Diagrams in Art: Celebrating the failure of the inexpressive image

Michael Whittle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paperpeer-review


As a diagram researcher with a dual background in biochemistry and fine art, this paper examines diagram-based drawings from my own artistic practice that reflect upon the balance between the success and failure of scientific and mathematical diagrams to depict authoritative truths about the world. I propose that once positioned in a fine art context, these so-called inexpressive images take on new qualities and act in ways unintended by their creators. As art objects, the human narrative behind a diagrams creation and use becomes significant, and its philosophical status called in to question. In what ways do diagrams produce the reality they merely purport to describe? How do readers or users of diagrams project their own ideas and intentions on to these images? How can we call in to account the underlying data of diagrams that exist at the very limits of what can be studied, measured, depicted or imagined?

The drawing ‘Pair of Prime Knots’ is based upon an error in Charles Newton Little's 19th century table of unique prime knots, the mathematical knot-theorists equivalent to the chemist’s periodic table. The error went unnoticed for over a century until the mistaken duplication was discovered by Kenneth Perko in 1973, after which the knots became known as the Perko pair.

‘Model for the Origins of Human Language’ was generated using the artist’s own 3-D computer models of a two-dimensional diagram published in Nature magazine in 2003. The original study presented the controversial adaptation of mathematical techniques from molecular genetics to examine the origins and evolution of human languages - a move that came to be regarded as one of the most radical and exciting recent developments in the field of Philology.

‘Model for first causes’ contrasts a physics diagram of the origins of the universe against neuron diagrams from mathematical biology. In their 1997 paper, physicists J. Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li posed the question ‘Do the laws of physics prevent the Universe from being its own mother?’ and diagrammed a self-contained circular loop of space-time capable of generating multiple alternative universes. Within the drawing, this branching cornucopia-like structure is portrayed above an algorithmically generated diagram of neuron growth in the human brain, created by Kaoru Sugimura to explore the basic structural units that underlie the brains’ ability to question not only its own origins, but the origins of the universe itself.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Apr 2022
EventAssociation for Art History Annual Conference: Session: Unseen Science and the Failure of the Visual - Online
Duration: 6 Apr 20228 Apr 2022
Conference number: 48th


ConferenceAssociation for Art History Annual Conference
Internet address

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Geometry and Topology
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics


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