The Co-ordinates of White

Abre Etteh,London

The term 'White Cube' calls to mind images of barren art galleries stripped of any visual stimuli deemed threatening to the attention of the viewer. The White Cube is thought of as a 'neutral space' designed to 'free' the art object from the external world by creating an idealised setting for its viewing. We would be justified in asking the question; why white? Why not yellow or red or even purple? It would seem that white carries inherently within it a property conducive to our conceptions of what we consider to be the ideal.

The ability of white to create an idealised environment is captured in Daniel Buren's analysis of the architecture of museums:

“Placing/exhibiting a work of art in a baker's will no way change the function of the aforementioned baker's, which will never change the work of art into a bit of bread either.

Placing/exhibiting a bit of bread in a museum will in no way change the function of the aforementioned museum, but the later will change the bit of bread into a work of art, at least for the duration of its exhibition.

Now let's exhibit a bit of bread in a baker's and it will be very difficult, if not impossible to distinguish it from the other bits of bread. Now let's exhibit a work of art - of any kind - in a museum: can we really distinguish it from other works of art? ”

Such is the power of white, that in its use in configuring space, it creates such a purity in milieu, so as to give an aura of dignity to any object it contains, even a bit of bread.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Remarks on Colour, persuasively demonstrates our conceptual difficulties with white. He argues that just as there exists a conceptual difference between gold and yellow, so to white differs conceptually from other colours. Not only is it the only colour that cannot be diluted, just as it dilutes other colours, it appears to be the only colour which cannot be transparent.

And on a different note, Herman Melville writes, “... is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours.” It is precisely through its otherness demonstrated by Wittgenstein and its mute emptiness described by Melville that we are able to invest, in such a receptive colour as white, a plethora of meanings. The colour is has come to be associated with the divine, timelessness, innocence, purity, virginity, clarity, cleanliness and perhaps oddly enough, death, amongst other things.

In 1999, the artist Anish Kapoor created a monumental six square meter swatch of vivid yellow on a gallery wall, within which a gaping concave form recedes into the depths of the wall. The piece, made of fibreglass and encrusted in pigment, was aptly titled Yellow. Kapoor's intension for Yellow, like his other pigment pieces, is to reveal the physical autonomy of colour beyond its common characteristic as surface treatment. Kapoor achieves this through the flawless surface and seamless curvature of the cavernous form. The effect of standing in front of the piece is a blurring of any divisions between colour, material and form. It achieves a near-perfect amalgam of its physical properties.

Just as Kapoor's Yellow attempts to give body to colour in its synthesis of material, surface and form, so to the architect's use of white is an attempt to give body to the abstract, timeless and idyllic qualities of the colour. Or perhaps conversely, the architect imbues his creations with the qualities of ideal Platonic Forms, the properties of which we seem so ready to associate with white.

Imagine two cubes identical in size. The first, constructed from a textured material like plywood and the other seamlessly whitewashed, revealing no textures or jointing. The whitewashed cube more closely reflects the idea of a geometrically perfect cube in the mind of the observer, devoid of any associations to material or texture. It too, like the art gallery, is free from distracting visual stimuli. Baptised in white, the cube is almost purely a cube, and not merely a wooden cube but much closer to our abstracted idea of a cube. Its seamlessness reveals nothing of its materiality and effaces any evidence of its construction. Like Kapoor's pigment pieces, its whiteness gives body to the idea of a geometrically perfect cube, by collapsing all notions surface, texture, material and form.

The whitewashed house, chair or indeed mp3 player all attempt to bring the concrete object closer to the the abstracted world of the ideal. Our desire for the ideal may also reflect our quest for perfection and permanence in our rebellion against the inevitable entropy of our finite existence.