Door Tiago de Abreu Pinto
Two people were at a table and talking effusively. One of them was a long-haired scientist and the other, a slim man who seemed to be a biographer. They were drinking with a finished chess game in front of them. The Biographer said that they had to go. All the bar noise bored him. Besides, he couldn’t go along with the game because of his back wound so they stood up and started walking the streets. He asked the Scientist to carry on talking about that smoldering topic of colour. The Scientist agreed but asked his interlocutor to follow him to a nearby metro station*. It was midnight when they arrived at the place. The biographer couldn’t really understand what was so significant there as he couldn’t see anything special.The Scientist asked him to look closely. The Biographer did and noticed two orange walls facing one another. He pointed them out to the Scientist. Each had a different tone of orange. One was pink and the other truly orange. However, aside from the colour he couldn’t really guess what was wrong. To help explain, the Scientist began telling him about different people like James Turrell who, according to the Scientist, was doing minimal monumental yet paradoxical art with illuminated spaces that are often perceived as surfaces which seem to possess an unlikely kind of depth. Turrell is interested in dealing with the light that we seem to know well, but which we don’t often see with our own eyes.
The Scientist went on to explain that at the end of the middle ages there was an organic change in all European languages; a semantic transformation. All the colour names stopped referring to lightness or clarity and started to refer to hue. As the categories changed so too did the meaning of the words used to describe colours. The Scientist spoke about how he had attempted to create an analogy between light, sound, colours and musical notation in his work. The biographer didn’t know that in Europe until the beginning of the 18th century, the relationship between light and colour was not conceptualized as it is today. Rather, light and colour were considered as mixtures of light and shadow and a conceptual identity between colour and lightness was predominant. The Biographer interrupted him to ask what hue is.
Hue, the Scientist confirmed, while the Biographer nodded affirmatively.The Scientist said that hue was likely the first quality of colour in Western culture. Hue dominates our understanding and our perception of colour today. The Scientist asked the Biographer how he would describe the walls. The Biographer replied saying that we would first mention the wall’s colour. To this the Scientist replied, naming the colour as “orange”. The Scientist underscored that nowadays people first refer to something by its hue before describing its lightness and saturation. The Scientist told him about how deeply grateful he was to Helmholtz for thinking of colour as we do today. Before the 18th century, a metaphysical and symbolical approach of light and shadow dominated what we now call colour. Before this, until the end of the 18th century, light and shadow were thought of as the structure by which we likely perceived colour. For example, sunlight was perceived as a pure manifestation of light. Shadow was not defined as negative nor as an absence of light, but, as a kind of substance. Shadow was likened to the existence of a “thing” in philosophical terms. The colour of bodies was considered to be a mixture of light and shadow. Yet, somewhat impossible to quantify and analyze.
The Biographer was confused. He wanted to know what the connection was between all that theoretical explanation and the two orange walls they were seeing. The scientist handed a piece of yellow paper to him. He then pointed to the corridor of the metro station and asked him to walk through it. The Biographer agreed and walked looking up. The Scientist then shouted to him to look down at the paper he had in hand. His eyes opened in surprise. He paused and brought the paper close to his eyes. He faced the Scientist and looked again at the paper and was speechless. The Scientist asked him why he had stopped. The Biographer’s dropped jaw said that the paper had changed. What had changed? The Scientist asked. Its colour the Biographer’s jaw replied. How is that possible? The Scientist asked. He invited the Biographer to approach him again. When he was quite close, the Scientist asked him to look at the paper again. It’s yellow now but, it was almost red. The Scientist said that even if colours cannot be reduced to physics, what’s interesting when you think like this is that the physics of colours cannot be sensed. Physics is a bunch of strings, like a piano with which you create music. When you have the means to work with colour at the level of the light spectrum, like a physicist, where are the boundaries of what is possible?
* The metro station Maashaven in Rotterdam (NL), where the artist Adrien Lucca has installed “Yellow-free zone” in 2018 with the support of Sculpture International Rotterdam, LMNO Gallery, CBK Rotterdam, RET and Gemeente Rotterdam.