|Virginia MacKenny, Event Horizon II, 2009, oil paint on canvas, 200 x 160cm|
Initially one of the most expensive colours to produce (ultramarine blue was ground from pure lapis lazuli mined in the remote Badakshan region of Afghanistan and once cost more than its weight in gold), it only adorned areas of great symbolic importance such as the Virgin’s cloak and Tutankhamen’s death mask. Yet with the invention of synthetic equivalents in the nineteenth century and the subsequent drop in costs of production, blue has not lost its allure.
Its continuing importance in the work of more recent artists is attested to by Yves Klein’s invention of International Klein Blue in 1957. Known as IKB the colour is comprised mainly of an ultramarine pigment suspended in a clear synthetic resin thereby closely approximating the look of the colour in its powder form. The importance of IKB is thus not that it is a new colour, because it is chemically the same as ultramarine, but that its form ensures maximum chromatic intensity. A note on Wikipedia stating that IKB is outside the gamut of computer displays, and therefore cannot be accurately portrayed on the web, corroborates the colour’s particular intensity.
The difficulty of reproducing the colour is integral to Klein’s intention to utilise it as a vehicle to convey immateriality and space. He described his series of blue monochromes commencing in 1947, as embodying “blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification”1 and likened his monochrome painting to an “open window to freedom”.2
The space that Klein perceived in blue was one that he equated with the void. This theme manifests most famously in his Saut Dans Le Vide (Leap into the Void), a 1960 photograph of Klein flinging himself off a wall, but was prefigured by a less spectacular, bluer, offering earlier in 1958. The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris had Klein exhibit the gallery space itself, as empty, but “impregnated”3 with blue. This he achieved by painting parts of the gallery exterior in blue and tinting the display window blue. He supplemented this with blue invitations, a blue curtain on entry and cocktails tinted with methylene blue on opening night.4
While Klein associated the colour with light, Anish Kapoor, known for his sculptural forms coated in pure pigment, associates the colour with an absence of light. Observing, in a discussion with curator Marcello Dantas, that he has “made lot of work with black and blue” he notes that his emphasis in this regard is particularly on blue, “because blue is a colour that much more deeply reveals darkness than does black”.5 Kapoor ironically, like Klein, is also interested in the immaterial. In the same interview he notes that the “history of sculpture is the history of material, from bone, to stone, to bronze [but] I am interested in that part of material, which is not material because it seems to me that equivalent with every history of material, there is a history of immaterial”.
Elaborating his concerns Kapoor relates the Christian story of St Thomas’s need to touch Christ’s wound after he arises from the dead to affirm what he sees and Christ’s response to Mary Magdalene when she reaches out to touch him after the resurrection, as embodied in “Noli me tangere” (do not touch me). These reveal for Kapoor that “much of dealing with the non-material is about this confusion between the hand and the eye… when the thing that you look at is uncertain, your body demands a kind of readjustment, it demands certainty”. For Kapoor blue can assist in generating an equivalent for this sensation, creating a necessary uncertainty for, “from a phenomenological point of view, your eyes can’t quite focus on blue”.
|Virginia MacKenny, Sightlines I 2009, oil paint on canvas, 200 x 160cm|
While in the aforementioned work such a freedom is spiritual the political and ideological vocabulary of freedom is present in Speaker’s Corner (2009), a work by Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch. Like Klein and Krue-On, Echakhch uses blue (and white) as the exclusive colour(s) in this work’s two component installations: For Each Stencil a Revolution (2007) and Fantasia (2008). While Fantasia comprises a white room with flagless flagpoles projecting from the walls and a cardboard box, in the former work the room is dominated by blue. A4 sheets of carbon paper soaked with methylated alcohol release the colour, which runs down the walls and onto the ground where it lies in dark pools surrounded by scattered burnt tyres. Evoking the aftermath of street riots and revolutionary protest this is the wreckage of idealism. Likewise Roger Hiorns’ work Seizure (2009) takes over an abandoned and soon to be demolished apartment near London’s Elephant and Castle. Sealed and soused with between 70,000–90,000 litres of copper sulphate solution, the flat grew blue crystals over every aspect of its interior. Describing his experience of the work, The Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle wrote, “silvery shards of cold light spangle and wink and beckon. Every surface is furred and infested; big blue crystals dangle like cubist bats from the light fittings.”6 While Searle found the experience beautiful, it unsettled him as his use of the word “infested” signals, and he noted that few visitors stayed long in a space that was decidedly oppressive.
That so many contemporary artists use blue as the defining experiential element in a work is perhaps significant. Derek Jarman’s twelfth and final feature film Blue (1993), which used blue as its only visual component, was released just four months before his death of AIDS-related complications. Consisting of a single 79-minute continuous shot of saturated blue the film is, in essence, a blue screen, but not one for the compositing of images. While the film remains ‘blank’, it is not as such a backdrop, but a saturated visual experience ‘filled’ with voice-over narration that forms a testament to Jarman’s life, AIDS and the colour blue:
“I step into a blue funk./ The doctor in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital thought he could detect lesions in my retina – the pupils dilated with belladonna – the torch shone into them with a terrible blinding light./ Look left/ Look down/ Look up/ Look right/ Blue flashes in my eyes./ Blue Bottle buzzing/ Lazy days/ The sky blue butterfly/ Sways on the cornflower/ Lost in the warmth/ Of the blue heat haze/ Singing the blues/ Quiet and slowly/ Blue of my heart/ Blue of my dreams/ Slow blue love/ Of delphinium days…”7
As the retina tires from the film’s demanding intensity of a single concentrated colour, pulses of orange flash and interrupt one’s vision. Imageless and with nothing for the eye to hold onto, the film facilitates interior imaginative projection and its reflections on mortality return us, somewhat circuitously, to blue’s heritage, where it coloured the most significant religious images such as the Virgin Mary’s mantle. The cloak’s colour and its frequent adornment with stars marks her as Queen of the Heavens and Star of the Sea, reinforcing both her dominion over boundless spaces and her role as intermediary between the material and immaterial.
