Existential mathematics at workLaurent Derobert

The art of existential mathematics is slightly obscure, lurking in the shadows of expectation. It involves mathematical operations being performed on poetic concepts, which, purely from a visual perspective, creates a curious cocktail of combinations. This art form encompasses the correlation within romantic vestals, the models and mazes of passion and measuring the gap between our dreams and realities. It is the unique pursuit of Laurent Derobert, a doctor of economics. He questions our relationship to the world, producing rigorous equations that are also sensitive poems.

As his analysis extends to asymmetrical relationships, the hydraulics of sentiments and their system of interdependence, the language is often overwhelming. But with coefficients such as jealous love and the degree of pure egoism, it is peppered with poetic ideas that give us something to grasp onto. His dense mathematical formulae are always followed by expressive remarks: we are informed that the results are only "valid if the emotive volume of both lovers is fixed, that the size of their hearts is constant." These remarks are always relative to something relatable, such as "the quantum of attention and affection that is given, of which the lovers are the vectors". In other words, we can always position ourselves at the centre of his universe.

The artist describes his aim as to "re-conquer unexplored fields of consciousness… what evades us, what is concealed, find a meditative density when it is summed up in a formula… reducing the internal maze within each individual, that labyrinthine distance that separates us from ourselves, from what we think we are, from what we dream of being." This often takes the form of contemporary art as seen in the exhibition Tiana’s Conjecture at Palais de Tokyo (2015) where he wrote equations using the tears of women who came to confess their deepest heartbreaks.

As I descend into what is almost a deep cavern, I see that his studio is also his sleeping space. The bed lifts up into a blackboard upon which he works through his equations: inspiration sometimes comes whilst dreaming so he scribbles mid-sleep. When the bed is not a blackboard it is propped up by a pile of books for bedposts, and the shadows of the footsteps that flicker across the walls from the world above have assumed a striking significance. He says he often lays staring at their shapes, and has lately been working on the poetic proof that shadows are cast at a faster speed than light: a scientific revolution.

A short history of the shadow tells us that art and mathematics have been entwined from the start. As legend has it, a departing lover was caught in candlelight and his shadow was cast on the wall. Its outline was traced by Butades, which is then said to be the origin of drawing. As far as maths is concerned, trigonometric functions developed from the study of the lengths of shadows cast by objects of various heights. It is not such a surprise then that reality is forged and fashioned in the shadow of Derobert’s mathematical symbols, like poetry in the shadow of the pen. Though these equations search to escape their shadow, they are not anchored to their page.

A restless energy ripples beneath the surface of his book Fragments of Existential Mathematics, its thematic thread carried by the ebb and flow of surprise and shifting instability. In examining the endless turmoil of the external world and our encounters within, the collection then examines the shifting tides within the self. This includes the twists and turns of passion, the vacillation of values and the inconstancy of our ideal being.

Whilst combining these very different languages might seem as absurd as combining custard with concrete, poetry and maths do speak in similar tongues. Each stitch in the fabric of these two languages is a symbol bursting with significance beyond its physical self, with maximum meaning captured in minimal space. Though whilst mathematics dictates that reality be dissected with a sharp surgical detachment, stripped back to the flesh and bone of the moment itself, the poetic dimension speaks from the heart.

At the same time, a poem often projects itself as the portal to an extended range of understanding. Being endowed with power and purpose, it is a stepping stone in our search for clarification. In contrast, his collection does not chase after conclusions that cannot be caught, neither is it an examination into the emotional universe which is consequently shaken. Despite the sharp sense of self-awareness and the seemingly concrete structures of certainty, there will never be a solution. It is an exploration, and as he is quick to point out, these equations never explain, they express.

As we conclude our evening with the agreement that we are nothing but clouds, ephemerally drifting across the endless possibility of sky, this man seems to be more of a poet than a mathematician at heart. The fragility and force of the human heart is examined with piercing precision, but his art is the algebra of feelings after all. If we dwell on the Arabic word origin 'al djabr', we see that it signifies the restoration of that which is broken, and originally referred to the surgical procedure of setting broken or dislocated bones. It is the unifying thread of almost all of mathematics, which is more than fitting for an art that aims to modulate the ruptures between beings and their worlds, between body and soul, dreams and realities. In essence, if love is the quest to find our other half, the reunion of two broken parts, then algebra is love: these mathematical poems are precious and should be nestled close to the heart.