[Yohji Yamamoto FW2009 Coat]
Remember a couple years ago when I went to London to see the Barbican’s Future Beauty Exhibit? Well, I'm still reeling from it. In the exhibition catalogue there is a wonderful excerpt from Kenya Hara’s “White”, an essay I put up last year “The Receptiveness of a Red Circle on a White Background”. After revisiting that essay a number of times I had to read Hara’s book. I finally purchased it over the summer and ended up reading it twice, the second time to take notes on what must be a standout exploration of the universal non-colour. As I’m sure you get at this point, my love for Japan, her culture, aesthetic expressions and staunch isolationism is very much an obsession for me. This little book of essays conceptualises white and what it means from a Japanese viewpoint to a stunning new level. I would like to apologise for my profuse quoting but the language of the book is far too beautiful not to share...
The book is divided into four impactful, bite-sized chapters. Firstly one must discover what white is. Hara drops one on us immediately “There is no such thing as “white.” Rather, “white” exists solely in our perception.” I mean? You know you’re in for a good read when the author of a book drills right through our initial pre-conceptions straight to our minds eye-centre. So Hara educates us that “white” is both all colours and no colours. It is the only “colour that can “escape colour”. In Hara’s eyes, colours form the basic information of life. Life that has so much intense colour, that overtime blends together to form a muddy brown chaos. This brown entropy is “filled with the energy of dazzling colour and will give birth to new colours once again.” Entropy stems from the Greek en - inside and trope- transformation. White, on the other hand, is information arising from this chaos. White is life’s palate cleanser. White is a temporal state awaiting to be tinged by the transformative power of life itself. White is the potential for content.
Hara takes us back in time to 8th century Japan where only four words were used to describe colour: akai - red (a state of brightness and energy); kuroi - black (the absence of light); shiroi - white (brilliance); and aoi - blue (an impression of obscurity). The idea of expressing an entire world with only four colour related words seems, in-elegant, but “people were able to express subtle differences in meaning and atmosphere contextually.” The Japanese language being one of the most complex and alien languages on the planet is also one of beautiful subtlety and range. Of course the language evolved to portray many more then those initial four words. Now, I’m sorry, but this is such a beautiful piece of writing I’m going to have to extract the whole paragraph for your reading pleasure:
“Just as a stalactite cave is formed through the accumulation of droplets that fall one by one in dizzying repetition over time, so mental images of the brilliance of nature or the changing world gradually accumulate to form the names of colours. Some things are lost and others transformed, but finally, without anyone being aware of it, colour becomes established as a grand system of consciousness.” Not to be a bro but, BOOM...
As a graphic designer Hara couldn’t possibly discuss the idea of “white” without mentioning the significance of its place as the prominent colour of paper. If Whiteness symbolizes life, than “the sheer act of holding a piece of white paper, so full of creative possibility, would bring about a surge of human imagination.” Paper is inherently a “creative catalyst” even down to its rectangular shape. Hara points out how rectangles don’t occur in nature. So holding something so alien as a rectangular object in a colour waiting to be stained, of course compels us to create something. “Paper is the materialised energy of Itoshiroshi”. The Japanese word for white is shiro a word stemming from shiroshi and eventually connecting with itoshiroshi and ichijirushi. “Ichijirushi is a clear and objective condition which manifests itself in the purity of light, the lucidity embodied in a drop of water or the force of a crashing waterfall.” Shiroshi “is the state of consciousness we enter when we focus on these things, when our senses seem to vibrate like the strings of a koto.” As paper is this concepts embodiment, no wonder its invention has sparked so much progress in human thought. It is a media that records and preserves intellectual and aesthetic achievement. Today I write to you via the Internet. With so much information cascading into this technological abyss; what will future generations learn from when the servers of the world crash and the last drops of oil are sucked from the planets surface?
[Hasegawa Tōhaku, Shōrin-zu byōbu (Left Side) (Japan, 1539-1610)]
Of course when ever I close my eyes and think about whiteness, I literally draw a blank. I imagine standing in an undefinable area surrounded by blinding brilliant white and nothing else. The most evocative chapter in Haras work is on Emptiness. Emptiness however does not mean valuelessness, rather it is a transitional state awaiting to be filled with information. Earlier on we looked at Haras concept of white emerging from chaos. Hasegawa Tohaku’s Pine Trees (Japan, 1539-1610) is the perfect expression of this idea in its exploration of empty space, along with the concept that white, emptiness, is actually information emerging from chaos. There is far more emptiness in the painting then there are brushstrokes, yet the painting evokes much more then nine or so trees it portrays. Each tree is actually rather abstract and lacking of details. In doing so the emptiness and the strokes blend in our imagination. A three dimensional reality in our minds emerges from the mist. The white provokes our minds to ‘fill in the blanks’, sort of speaking. And because our imaginations are not set in stone this landscape changes each time we view the image (I hasten to add I have yet to encounter it in person but I’m sure I will and if this changes upon viewing I shall update this paragraph). Therefore emptiness is used to evoke “the boundless floating world of the imagination.”
[Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily (1984)]
Bringing Hara’s book forward to my reality in one of his final essays he discusses the act of defamiliarization. By meditating on a particular idea or object, one can defamiliarize themselves of its initial meaning. Hara uses the example of flower photography, in particular Robert Mapplethorpe's flower series where the object can become totally foreign to the viewer. This allows anyone to explore the mundane and everyday through this process. “The attempt to create ‘unfamiliar’ objects is the essence of creativity that leads us to understanding things in this world.” Going backwards to how I seem to have learned to express myself by taking familiar objects and using them in unfamiliar ways, Hara has allowed me to see I’m just trying to understand things in this world. I guess I naturally tend to explore gender, age, body image etc through dress, yet in this Yohji Yamamoto coat the designer explores the concept of Wabi Sabi (the aesthetic of transience) and white. I feel honoured to own and wear this walking piece of intellectual curiosity. One day I hope I can write as eloquently as Mr Hara-san but till then perhaps I can dress it.
PS: All photographs have been taken by my wonderful friend Wax of Pop, Bop and Snap. Thanks Wax!