February 20, 2011

Tessellation Tango

Perched high on the steep slopes of a hill overlooking Berkeley, Calif., the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) has a spectacular site, with a view across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.

Visitors to MSRI are also greeted by a fascinating tile mural that stretches across a wall beside the entrance to the building.

Designed by Linda Vanderkolk and Scott Frankenberger and installed in 2006, the geometric mosaic is titled Tessellation Tango.

Two types of rhombic tiles combine to form a "tumbling blocks" pattern.

The artwork includes about 950 handmade porcelain tiles of two basic rhombic shapes (a skinny diamond and a fat diamond). On the left side, the tiles combine into a "tumbling blocks" or "reversing cube" pattern. On the right side, the tiles fit together to form fragments of a Penrose tiling.

The same two types of rhombic tiles can also be arranged into a Penrose tiling.

The middle section of the mural tries to reconcile the two distinct tiling patterns, presenting a dialog between the two forceful approaches to organization. The artists imagine this interaction as a dance—as communication in search of commonalities, all set against a chaotic background of fragmented white tiles.

The middle section of the tile mural Tessellation Tango.

About two thirds of the porcelain tiles are inscribed with numbers, mathematical expressions, concepts, and names.

"We explore possible patterns within the tessellations, and then patterns within the pattern, augmented by color repetitions or shape development," Vanderkolk and Frankeberger note. "The frame of the mural is not the limit of the visual field. We can imagine more patterns and new forms implied unfolding in the imaginary zone beyond the edges."

"The kind of thinking that artists often use—exploration, discovery, creativity, synthesis—is the very same at its root as that used by mathematicians," they add. "The different ways of looking at the same forms and patterns, both far away and close up, leads to enlightened new thinking, and inspiration."

Photos by I. Peterson

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