By the numbers: Singapore’s first mathematics-themed arts festival opens this week
This year’s NUS Arts Festival will include shows, talks and film screenings related to maths.
If you think combining arts and maths doesn't quite add up, Singapore’s first mathematics-themed arts festival aims to prove it can be a winning equation.
This year’s NUS Arts Festival carries the theme A Game Of Numbers and will feature performances, talks and movie screenings that are all related in one way or another to maths and figures.
The festival’s 14th edition, which runs from Mar 15 to 23, is a collaboration between NUS Centre For The Arts and the Faculty of Science’s Department of Mathematics, which is celebrating its 90th year.
Why maths? “Right now, there’s a lot of attention being paid to things like Bitcoin, blockchain and data analytics, which signals the fact that maths is a very important subject in schools,” explained festival director Mary Loh. “And Singapore is also ranked top in terms of math education."
She added: “It’s also curious that when you ask anybody, they’ll say they’re bad at maths – but how can you be bad when you use it every day to tell time, or (when) we define people according to numbers like GPA, PSLE, height and weight. It was an interesting starting point for us.”
But before you get bogged down by numbers, the festival isn’t going to be one continuous mathematics lecture – one of its pre-festival teaser events last week was a rock concert that focused on the “math rock” genre, which is known for complicated rhythms.
There is, briefly, a maths lecture, though – in the opening show A Disappearing Number, which looks at the story of Cambridge professor GH Hardy and self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who made some important mathematical discoveries in the last century. Originally presented by award-winning UK group Complicite, the Singapore production will be directed by Edith Podesta.
“It starts off as a maths lecture – it confronts your fears early,” quipped Loh. “But at the end of the day, you really have a story about maths, love, relationships, hope and faith.”
Among the other shows are: Behalf, featuring Taiwanese contemporary dancer Chen Wu-kang and Thai khon master Pichet Klunchun; NUS Indian Dance’s 28; NUS Chinese Drama’s The Child Who Loved Numbers; and the closing concert The Art Of War by the NUS Chinese Orchestra.
There will also be free screenings of movies such as The Imitation Game, about mathematician Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and The Man Who Knew Infinity, about Ramanujan himself (played by Dev Patel).
And the idea of collaborating with the maths department wasn’t just a means of paying lip service to its anniversary. In preparing for some of the shows, faculty members actually talked to the artists to explain some of the concepts they were tackling, said Loh, who added that they had the same passion when explaining maths as the artists had when they talked about art.
The age-old notion of a left brain-right brain split is quite outdated, she added.
“The fact is, you can’t do art without mathematics. If you don’t have numbers like 5, 6, 7, 8 you can’t dance or play music. Visual art is based on symmetry – the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio of beauty can’t exist without mathematics. At the same time, there’s a certain kind of artistry in mathematics – there’s balance, for instance,” said Loh.
“They both share a very common goal – to try and make sense of the world around us. To explain how things are, to find patterns. Artistic process and mathematical thinking are fairly similar – you try and imagine something, and spend some time trying to prove it,” she said.
But perhaps the most important question is: Will watching the shows at the festival help people with their numbers?
“I don’t think we’ll improve in our maths,” Loh said with a laugh. “But certainly, it’ll help you to see things differently.”
The NUS Arts Festival 2019 runs from Mar 15 to 23. For more details, visit www.nusartsfestival.com.