fifth solid, aether, Plato wrote:

that ..the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.]

They began to question: why is it that the stars stay up there? Or, where do we go when we die? What is beyond this realm? They looked at starfish, hands, and deduced a five-fold logic from these forms. It’s related to a five-fold symmetry – celestial. I was reading about those metaphysical, poetic qualities, and so I found myself investing some of these qualities in the work as I developed them.

The way that they play and manipulate the light makes them appear  form-less. It’s not that they are visual tricks, but our understanding of the space inside the shape is unsure and full of doubt. They are malleable, according to where you stand in relation to them. And that’s perhaps the essence of these metaphysical elements: you’re never quite sure of what is in front of you, and your position to these things is always changing and mutating. 

Precisely. It’s about trying to express that fragile equilibrium. I used microscope lamps to display them, and I wanted to think about how the presentation reflects this wider chain of fragility.

Is this part of a wider series?

The Jerwood Visual Arts commission allowed me to delve into this properly for the first time. I had been working with a crystallographer on symmetry, but inside curved forms, because they give all sorts of rippling uncertainties, depending on scale and position. This funding allowed me to explore new territory. This was the first time I’d made anything like this.

How might you develop this way of working in the future? 

I’m hoping to depart from Euclidian geometry, where the forms are confined in the world of fractions and angles from Greek geometry. I’d like to explore the next generation of math and crystals, quasi-crystollography. They’ve just discovered it thanks to new technology, and there’s a subtle variation of the five-fold shape called a quasi-crystal, for which Dan Schechtman received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 2011. It’s looking at irrational numbers, which never repeat again in infinity. They have a whole mystery and mythology about them.

Electron diffraction pattern of an icosahedral Ho-Mg-Zn quasicrystal

[The notion of an ‘aperiodic crystal’ – a form that is irregular, or without translational symmetry, was first explored by Schrödinger in What is Life? (1944).]


What I’ve been surprised by is that expressing geometry like this triggers a poetic response. I am wondering – and its never been done before – what happens when we put this new kind of geometry into optical forms. We don’t know what we’re going to get yet.




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