John Conway (b. 1937) was an English mathematician who made many important contributions to game theory and other disciplines. In 1970, he developed a simple set of rules – an algorithm - which, when applied to a simple grid of tiles, generated an infinite variety of complex patterns. This algorithm could be used to model population dynamics, computer programmes, musical compositions, and artificial lifeforms, among many other things. He called it the Game of Life, and it has been played by generations of mathematicians, computer scientists, biologists and philosophers ever since. Conway died from complications arising from COVID-19 in April 2020.
Working with mosaicist Бахтиер Бабамурадов and his team in Bukhara, James Bridle calculated a new set of patterns, beginning from a single pattern found on the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis in Samarkand. By applying the rules of the Game of Life to this pattern, the sculpture formed by the tiles evolves through 29 unique forms over the course of the exhibition. The title of the work, The Living King refers to the legend of the Shah-i-Zinda, which holds that Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed, was beheaded for his faith on the site of the Shah-i-Zinda, but did not die. Instead, he picked up his head, and jumped into a deep well, where he still lives today. ‘The Living King’ might also refer to the continuance of mathematical knowledge and practice, from al-Khwārizmī to John Conway, and to the ongoing emergence of complexity and self-organisation from the simplest initial conditions.
The work is accompanied by a short film explaining how the Game of Life works, and exploring a number of other patterns drawn from mosaics across Uzbekistan.
The Living King was commissioned by the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Tashkent, for the exhibition Dixit Algorizmi, celebrating the life and work of the mathematician Muhammed al-Khwārizmī, by pairing artists with traditional artisans from Uzbekistan.