• Couleurs de l'ombre
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto

Polaroid colours: cool eye /warm eye

From late-2009 to the beginning of 2010, my daily routine saw me rise at 5:30 every morning. First thing, I would check for hints of light dawning above the eastern horizon. If the day promised fair weather, next I would sight the “morning star” shining to the upper right of the nascent dawn. Depending on how bright Venus appeared, I could judge the clarity of the air that day. Tokyo is clear almost every day in winter thanks to the prevailing seasonal west-higheast-low pressure patterns. Only then did I ready my old Polaroid camera and start warming up a film pack from the long winter night chill.

10 years of time was needed for me to complete the artwork titled Colours of Shadow. While the entire project constituted a kind of observational apparatus, the observations only began once the apparatus was completed. And were I to include my observational findings in the work, then it would have been an endless project— especially since observations could very well continue after I am gone. In actual fact, however, these present observations of mine were begun 350 years ago by Sir Isaac Newton. My apparatus represents an improvement upon Newton’s devices I dare not call it my own; my findings, as such, are “revisited artworks”. Both science and art expand ever-newer horizons by building upon groundwork laid by great forebears, though most people have long since lost track of who first conceived the ideas behind today’s hyper-advanced technologies.

Newton published his book Opticks in 1704. While I do not wish to diminish the achievements of the nineteenth century photographic pioneers Talbot and Daguerre, their inventions were made possible because of earlier research into the nature of light itself, which all traces back to Newton. Not long after Newton graduated from Cambridge, the university closed as a precaution against the spread of the Great Plague of London. Whereupon he returned home to Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth in the East and there continued to conduct research on his own. During his one and half years there he gained important insights into his lifelong pursuits: universal gravitation, infinitesimal calculus and optical theory. At Woolsthorpe Manor, he bored a pinhole through a closed window shutter in an upstairs room to let in a tiny beam of sunlight. He began experimenting with a prism, splitting the apparently pure white light into primary colours — red, yellow, blue — each with a different refractive index. This discovery along with that of universal gravitation, both major influences on the course of intellectual inquiry thereafter, largely delineated the outlines of Newtonian mechanics. Newton became the first person to explain an apple falling from a tree and the forces between celestial bodies by means of a singular principle without invoking a divine cause. Even today, we estimate the distance to stars by the wave length of polarized light they emit.

The establishment of empirically verifiable natural science brought the world closer to the modern age, a world that could be analysed and quantified. However, a century after the publication of Opticks, criticism of Newton’s mathematical approach was heard from an unexpected quarter. In 1810, the poet, novelist and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compiled a twenty-year study on the effects of colour on the human eye, and in his Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours), he found Newton’s impersonal scientific exposition wanting on artistic grounds. Granted, Newton’s spectrum of seven diffractively differentiated colours was perceived by the human eye via the central cortex, but what did that prove? Colours, Goethe argued, appeal directly to our senses; red and blue have effects upon the human psyche that will not submit to mechanistic quantification. Furthermore, while we perceive light precisely because of darkness, light travelling through the blackness of outer space is imperceptible to the eye; only when light hits the atmosphere and is reflected off airborne dust can we see a blue sky. Seeing the darkest shade of ultramarine each dawn as I sighted the morning star, I finally understood what Goethe wrote in his preface, “Die Farbensind Taten des Lichts, Taten und Leiden” (“Colours are acts of light, acts and sufferings”). I interpret this to mean colour occurs when light strikes some obstruction, and suffers the impact.

Interestingly enough, East Asian Buddhist doctrines use the word “colour” (shiki in Japanese) to refer to the material world, as in the well-known phrase from the Prajñaparamita Sutra (Hannya Shingyo): “Shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki” (“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”). While the original Sanskrit word rupa (form) does not refer to colour per se, translating sunyata (void) into the Japanese character ku meaning both “emptiness” and “sky” perhaps suggested colour as an apt counterpart. Thus, if the visible world of colour is essentially empty, then this world is as immaterial as the colour of the sky. Gazing at the bright prismatic light each day, I too had my doubts about Newton’s seven-colour spectrum: yes, I could see his red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-purple scheme, but I could just as easily discern many more different colours in-between, nameless hues of red-to-orange and yellow-to-green. Why must science always cut up the whole into little pieces when it identifies specific attributes? The world is filled with countless colours, so why did natural science insist on just seven? I seem to get a truer sense of the world from those disregarded intracolours. Does not art serve to retrieve what falls through the cracks, now that scientific knowledge no longer needs a God? I decided to use virtually obsolete Polaroid film to photograph the spans between colours.
Sunlight travels through black empty space, strikes and suffers my prism, and refracts into an infinite continuum of colour. In order to view each hue more clearly, I devised a mirror with a special micro-adjusting tilting mechanism. Projecting the coloured beam from a prism onto my mirror, I reflected it into a dim observation chambre where I reduced it to Polaroid colours. Of course, I could further split those prismatic colours by adjusting the angle of that long tall mirror so as to reflect only the hue I want. I could split red into an infinity of reds. Especially when juxtaposed against the dark, each red appears wondrous unto itself. Moreover, colours change constantly. As the sun climbs on its arc, the colours from the prism vary moment by moment. It only takes a few minutes for red to turn orange then yellow. Cranking the worm gear by hand to adjust the mirror angle to compensate for the rising sun, I managed to keep the colour band within my field of vision.
One morning, I noticed something curious: staring at the band of blue hues with a quiet sense of elation, I shifted my gaze to the white wall and saw yellow. Goethe also studied this phenomena and found that after gazing prolongedly at a singlecolour, the human eye will see an afterimage of the opposite colour for a few seconds when looking away. This strange ability to perceive non-existent colours contributes greatly to our aesthetic sense of complementary colour harmonies, though look too long at this world and we see an inverted world. It makes me think all the more that “form isemptiness” and vice-versa.

I thought I had finished this project over a year ago, but I availed myself of the opportunity to buy up the last existing stocks of expired Polaroid film from the final ebb of production. Consistently clear Tokyo winter mornings found me swimming in a sea of colours. With neither Newton’s cool, impassionate arithmetic gaze on nature, nor Goethe’s warm poetic reflexivity, I employed my own photographic devices toward a Middle Way.