Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?Herman Melville, Moby Dick
White at sea is a dangerous companion. Sea-smoke, water’s white breath, envelops ship and crew in a haze of muffled creakings. Exhaled by the icy sea, droplets meet with a carpet of warm air and condense; light rays encounter their wet lustre and scatter every which way, cloaking the world in flat, impenetrable whiteness. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge describes the “fog-smoke white” out of which the albatross appears, a hue-less herald from the ice-white sea. Though the albatross carries with it a breeze that breaks the stupor of the turbid fog, the Mariner shoots it down. Its whiteness is too much to bear. Melville’s Ishmael, too, fears the misty void and the white creatures it harbors: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me”. This sea breath is white-dread, masking “the muffled rollings of a milky sea”.
White creeps its way onto land. The margin of land and sea is a confusion of whites, iridescent and scummy. On the beach lie a scattering of white objects, rolled around in the wet suck of the surf then spat onto the shore: Styrofoam cups and sweet-wrappers, skeletal sea-sponges, the splayed legs of a lifeless crab. White spots, dancing in the vision. Everything is white, once you start to look. Here, structures move between the solid and the spectral, as the sky rolls by and dips their outlines in fog. Surfaces are salt slapped and sun bleached, invaded by the hoary shore. Paint is too delicate for this place: there are only scales and hard shells, and the white cackling of gulls.
Amidst the yellowed facades, the litter and the fog, Turner Contemporary is thrown up on the shore like an ice-cube, washed square by the sea. According to the architect, the gallery was always going to be white: its whiteness was inevitable, compelled by Margate’s light-bathed promontory. A certain white was required, one that was responsive and mutable, that could commune with the sky but also stand its ground amid the boisterous fretting of the sea. The building’s skin preempts the cruelty of the coastal wind, built from planes of acid-etched glass, already eroded and colourless. Its frosted texture is such that it reflects neither sky nor sea, only the light that touches it; the glass is sea fog stashed in strict rectangles, shushing the light. Its surface is smooth: not mirror-smooth but skin-smooth, with a slight texture that catches on the fingertips. Sticky-smooth, like the skin of a sea creature.
Skin gives us away – it flushes, blushes, bruises and burns. Its surface is never uniform, but reddens with the heat and drains in the cold. This skin is no different: daylight transforms it. The tentative rays of morning paint it blue. The evening light bruises it yellow, as it respires red rays, filtered through the dust-laden air. In between, the rectangular panels rove the spectrum at the urging of the clouds. Only in pure sunlight is the building truly white, transformed into white-hot agency. In these bright moments the glass surface is suddenly assertive, rejecting the sunlight in a violent spray of photons. I am reminded of the hallucinatory glare of Henri Michaux’s acid-riddled ‘White’, encountered in his memoir Avec Mescaline:
And ‘White’ appears. Absolute white. White beyond all whiteness. White of the coming of the White. White without compromise, through exclusion, through total eradication of non-white. Insane, enraged white, screaming with whiteness.This white purges all hues, spewing out the spectrum in a tantrum of light. It lives at the extremes of white, desert scorched and snow blinded. According to the artist Hélio Oiticica, white is the most static of colours, “favouring silent, dense, metaphysical duration”. Watching the building splashed by different hues, in animated conversation with light and shade, the concept of ‘static’ white is inconceivable. The photographic evidence of a morning’s observation is enough to quash this theory. Even inside the building, white is plural. The cool North light, a bright film of bluish wavelengths, slips inside and paints shadows on the white walls. The yellow glow from light-bulbs is no match for it, and shrinks into timid pools on the paintings and the wall texts. Whites are mixed by light and shadow, and material textures: layers of translucency transform the space in slow motion.
In Space-Time and Colour, Theo van Doesburg decrees that “without colour, architecture is expressionless, blind”. Frosted blinds stretch over the skylights, muffling the insides of the galleries. These windows are like closed eyelids, anaemic and veinless. A glass building, gazing through milky cataracts into nothingness. But white is not so readily hushed. There are still the white walls, and though they appear vacant, they come laden with meaning. As Mark Wigley points out in White Walls, Designer Dresses, the white wall evades neutrality and silence: “...indeed, nothing is louder. The white wall is precisely not blank.” The white wall has been worshiped and abhorred in equal measure: disjointed associations and opinions spatter its surface. The white wall is contemporary art. It is pure experience: an unmediated artistic encounter. It is alienation, snobbery, elitism: a Western obsession, fed by the white lie of classical architecture.
White walls glare. In 1925, Le Corbusier wrote A Coat of Whitewash: The Law of Ripolin, a manifesto in which he proposed a universal whitewashing. According to the Law of Ripolin, whitewashing is the purest of acts, revealing the aesthetic reality of things: “Put it on anything dishonest or in bad taste – it hits you in the eye. It is rather like an X-ray of beauty. It is the court of assize in permanent session. It is the eye of truth.” This white is the antithesis of those other, muffled whites: it appraises everything it touches, like a roving eye, lidless and hungry. It has no magical antibacterial properties, yet it necessitates cleanliness by its ruthless contrast with anything non-white. Le Corbusier’s white walls purify, like eye-drops for society.
White is the loudest and most mute of colours, blind and all-seeing at the same time. White is light made solid: “if you spin a colour wheel fast enough it turns white, but if you mix the pigments, however much you try, you will only get a dirty grey.”1 Only light can mix white, “compounded of all the primary Colours mix’d in due Propertion.”2 Otherwise it is not white, but something else – white becomes ‘off-white’, with its slight unsavoriness, like curdled milk. White’s photonic purity is a blessing and a curse. In a public building, it absorbs the scuffs and marks of human occupancy, and must be ritualistically returned to whiteness.