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Five Sculptures on Topological Themes

  • Artist: Alan Dickson (Canadian, b. 1937, England)
  • Year: 1972
  • Material: Terrazzo, portland cement, marble chips, epoxy
  • Purchase information: Commissioned by the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, 1971
  • Location: South east of Jeffery Hall
  • Number on sculpture map: 3

outdoor sculpture

Alan Dickson was trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in England. He emigrated to Canada in 1970 to become a professor of Fine Art at Queen's University. Soon thereafter, Dickson was commissioned by the Department of Mathematics and Statistics to create Sculptures on Topological Themes as part of an initiative to enhance Jeffery Hall and its surroundings.

In these forms, Dickson investigates the concept of infinity as represented by the phenomenon of the mobius strip, a physical structure that is paradoxically both three-dimensional and one-sided.

Five Sculptures on Topological Themes

Five Sculptures on Topological Themes

Photograph by Steven Stowell

"The Donut on the Pole"

By Catherine Hale

Understanding outdoor sculpture on campus:

This article was published in the Queen's Journal on Tuesday September 12, 2003 (Issue 6, Volume 131)

As promised, in our ongoing quest to comprehend the various outdoor sculptures scattered about campus, this week, we tackle "the donut on the pole."

Located southeast of Jeffery Hall, "the donut on the pole" is one in a set of sculptures entitled Five Sculptures on Topological Themes, created by Alan Dickson in 1972. Dickson worked as a professor in the department of Fine Art at Queen's University from 1970 to 1997.

The sculptures are made of terrazzo, Portland cement, marble chips and epoxy. Terrazzo refers to a material usually used in flooring that combines mortar with stone or marble chips and is polished when dry.

But what do the sculptures mean? Once you understand what a topological theme is, the set of sculptures makes a little more sense. Topology is the study of those properties of geometric forms that do not change under certain circumstances such as bending or stretching. There are two important rules to remember: you cannot break the original form, and you cannot join parts of the original form together. Take our "donut on the pole" for example. Even if you managed to stretch it out, it would still have a hole in its centre, and only one continuous surface. You can't squish it flat to make more than one surface because that would mean you had joined two originally separate parts. Think of the donut as a balloon. The different areas of the skin of the balloon should never connect.

Central to Five Sculptures on Topological Themes is the idea of a single continuous surface. The flat circle and square structures, both on pediments, are examples of Mobius strips. The Mobius strip is a physical structure that is, surprisingly, both three-dimensional and one-sided. If you missed making Mobius strips in school, it's simple: take a strip of paper and flip one end over and then attach it to the other end. The resulting form has only one side.

Why are the triangle and pentagon sculptures included? Try and collapse the Mobius strip you just made. When collapsed, the Mobius strip makes shapes identical to the triangle and pentagon, but despite the fact that the Mobius has been folded, it still retains the property of having only one surface. Remember our second rule: parts of the form that were originally separate cannot be joined. What we have is not a pentagon or a triangle, but rather, a Mobius strip folded into the shape of a pentagon and a triangle. The artist has even cleverly included the "fold lines" in his sculptures to make this idea apparent.

So just who might decide to install a set of public sculptures dealing with topological themes and Mobius strips? You guessed it, the mathematics and statistics department commissioned Five Sculptures on Topological Themes in connection with the building of Jeffery Hall in the early 1970s. At the time, a government program was in place stipulating that one per cent of construction budgets for public buildings be spent on art. A committee was formed to select works, and artists were asked to respond to the site with mathematically relevant forms. Alan Dickson took up the challenge, and as a result, we can now contemplate topological concepts on a daily basis.