I have a very clear memory, as a youngish child, of watching, one Saturday morning, a television programme about quantum mechanics. I must have been up too early for cartoons and caught the end of one of those shows, broadcast at insomniac hours, which The Open University used to screen on the BBC. The programme described a thought experiment. Imagine you have a pair of gloves. You separate them and put them in boxes. You post one to a friend in London; the other, to a friend in Paris. The friend in Paris opens her box to find the right-hand glove. The friend in London, therefore, has the left-handed glove – whether he opened the box before, after or at the same time as the friend in Paris. Except, the narrator explained, that when the gloves are in their boxes, as yet unseen, either glove could fit either hand – or, more accurately, neither has the quality of ‘handedness’ at all. It is only when one box is opened that you know the shape of the other glove. Somehow, over whatever distance may separate them, these two items are connected and there is something about observing one that determines the other. The gloves represented particles and, the narrator went on to say, a team of scientists somewhere had done a real experiment that proved this theory.
I was a very literal child and I tried to imagine a two-thumbed glove in its box, hermaphrodite, caught somewhere between left and right. (I had not, at that time – and perhaps thankfully – heard about Schrödinger and his famous dead-undead cat.) But I struggled – I still struggle – to get beyond the materiality of the object. Someone, somewhere, had cut the leather for those gloves, had stitched the seams around the fingers, had carefully made one to fit a right hand and the other to fit a left hand: it wasn’t possible that they could shape-shift, just like that. I trusted, absolutely, in the thinginess of things.
On the surface of it – and I think surfaces are important to him – Peter Fraser is not a
photographer who doubts stuff. From his earliest photo-book, 1988’s Two Blue Buckets – titled after a striking image of the eponymous objects, one candy floss-hued, the other glossy forget-me-knot, almost touching on a slate-grey floor – to his most recent series, ‘Mathematics’, Fraser has presented objects from the marvellous to the mudane with a disarming matter-of-factness. We could say that in another way, as fact-of-matterness. His images are never staged but found, already there, givens. (‘The forces in the world have a much better idea of where things should be than I do,’ the artist has said.) I find Fraser’s work – like that of his mentor William Eggleston, with whom he spent a youthful summer in the American South in the early 1980s, and his former Bournemouth College pupil Wolfgang Tillmans – to be flatly non-metaphorical; his objects are not cyphers for other things. (That’s not to say that they don’t suggest bigger pictures. A sense of the social – and with it a politics, an ethics – is always present. How could it not be? These are photographs of life.)
The ‘Mathematics’ works are simultaneously more hermetic (in their framing; in their distinctness from one another) and more expansive (in the variety of their geographies and objects) than perhaps any other of Fraser’s series to date. Two halves of cherry tomato sit on a round plate, their cut edges beginning to curl in the dry air; a corrugated-steel hut crowds out a winter-drab landscape, its flaking blue paint revealing flame-like tongues of a scarlet layer beneath; in an open stadium thousands of young couples stand poised to danced, hands on one another’s shoulders, their garlanded folk costumes at odds with the glass-cube architecture of the city in the background. Fraser pulls back, he zooms in; but, though the scale and nature of what is observed shifts, things are presented intimately as they are. This gives the work a kind of urgency, each shot an exclamation point, that seems undimmed from the rapt eye that saw beauty in a plastic-sheathed pile of breeze blocks in the very early series ‘12-Day Journey’ (1984). (Fraser speaks unselfconsciously of epiphanies.)
Of course, every photograph happens in the imperative tense: it’s an instruction to look – again, more closely, at this. But what are we trying to find here? Where are the ‘mathematics’ the series’ title points us to? Everywhere, says Fraser. Following Galileo: ‘The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.’ Look around you: human, animal, vegetable; stone and sea, snow and air – there is nothing that exists that does not have mathematical expression. (In the physical world, at least; let’s leave aside, for now, the question of the spiritual, of which there is undoubtedly an element in Fraser’s work). Maths can explain why the sunlight passes through the diaphanous crowns of a bunch of tulips, and the length of the shadow one building casts over another in the morning sun, and the repeating, slip-sliding scale pattern on the underbelly of a snake.
There is something powerful (and comforting) in the idea of a mathematical universe determined by universal laws. This is approaching what Einstein (after Spinoza) understood by God – God who ‘does not play dice’, per his infamous dismissal of quantum mechanics and its uncertainty principle. (In Einstein’s telling, proved incorrect, the spectral gloves of my childhood are always already left and right: there is no both/neither.) Physicists haven’t yet found the Theory of Everything that would bring together both general relativity and quantum theory, but I don’t think they’ll ever stop looking. In one photograph from the ‘Mathematics’ series, craning up to see the magnificent cupula of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, every available surface flickers with intricate calligraphy and restless, repeating motifs. Rendered with improbable clarity by Fraser’s high-resolution camera, it’s an overwhelming density of pattern – too much for the human eye to take in; a voluptuous expression of the perfect geometries of the divine.
Is mathematics a question of belief? It certainly takes a leap of faith to follow a theory for which we have not yet been able to look minutely enough, or in the right places, to observe empirical evidence. And a leap of imagination: a breadth of vision that is able to hold both the infinite and the infinitesimally small. I am struck time and again by the shifts in scale in Fraser’s ‘Mathematics’ series – from fish to chair to building, street, mountain; finally to a liquid-hot star, in false colour and grainy resolution, projected on the ceiling of a darkened room. Also by a sense of accumulation: one hut, two tomatoes, a cluster of rocks, a rack of pool balls, stacks of chairs, a stadium full of people, overflowing boxes of fish.
Mathematics might come down to a question of two simultaneous and opposing truths: humans are tiny and inconsequential in a universe whose laws are indifferent to our existence; and, also, we are inescapably at the centre of a world of our own making.
Amy Sherlock is the Deputy Editor of Frieze.