Thinking Colour

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By Lucy Whelan, with co-organiser Anita Paz. Lucy is a current DPhil student at the History of Art Department.


Reading academic calls for papers, I am often reminded of when the children in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree end up at Dame Slap’s school. The longer the children look at the questions written on the board, the more they realise they are impossible. “If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?” – Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?” – and “Why is a blackboard?”

The impossibility of the questions in calls for papers is – usually – not because they are sheer nonsense, of course, but because every question taken seriously opens a hundred more. Following Heidegger, real thinking is not monolithic, or answer-seeking, but playfully opening ourselves up to an encounter with the groundless and unfamiliar. In art history, asking questions of mute objects can sometimes have a similar effect. And there is no subject of interrogation more seemingly silent (or in excess of language) than colour, traditionally mistrusted as irrational, feminine, and carnal.

When my colleague Anita Paz and I were asked to lead a class for Hanneke Grootenboer’s History of Art and Visual Culture MSt option on Image and Thought last year, we wanted to discuss the different thinking tools or mechanisms that images have or use, and colour seemed like one obvious direction. How do images articulate thought, or even, how do they think, through colour? What is colour’s affective power? Can colour be a device for – or even a form of – thinking, for artist or viewer? These were the questions we wanted to explore, only we couldn’t find much written on them. So we decided to bring together those who have explored these questions, to consider the philosophical relations between colour and thinking. We invited Eric Alliez, David Batchelor, Laure Blanc-Benon, Natasha Eaton, Paul Smith, and Liz Watkins – and to our astonishment, all of them said yes.

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The Thinking Colour Symposium poster

It turns out we weren’t alone in wishing to sound out the silence around colour. In addition to our speakers we had over sixty attendees, many travelling here from Europe, the USA, and even Australia. We were also joined by paper respondents both from Oxford – Hanneke Grootenboer and Justin Coombes (Ruskin School of Art) – and from wider afield, and by yet more speakers following a call for papers. And so we found ourselves on the day of the referendum result, 24th June, in the beautiful Danson Room at Trinity College, with voices from various perspectives and various countries, coming together to explore colour.

In our first panel, Natasha Eaton (History of Art, UCL) and Paul Smith (History of Art, Warwick) thought through the phenomenology of colour in different ways, moving us from Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of colour and colour wheels, to negotiations of the colour white in contemporary Indian art. Responses by Justin Coombes (Oxford) and Susanne Komossa (Architecture, Delft Institute of Technology) were both poetic and playful.

The second panel brought together thinkers who have expanded the ways we approach colour. David Batchelor’s paper was radiant, arguing visually and verbally for colour as a fall, a loss of consciousness, a place, while Eric Alliez (History of Art, Kingston University) looked at the painter Daniel Buren’s ‘colour-thinking’. They were responded to by Judith Mottram (Royal College of Art), who raised the question of the radical power of both colour and form, and Hanneke Grootenboer, who addressed the conceptual state of betweenness that colour inhabits, and its philosophical consequences.

In the third panel, Laure Blanc-Benon (University Paris-Sorbonne) and Liz Watkins (University of Leeds) explored the significance of colour in photography and film, as Laure asked how we would understand photography if colour photography had been invented first, and Liz looked at how colour shaped early non-fiction films made of Antarctic explorations. Both papers explored role of colour in media technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was furthered by their respondent Regina Lee Blaszczyk (University of Leeds).

A round-table of shorter papers in the late afternoon acted like a kaleidoscope, collecting up our ideas on colour, and holding them up to the light. Tessa Laird from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary filmmaker’s and the power of colour to evoke a bodily unconscious and overspill various boundaries; Claudia Tobin (Royal Drawing School) looked at chromatic language in Virginia Woolf and what it is to inhabit colour; Sophie Knezic also from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary artist James Turrell through Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on colour’s intensity; Rey Conquer (University of Oxford) argued how colour helps us to think through poetic processes; and Elodie Ripoll (Universität Koblenz-Landau / EHESS, Paris) described what she designates as three elementary functions of colour words from a literary perspective. What ensued was a rich discussion of colour from various disciplines and perspectives.

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Paul Klee, Signs in Yellow (1937). Public domain via Wikimedia.

My favourite moment from the day, without a doubt, was when an attendee suggested that we had been doing too much thinking colour, and not enough feeling colour. Because it made me realise how actually, by thinking with colour as much as about it, and through some particularly sensitive and sensuous papers, we had managed to do both. Sitting in a dark room overwhelmed by so many phosphorescent slides, we had experienced colour as ‘a kind of bliss’, as Barthes has put it, its jouissance. And, if we follow Heidegger, this too is a kind of thinking. For ‘joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought’. And by not rejecting these mysterious things as those to be ‘kept out of the wings of thought’, we widen the spectrum of thinking and make it polychromatic.

References

Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree (London, 1987)

Martin Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1972)


The Thinking Colour Symposium was co-organised by Lucy Whelan and Anita Paz. It was made possible by the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund, and their hosts Trinity College.

Please visit the ‘Past Event’ page for more information and paper abstracts: http://torch.ox.ac.uk/thinking-colour-symposium.

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