In his Remarks on Colour from 1950, Ludwig Wittgenstein ponders the philosophical challenges of colour and luminosity and asks, “Was macht Grau zu einer neutralen Farbe? Ist es etwas Physiologisches, oder etwas Logisches?”1 The concept that the neutrality of grey could be seen as either physiological or logical reveals the complexity of an often overlooked, yet essential achromatic colour. The earlier work of German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald similarly quantified colour from a psychological and physical point of view, drawing on the 19th-century experiments of G.T. Fechner who had shown that stimuli relate to sensations.2 Ostwald applied his colour theories by firstly establishing a scale of greys that ranged from white to black, essentially forming a greyscale against which he measured an atlas of colour-sensations. Harmonic balance was achieved when sections of his atlas showed complementary hues that had equal measures of value on the greyscale, an effect that was particularly pleasing.3
And yet grey is ambivalent, often ambiguous and tends to be measured in terms of indicating or defining a spectrum between the two binaries of black and white, filling in and describing the void between the two opposites. In terms of cultural theory, grey is more than the in-between of black and white—it is in fact both a mix of and a harmonic tone for all colours—it is a perceptual and experiential phenomena.4 The self-titled “grey anthropologist” Nils Bubandt, along with other commentators use greyness to understand dimensions of contemporary life, particularly in terms of politics, identity, labour and the economy. He claims that “grey may in fact be the universal colour of the contemporary moment.”5
The uncertainty of grey, its in-between-ness, and its ability to reflect and absorb light, uniquely enables the form and structure of our strange nuances of existence. Grey is the colour of melancholy, loss, or transition and in its monochromatic existence enables a space for contemplative reflection that is strangely alluring and comforting.
Grey is also murky and mysterious—it is the site of the shadowy unconscious where we form our dreams and store our memories until they are developed, which Freud alludes to as being akin to the photographic process.6 This sense of stasis or belatedness that Freud refers to forms the sensation of a pause, a space, a gap—in essence, it has a sense of waiting that is anticipatory and incomplete.
For the artists in Greyscale, this sense of in-between-ness and anticipation assuages a logical space for investigation of both the colour grey and its place in the cultural imaginary. Grey is used here to rework how we perceive matter, how we embody place, the ways in which we encounter, remember or retrace time and remnants of existence. It is also fundamental for the possibilities of recording the world through the intricate materialities of graphite, felt, paint and photography or lava and ash.
Adrian Gebers physically takes the greyscale, in the form of a standard reference card used by photographers and designers to measure colour, and re-presents it as a large wall painting and drawing. As a filter from which photographers measure reality, the greyscale is itself forever mutable, altered by the warmth and coolness of light, or reflecting the ambient conditions around it. The greyscale is drawn here in graphite, denying its accuracy as a truth meter; it is void of function and instead becomes a symbol of futility. Behind the drawing is a grey painted wall, the colour of which is drawn from the process of a paint company’s camera, designed to recreate reality as accurately as possible. What emerges from the dichotomous arrangement is a visual schism where the attempts to portray reality are undone by their own representation; the work is seemingly only completed by the photographic reproduction, which is itself calibrated by a computer monitor.
The greyzone in Peter Burgess’s series Made in England, 2013–14 takes everyday ideograms as a cultural reference system for the construction of meaning. Set against a backdrop of surveillance symbols, solitary figures or figural groups are measured by the grid in a form of mapping that locates the body in space. Alluding to the process of recording everyday activities by surveillance cameras and camera phones, ‘via cruel lens’ is formed by its specific location and the work is only completed by the presence of the visitor who becomes part of the surveillance greyzone. Burgess also refers to the mechanism of the camera obscura and inverts the sacred English oak tree as a linguistic sign following in the footsteps of Rodney Graham’s Oak series 1989/2001. The anagrammatic text piece ‘surveillance’ and the visual representation of the camera operate as a liminal zone—a narrative void that places the spectator in the greyzone, which is brimming with potential.
Pollyxenia Joannou, Lisa Jones and Julia Davis also take up this sense of measuring or recording place in their works. Joannou, for example, uses grey as a tone of possibilities, enhancing and mediating the world around us. The works are centred on elemental properties of materiality, line and organic environments that are stripped back to geometric and tactile forms; each becoming part of a larger serial narrative. Delineating space, shape and form, grey is used here to structure narratives that recall modernist icons from Malevich, Albers, Mondrian or Lissitzky. Joannou intertwines elements of drawing, painting and 3D with materials such as acrylic paint, conté and felt to reflect upon migratory history and its remnant traces in the urban landscape. With its simplified forms, Chair Mugshot, 2015 can be read on several levels, such as a memory canister for a former sitter or owner. It also signifies setting up home, sharing meals, or indeed, being photographed for an identity card or police record. These ideographic pictures evoke a sense of signification that recalls Barnett Newman’s epistemological paradox of the aesthetic act as a pure idea, and the pure idea as an aesthetic act.7
Lisa Jones also uses grey as a signifying element for memory and erasure, and as a formal element to map the world and the body in two and three-dimensions. Jones’s interrogation of the relationship between the body and place takes the form of mapping, both cartographic and cultural, resulting in drawings or sculptures that reinterpret human and made systems. These systems, which include transport lines, bodily organs or cracks in pavements, are symbolic of dislocation, order and chaos, history and time. Cracks in the World is emblematic of this process as it explores place and its erasure, observation and mapping; or moment and time through the witnessing of human presence by mark making. Inherent through the works are the notions of memory and forgetting, evidenced through erasure, the dissolving of time and place and the traces of marks and stains that suggest a lived experience.
Our place as embodied humans in the world is also key to Julia Davis’s work, which explores the effects of time and how this underpins our sense of self and place. Working in active landscapes such as deserts, volcanic areas or salt lakes Davis spends long periods interacting with the location and accumulating data and materials. In a recent iteration of this ongoing project, Ru(a)pture #2, 2015, Davis utilises research gathered from an erupting volcano with the title alluding to contradictory feelings of foreboding and rapture. The ecstatic instability of the violent imagery and our physical reaction to it forms a tension between anticipated loss and subsequent renewal. Here, grey is represented in a photograph of the turbulent volcanic event, which spews ash and smoke into the atmosphere—the ash forming the grey tonal range of the image. Next to this hangs a plastic sheet into which lava and ash have been physically ground, forming an anxious trace of the event in an act that unites the sublime and the romantic in raw materiality.
According to Newman, the idea-complex discussed in his essay on ideographic pictures, makes contact with mystery, the mystery “of life, of men, of nature, of the hard, black chaos that is death, or the grayer, softer chaos that is tragedy. For it is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.”8
1. “What makes grey a neutral colour? Is it something physiological or something logical?”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, G.E.M. Anscombe, ed., Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, trans. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 27–27e.
2. G.T. Fechner, Elemente der Psychophysik, 1860. See John Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 257.
3. Gage, Colour and Meaning, 258.
4. Nils Bubandt, “Coda: Reflections on Grey Theory and Grey Zones,” in Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, Ida Harboe Knudsen and Martin Demant Frederiksen, eds. (London: Anthem Press, 2015), 194–95.
5. Bubandt, “Coda,” 188.
6. For Sigmund Freud on the conditions of memory, trauma and photography see for example, Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (London: Vintage,1952), 152 and Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1965), 574.
7. Barnett Newman, “The Ideographic Picture,” Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1947. Quoted here from Art in Theory: 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 566.
8. Newman, “The Ideographic Picture,” 566.
Donna West Brett is Lecturer, Modern Art in Art History at the University of Sydney.
By Donna Brett West
Catalogue essay by Fae Brauer. 2013