Inspiring Innovators: through a shared passion for the number zero, Mikhail Gromov showed David Lynch that maths can be an art, too

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2014

I’m not a mathematician; I know nothing about maths. But it was a number that brought Mikhail Gromov and me together.

In 2011, Hervé Chandès, the director of the Fondation Cartier in Paris, had this great idea to make an art show out of mathematics. Early on he had me meeting several mathematicians, and we were just fishing for ideas, like what in the world would this thing be, and what could we show that would bring maths and images and sounds together? All the mathematicians I met were great charactersthey’re all out there, you know, in their landbut Mikhail still stood out.

We met several times over the course of a year. The first time was in a small art gallery on the rue du Montparnasse. When I came in, he was seated at a large table with a computer in front of him. I sat opposite him across this big table and started talking. After a couple hours, he got up, put his computer in his backpack, put on the backpack and headed out the door. And he got out to the street and I’m looking at this guywith this wild grey hair frizzed up and terrible clothes, this ratty backpackand I’m thinking, “Anyone who saw him in the street would think he was a homeless man.” You see, he doesn’t care one bit about clothes: they’re too much of a distraction from the business of thinking.

We talked about a lot of ideas, but the biggest idea that came out of that meeting was: zero. Big, reverberating zero. Talking about zero really excited the mathematicians. They say that all the numbers, negative and positive, come out of it. It was exciting to me, too. I love the big zeroI’ve been meditating for 40 years, and for me zero can represent many things: the unified field, the ocean of consciousness, the place where silence and dynamism can gather as one, the combined opposites. It’s this magical field at the base of matter and mind, and it’s really No Thingso it’s zero. It’s zero. Yet it has the potential for everything. Zero is the meeting point between meditation and mathematics.

So my job then was to build a zero. Fondation Cartier has a big, big room on the ground floor and I designed a big white zero that filled it. It was a little bit like a spiral. It had an entry point, a place where you could walk into a hall; the hall led to an opening to an inner room, which was also a zero. It was in the inner zero that you learned about Mikhail Gromov’s favourite books and his work in mathematicsRiemannian geometry, mathematical biology, how he describes the world in shapes and formulae. The inner zero had a domed ceiling and on it I projected an animated film I made based on the Planck scale, showing different sizes of particle from sub-atomic up all the way to galactic superstructures. I also made a place for little robots, little baby robots to perform.

Mikhail liked everything I made for the show, except he and some of the other mathematicians said the Planck-scale film had got the size of the mountains wrong. I guess that’s the sort of thing only a mathe­matician would spot, but I didn’t want them arguing about it, so I let them have their way. In another part of the show, I hid some tiny writing on a wall that showed the correct size.

Mikhail has described maths as being a way of seeing the structures inside things; he loves nature and wants to describe it in terms of mathematics. And that’s what thrills him. It’s like a painter wanting to describe nature with paint, or a film-maker describing nature with lighthe’s an artist, it’s just he sees the world like a kind of dance of numbers. After the show was over, a former student of his did a documentary on Mikhail and in it you can see he finds happiness in his mathematicsin fact he finds more and more happiness the deeper he goes into it. He’s an artist, and he’s happy in his art. That’s what is inspiring: he is a human being, and he loves the big reverberating zero.

"Vivid Memories: a celebration of 30 years of art at the Fondation Cartier" continues in Paris until Sept 21st 2014

David Lynch, 68, is a film director, artist and surrealist, whose work includes “Eraserhead”, “Blue Velvet”, “Mulholland Drive” and the television series “Twin Peaks”. Mikhail Gromov, 70, is a Russian-born mathematician and permanent professor at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France; in 2009 he won the Abel prize for his contributions to geometry

In our Inspiring Innovators series we ask 14 notable people to name another person in public life who has inspired them

Interview by Isabel Lloyd, deputy editor of Intelligent Life

Illustration Noma Bar

Photograph (David Lynch) Dean Hurley