I have a classy little fridge magnet with the Latin words "Noli turbare circulos meos". It translates: 'Do not disturb my circles'. The name Archimedes appears in small print with the translation. My one and only AnÚl had brought it from London in 2004 to stick it on the large green metal door of the safe in my study, the pale yellow of the magnet meant to offset the antique green of the door. We enjoyed the little plate because the words on it seem to comment on my large installation 'Circle of Knowledge' put in place at the University of Johannesburg in 2001.
'Circle of Knowledge' consists of eleven granite rocks, gently carved to resemble large, black pebbles. The Greeks used pebbles to register their vote and till this day the subject of voting is known as 'psephology' from the Greek psephos 'pebble' and logos 'study' or 'word'. The Romans used pebbles to do maths and arithmetic - in Latin a calculus is a pebble - words like 'calculate' and 'calculator' are named after it. Because I write dictionaries, ancient Greek and Latin are my unspoken languages, but they were real languages for the bilingual Archimedes whose name features on the little magnet - and so too were the practices of voting and calculating with pebbles.
My sculpted circle subverted the idea that pebbles can easily be moved about or dropped into a vase because its eleven stones weigh more than forty tons. AnÚl and I thought Archimedes's words were rather ironic in the face of such odds, but neither of us knew the exact context in which they came about. Another irony is that my little magnet is of a fixed square format, yet it carries information about circles. I quite like the idea of viewing a square as a disturbed circle.
In 2007 I spent a few months as artist in residence on the NIROX estate in hills to the west of Johannesburg. There I regularly stared at the little magnet on the metal drawer of one of my filing cabinets till one quiet night I Googled its meaning. The legendary story is rather variable.
Archimedes (c. 287-212 BC), Greek inventor and mathematician from Syracuse was passionate about his work. He spoke his mind fervently when defending and proposing mathematical principles. His thoughts were not merely ideas, they were all-consuming ideals. He lived at a time when his beloved Greece was governed by Rome and as a learned man, he was fluent in both Latin and Greek.
Among his mathematical discoveries are the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference and formulas for the surface area and volume of a sphere and of a cylinder. In his earlier life he came to the formula for determining the purity of gold while he was soaking in his bath. His head burst under the impact of this striking insight and overcome with sudden joy, he beat the air with his fists and ran down the street shrieking 'Eureka! Eureka!' not realising he had forgotten to put his clothes on. In his mother tongue heureka means 'I have found it', from heuriskein 'to find'.
In time Archimedes grew famous in the classical world. He was even known to the Roman general who had conquered Syracuse. Towards the end of his life he spent every available moment divining solutions for what seemed impossible mathematical problems.
On one of his better days he drew various circles and intersecting lines in the sand. As he pored intently over the diagrams he came close to the point where he would figure out an answer that had eluded him for some time.
In the midst of these concentrated efforts a captain in the Roman army arrived with news that the Roman governor wanted to have a word with him. The captain did not really know who he was and in true militaristic style was rather abrupt in demanding that Archimedes accompany him immediately. Archimedes on the other hand was rather hesitant to go, because he, as everyone except the captain knew, did not care to run around stark naked, if only to get to the bottom of his mathematical teasers.
Insulted by Archimedes's refusal to come without delay, the captain repeated his demand most vehemently to this annoying, insolent Greek.
Yet again Archimedes refused to go and without looking away from his lines on the ground he appealed for more time. "Please do not mess with my circles."
As it turned out these were his very last words - Latin spoken by the brilliant Greek mind: "Noli turbare circulos meos." Without thinking, the captain furiously ended the life of this impertinent man with his sword.
I chose the most impenetrable, prized, black granite in South Africa to bring homage to Archimedes. I applied the square format of the original fridge magnet, slicing it in half, like the two halves of an open book, indicating the conflict between the power of the military sword and vulnerable probes of academic chalk. On the two halves I sandblasted concentric snippets of unresolved mathematical philosophy - ripples when a pebble falls in a pool. Some barely perceptible geometric lines, the 'lines of tragedy, intersect the concentric ripples jarringly by cutting across the ripples on both 'pages'. The mathematical formulae consist of abstruse Latin and Greek symbols taken from Rudolf Carnap's book entitled Two Essays On Entropy.
My favourite moment in this work occurs when it rains - Archimedes taking a bath. The raindrops soak up the grey texts so that they vanish into the black of the overall granite, their life taken. Yet, when the sun shines on the piece, the words dry out and, "Eureka!" the texts resurface miraculously - nothing kills them. The sword sadly intrudes, but somehow the chalk remains indelible.