Polarized Color


The establishment of cognitively verifiable natural science brought the world closer to the modern age, a world that

could be analysed and quantified. A century after the publication of Opticks, however, criticism of Newtonfs

mathematical approach was heard from an unexpected quarter: in 1810, 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) found Newtonfs impersonal scientific exposition wanting on artistic grounds.

Granted Newtonfs spectrum of seven defractively differentiated colours was perceived by the human eye via the

central cortex, but what did that prove? Colours, he argued, appealed directly to our senses; red and blue had

effects upon the human psyche that would not submit to mechanistic quantification. Furthermore, while we perceive

light precisely because of darkness, light travelling through the blackness of outer space was imperceptible to the

eye; only once light hit the atmosphere and reflected off airborne dust did we see a blue sky. Seeing the darkness

tint ultramarine each dawn as I sighted the morning star, I really got a sense of what Goethe wrote in his preface:

gDie Farben sind Taten des Lichts, Taten und Leiden.h (gColours are acts of light, acts and sufferings.h) I interpret

this to mean colour occurs when light strikes some obstruction, suffering the impact.

Interestingly enough, East Asian Buddhist doctrines use gcolourh (J. shiki) to refer to the material world, as in the

well-known phrase from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (J. Hannya Shingyo): Shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki gForm is

itself void, void is in essence form.h [While the original Sanskrit rupa gformh does not refer to colour per se,

rendering sunyata gvoidh into the character ku meaning both gemptinessh and gskyh 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 bright prismatic light each day, I too had my doubts about Newtonfs seven-colour

spectrum: yes, I could see his red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-purple schema, 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 go

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 single colour, 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 gmaterial form is voidh 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 Newtonfs cool, impassionate arithmetic gaze on nature, nor Goethefs

warm poetic reflexivity , I employed my own photographic devices toward a Middle Way.

- Hiroshi Sugimoto