I like numbers. Numbers can be cool. On the surface they can be quite straightforward and be about tangible quantities of things – like boxes of eggs or boxes of screws, but it’s when they do strange things, or stop being tangible that they start becoming really interesting.
It hasn’t always been that way for me though. I remember when I was 14 my maths teacher asked the class if anyone hated maths. Well, maths at 14 is pretty dull compared with the other things in life so I presumed everyone would put up their hands. No? But it was just me. OK, it was the top set in the year and all that, but honestly – no one else hated maths? My argument was that maths was ok when you were adding things up or working out practical stuff, but do you really need to understand logarithms and quadratic equations to buy half a dozen eggs? The irony of that was I subsequently worked in photography where logarithms were a daily event for calculating things like reciprocity failure or the change of development time with increased temperature.
My youngest kid is still getting to grips with quantities. At the moment he is obsessed with big numbers like a googol and a googolplex. A googol is 1 followed by a hundred zeros. That’s a really big number. I think a five year old knows it’s big too but I don’t think most people realise how big that physically is. It’s certainly more than the total number of things on this planet to give you an idea. And then a googolplex is a 1 followed by a googol zeros. That’s a number that’s so big that there aren’t enough atoms in the known universe for it to actually exist. I like that we can create numbers so big that they can’t physically exist.
So the 30,000 bottles I’ve got to install this week seems tame in comparison. It’s still bigger than you could possibly count in one go.
I’ve often wondered how scientists count flocks of starlings. They’re far too big to count individually and as flocks are less dense on the outside, counting a section isn’t going to accurate enough.
Counting big numbers is quite difficult. Some birds can recognise quite large numbers of birds in one go, however most people would struggle to count more than nine birds in a field without physically counting them one-by-one. We can easily recognise when there are two objects without counting them. In fact most people can recognise up to nine things just by looking at them. Anymore than that and you have to physically count them one at a time – or in twos, threes or small chunks. So to count all 30,000 jars, given that by the time you get to a hundred you’re down to one a second just to say the number in your head – even saying “twenty-three thousand three hundred and seventy-seven” – takes three seconds, – it’d take over eight hours – or all day more or less.
One of the best shows I saw last year was Mark Wallinger’s ‘SITE’ at Baltic, Gateshead. His piece – 10000000000000000 – a series of chess boards with a pebble on each square was beautiful on so many levels. Made from a grid of 32 x 32 chess boards, there are 65,536 pebbles in all. This is what’s called a superperfect number – made by squaring numbers up from 2 – 2×2=4, 4×4=16, 16×16=256, 256×256=65,536. The title is that number represented in binary form. That it’s 1 followed by sixteen zeros is kind of perfect too.
Beyond the number bit, it’s an awesome sight – the scale of the piece has such presence up close. Lie on the floor and the piece just disappears into the horizon. I’ve written before about the unique emotional response artworks of a certain scale have. There’s something about a work made of quantities you can’t count that’s a little awe-inspiring.
By pure chance, ‘Carpet’ will be about the same size, although only half the number of objects. Whereas in Wallinger’s piece we know exactly how many pebbles there are, it’s unlikely I’ll ever know how many jars will be in ‘Carpet’. That’s kind of nuts. How can I make a piece when I don’t know how many things I’m using? The jars come packed on pallets. Because they are round they kind of fit together to fill the space and then stacked up, but because it isn’t an exact fit the quantities are just an approximation. So I can’t even go by the number I start with. There’s also likely to be failures and disappearances, and given I’m not going to spend 8 1/2 hours counting them, the final number will never be known.
Yet all these numbers are mere fist-fulls compared with Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010. ‘Sunflower Seeds’ saw part of the Turbine Hall filled with 8 million hand crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. This took an entire town over a year to manufacture. At that quantity there’s no way of counting them numerically. That can only be estimated by weight, and even then there was bound to be failures and loss during installation, let alone the numbers which ‘disappeared’ during the exhibition.
It was a shame that the infamous health and safety rules stopped people from walking on them. When I saw them late one afternoon the view from behind a security tape under the watchful glance of a uniformed invigilator didn’t really give you a feel for the sheer quantity involved. Also, despite the huge volume, it still only occupied less than a quarter of the vast Turbine Hall. That aside, as a volume work, it was pretty incredible.
I’m now thinking my lowly 30,000 pieces seems very reserved. Still, at a strike rate of one every five seconds, that would still take me over 42 hours on my own. So glad I have a team to count on.