Blue’s association with the sky is perhaps self- evident. More unexpected is the cyanotype’s invention; a blue photographic process that came “both literally and metaphorically ‘out of the blue’”8 to an astronomer, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), a professional sky gazer. Later acknowledged as a pioneer of celestial photography Herschel had, in between his telescopic explorations of the night skies, been carrying out research on photoactive chemicals and the wave theory of light. While photographic research carried on apace in Europe, Herschel travelled to the Cape (1834-38). While mapping the stars in the Southern hemisphere, he continued his experiments and coined the term ‘photography’.9 On his return from South Africa, he recorded, on a silver based negative, the supporting structure for his father’s huge 40-foot telescope at Slough.
As chemist and photographic historian Mike Ware notes the standard histories of photography do not record any connection at this time between the lightsensitivity of ferric organic salts, and the known chemical properties of Prussian blue, which had been well-established as an artist’s pigment for over a century. He points out however, that there was at least one such ‘pre-photographic’ observation in this respect. It was made in 1828, coincidentally the same year the French chemist Guimet discovered French Ultramarine. John Mercer (1791-1866), a Manchester colour chemist and calico-dyer, “noted the formation of Prussian blue on cotton by a lightinduced reaction”.10 Herschel, in his turn, noted the action of light on potassium ferricyanide as forming Prussian blue and by 1842 he invented the cyanotype, a photographic process that creates a cyan blue print.
That an astronomer should have invented a process for rendering the world in blue seems apposite. The night sky has always served as site of image making. It is here that we have long made our pictures, sought direction and found meaning. While other photographic processes soon usurped the cyanotype it persisted as a staple of the architect’s office in the form of a blueprint. The blueprint, in its turn surpassed by new technologies, continues to connote origins and sources. Herschel’s discovery of the cyanotype arose because he had a “preoccupation with the medium rather than the message” and was “driven by a desire to understand photochemical phenomena, and to enlist them as tools for probing the electromagnetic spectrum outside the narrow optical limits imposed by human vision”.11
The association that blue has with a world beyond our sight persists. Kathryn Smith’s exhibition In Camera (2007-09) utilises blue as virtually its sole colour. On entering the gallery, however, this is not necessarily apparent. Instead the exhibition seems full of empty pages. It is not, ironically, until the lights go out that the work becomes fully visible. Smith’s interest in the forensic, the invisible, and the generally unnoticed, fuels In Camera, whose title references both the photographic and the hidden, inner workings of the justice system. Using ultraviolet-sensitive inks invisible to the naked eye, but visible in black light, Smith sets up inversions of seen/unseen. Using media images, mug shots (of both perpetrators and victims), maps of crime sites and photographic evidence she disconcerts our expectations of sight, upsetting notions of clarity and truth.
For my own part blue seems to have become, somewhat inadvertently, a fundamental of my palette. This was never a conscious intention. While a child my favourite colour was blue, but this pat answer to the traditional question seems inconsequential and my earlier palette was not dominated by the colour. My first blue painting came post apartheid. Attempt to Gather (1994), a largish painting, depicts a number of objects set in and against a blue sky and reflects, possibly, a sense of release. It led to a number of paintings where blue became more and more prominent. The sky of the day became the sky at night and, in my mind, a place of infinity into which anything could be thrown. Detached from the dictates of gravity the laws of compositional organisation open up – anything can go anywhere. The sky as a field of space, the unlimited, a place of imagining, longing. A place of both darkness and light.
Blue activates a painting’s surface as no other colour does. Chromatically intense enough to radiate optically beyond the canvas surface it’s also capable of producing an infinite depth within its surface. This multi-directional space is vertiginous in its expansion, and generates, as for Kapoor, a sense of the immense, an immensity that inspires, “eyes wide open if you like”. Blue, whether it is the blue of the ‘void’ or a blue screen projection is always both infinitely empty and endlessly full. Images such as Free Fall (2008), Sightlines (2009) and Event Horizon II (2009) attempt to engage such notions. Freed from the confines of certitude the associative and optical sensations of blue amplify a space where fear and faith might reconfigure.
Virginia MacKenny is an artist and senior lecturer at Michaelis School of Art, Cape Town
3. Klein utilised the term ‘impregnation’ to indicate an operation that confers an artistic quality to matter.
4. http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENSklein- EN/ENS-klein-EN.htm#bleu
5. Anish Kapoor, ‘Ascension’ interview with Marcello Dantas in Rio de Janeiro/San Paulo, Brazil (2006-07). http://www. anishkapoor.com/writing/brazilinterview.htm
6. Searle, Adrian, ‘Don’t Forget Your Wellies’, The Guardian, September 4, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/ artanddesign/2008/sep/04/art
7. The script of Blue (1993) is available at http://www. slowmotionangel.com/Jarman/films.htm
8. Mike Ware, Cyanotype: the History, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue (London: Science Museum and the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television Museum, 2004), p.11.
9. In 1834 a French-Brazilian painter Antoine Hercule Romuald Florence (1804–1879), who had also developed a photographic process, referred to it in French as photographie, four years before Herschel coined the term in English.
10. Ware, op. cit., p.23. 11. Ibid., p.11.
Philip Ball, The Bright Earth – Art and the Invention of Colour (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Matthew Buckingham, ‘Colors: Ultramarine’, Cabinet, Issue; 10, Spring 2003