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The transformers: the mathematical art of Jennifer Townley

MB&F M.A.D.Gallery celebrates its new space with the exhibition Perpetual Transience II, which explores the kinetic artist’s use of mathematics to create geometric art

Nature is the most beautiful thing and if nature can have a mathematical basis, then maybe I can copy it and try to use the same laws and maybe replicate that natural beauty. - Jennifer Townley

The concept is simple enough — four gears of slightly differing sizes connected in a square with interlocking teeth, each with a pin anchoring a single white cord between them and driven by a motor. What isn’t simple though, is the result: Titled 161 Days, the shape of the space created by the white cord won’t repeat for more than five months. Some 161 days, to be precise.

The moving sculpture is part of Dutch artist Jennifer Townley’s five-piece exhibition called Perpetual Transience II showcased at the MB&F M.A.D.Gallery Dubai. Interested in geometrically engineered kinetic art, her work features shapes and forms with constantly evolving patterns that are continually being distorted and transformed.

“What you see now will only be repeated in 161 days,” says Townley.

“Until then it will be making new shapes every second.”

She explains that although the gears look alike, the number of teeth differs. “One has 86 teeth, for example, and the other 88 and yet another has 85. So, it needs a lot of rotations before they’re all in the same position again.”

Townley started making kinetic art while attending the Royal Academy of Fine Art in The Hague, in a course aimed at pieces involving more than one sense. “They had to incorporate sound or touch and smell, or something interactive. I started making machines that made a lot of noise — what you would hear is exactly what you would see. But I didn’t like them, because they made so much noise.

“So, I slowly started to make machines that didn’t make any noise at all. And I liked them so much more. I didn’t fit the course any more of course, but they didn’t mind very much.”

Nature is the most beautiful thing and if nature can have a mathematical basis, then maybe I can copy it and try to use the same laws and maybe replicate that natural beauty. - Jennifer Townley

Left, Asinas II, a one-off piece; right, Cubes L, a limited edition of three pieces; main photo, Colorola, another one-off created as a prototype for a larger commissioned piece

161 Days

The pieces are mesmerising, drawing the viewer in with a combination of the organic and the industrial. They’re simultaneously hard and soft, and mark the passing of time without measuring it. Townley balances physics, engineering and mathematics to create her geometric art, resulting in pieces that convert relatively simple circular motions into quite complex nonlinear and chaotic patterns.

The pieces move slowly, in some cases almost imperceptibly. This seems like a bit of a contradiction — incorporating movement but having it appear to almost not be moving at all. Why that speed?

“Maybe because I’m from the Netherlands, where it’s very busy and there are a lot people and you spend your day in traffic jams,” she ventures. “I guess I was trying to find some piece in a very busy world.”

Townley recently moved to a quieter spot in Spain where life occurs at a more relaxed pace, but this hasn’t affected the effect of her work. “I really like how the slow movement influences you. You can keep watching it and notice the movement, but it’s also so slow that you don’t really have to pay attention to it. You can dream a bit, but it will still get your attention.”

The pieces don’t demand much of the viewer. You can look away for any amount of time and return your gaze to a transformed piece. “That said, I also like it when it asks a little of your attention. If you walk past it you won’t see that it moves, but if you give it a little attention it will show you how it moves and transforms.”

Two pieces, Cubes L and Cubes S, employ these moving geometric shapes to play with depth of field and dimensions. Essentially completely flat, subtle movements reveal 3D shapes that jump out at the viewer.

“This is one of my favourite patterns. I really like geometrical patterns, and you see this one a lot in Islamic art, for instance.

“I like that by adding just a couple of lines in a certain mathematical way you’ll automatically see something that isn’t there. It’s like an optical illusion.

“I was wondering with these pieces, if I could make you see a cube on a certain spot, by actually making a three-dimensional shape. And then to transform that into a different cube than the one you saw before.”

Asinas II, meanwhile, looks like two spinal columns folding into one another.

Townley says she always starts with the simple circular movement of the motor. “I am quite interested to see where I can take it. I never use a computerised motor that can turn this way and that, or a little and a lot, or fast and slow. It’s always the same speed and the same direction, just continuously going on.

“This really adds to this sense of peacefulness and infinity that I want the viewer to get.”

“Nature is the most beautiful thing and if nature can have a mathematical basis, then maybe I can copy it and try to use the same laws and maybe replicate that natural beauty.”

— Jennifer Townley

Also striking in the gallery space is how the environment beyond the artworks changes — the lights and shadows dance as the pieces evolve.

Colorola, measuring 160x160x20cm, perhaps draws most recognisably from the natural world, its colour moving like waves through the frame. “I was trying to make something organic, but from forms that aren’t organic,” she explains. “The forms are very rectangular and geometric. And it is the same in nature — like a palm tree or a pineapple, its like these diamond shapes that are positioned in a certain mathematical way that will create something natural and organic, and I find that very interesting and inspiring.

“Nature is the most beautiful thing and if nature can have a mathematical basis, then maybe I can copy it and try to use the same laws and maybe replicate that natural beauty.”

The work was a prototype for a piece of public art, meant to go on the side of a building. “They wanted something very long and decorative. I wanted to do something that would connect the sky with the ground, so I was thinking to add colour coming down in a certain way…”

Townley isn’t sure how her ideas germinate. “It starts so small that you almost don’t notice that you’re starting to think of a sculpture. It’s not a conscious process; it’s something that grows without me being aware of it.”

madgallery.net

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