Birgir Andrésson – Mathematics of colour

Eftirfarandi texti um litafræði Birgis Andréssonar fannst í tölvu minni nýverið. Hann mun hafa verið skrifaður á ensku fyrir sýningarskrá sem ég á ekki í mínum fórum, en mig minnir að sýningin hafi verið haldin í Lundi í Svíþjóð nálægt síðustu aldamótum. Birgir var vinur minn og lést langt fyrir aldur fram 2007. Ég á ekki eintak af þessum texta á íslensku, enda mun hann hafa veið skrifaður á ensku.

The following text about the color-studies of Birgir Andrésson (1956-2007) was written around year 2000 for a cataloge of Birgir's exhibition somewhere abroad, maybe in Lund Swden. I don't have a copy of the cataloge, but recently I found the original text written in English in the depths of my HardDrive. Birgir was a dear friend of mine. 


The Mathematics of Color

On Birgir Andrésson’s Icelandic palette

When I asked Birgir Andrésson, after having seen his studies on „Icelandic colors“, if he had read Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, he said:

No, but I was born and brought up by blind parents.

This remarkable experience made him passionate for art as a child, and later led him into investigation of the relationship between language and visual experience.

A wise man has said that we do not see with our eyes, but our mind. The mind transforms immediately what we see with our eyes into signs that become part of a visual language[i].

In his Remarks, Wittgenstein makes a clear example: he has before his eyes a black and white photograph that shows an old car and two men standing by. Then he says: It would be very natural for me to describe the photograph in these words: „A man with dark hair and a boy with combed-back blond hair are standing by the machine“. This is how I would describe the photograph, and if someone said that doesn’t describe it but the objects that were probably photographed, I could say the picture looks as though the hair had been that color.[ii]

What amazed Wittgenstein was the fact that he immediately interpreted the grey spot in the picture as if it was the color blond. When a color that is grey in one sense becomes blond in another sense it tells us that the color is not a visual sensation, but a construct of the mind.

Wittgenstein points out that the concepts we use for colors are no more related to the vision than the concepts of numbers are related to the phenomena of nature. When we look at a colored surface we put what we see into a logical system which he calls mathematics of color[iii] or geometry of color[iv]. The rules of these „mathematics“ or this „geometry of color“ are in no relationship to visual experience, because they are of a different category.

When we learn in early childhood to master the concepts of colors, we are being introduced to a social custom that Wittgenstein calls game of language. We learn about the four primary colors that make the opposites in the color scheme. We learn that the colors black and white don’t belong to the color-scheme and that a transparent object can never be white, although it can look white. These, Wittgenstein says, are rules that have been constructed to adapt the language to the visual experience.

But they are a construct, just like the numbers or the traffic rules, and they do not belong to the realm of nature. What is there in favor of saying that green is a primary color, not a blend of blue and yellow? Would it be right to say: You can only know it directly by looking at the colors? But how do I know that I mean the same by the words primary colors as some other person who is also inclined to call green a primary color? No, – here language games decide.[v]

When Birgir Andrésson is showing us standardized colors and naming them „Icelandic“ he is leading us into the danger-zone where we find the borderline between the rules of language and visual experience. The industrial standards of color that Birgir is using with his color experiments are the paradigm that Wittgenstein calls the „mathematics“ and „geometry“ of color. They are based on chemical factors which are as close to the visual experience as we can reach. Naming these colors „Icelandic“ is based on a local experience that Birgir has obtained through his investigation of the use of colors in traditional Icelandic handicraft and housing. It raises the question if the category „Icelandic“ is based on visual experience or on the „language-game“. This is an enigma that Wittgenstein poses in his paragraph on „reddish-green“ and „yellowish-blue“: But even if there were also people for whom it was natural to use the expressions „reddish-green“ or „yellowish-blue“ in a consistent manner and who perhaps also exhibit abilities which we lack, we would still not be forced to recognize that they see colors which we do not see. There is, after all, no commonly accepted criterion for what a color is, unless it is one of our colors.[vi]

According to the rules of positivism we should be able to proof the meaning and truth of our statements through experience. But how can we proof through visual experience that a grey spot is blond? With his Remarks on Colors Wittgenstein has undermined the premises of positivism. He even says that the answer why he can make the statement that something has the color red could as well be: because I have learnt English[vii].

The questions Birgir Andrésson is confronting in his studies of the color „Icelandic“ are rooted in his experience of growing up with blind parents. He was already as a child confronting the problem of communication between the blind and the seeing that Wittgenstein describes like this: When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says „Who knows what he imagines that to mean“ – But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.[viii]

Why is the expression wrong? Quoting again the Remarks: We could say people ‘s concepts show what matters to them and what doesn’t. But it is not as if this explained the particular concepts they have. It is only to rule out the view that we have the right concepts and other people the wrong ones. (There is a continuum between an error in calculation and different mode of calculating.)[ix].

This means that the community of the blind and the community of the Icelandic do have some concepts of color that are as valid in their game of language as are the chemical standards of the industries of color. None of them is based on visual experiece, but on the rules of the language game. The works of Birgir Andrésson are rising challenging questions about the relationship between language and vision and how we use language and vision to understand reality.

Ólafur Gislason

Birgir Andrésson: Kyrralíf. Color Icelandic 2070 Y60R og Icelandic 2005 Y50R

[i] Paul Valery: Berte Morisot in Pieces sur l’art, 1924, here from Italian trans.: „Scritti sull’arte“, pub. TEA Arte, 1966, pages 124-125.

[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Remarks on Color, University of California Press, 1978, III., § 276

[iii] Ibid III § 3

[iv] Ibid III. § 35

[v] ibid. I. § 6

[vi] ibid, I., § 14.

[vii] Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, I., § 381

[viii] Wittgenstein Reflections, III, § 294

[ix] Ibid III, § 293

Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir: Water, 2013

 The Psychology of Water

 A short essay on “Water”, the installation of visual artist Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir in Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, inaugurated the 16th of August 2013.

On a burning face/ falls the blue rain/ of blue-winged days.

Into the mind’s nullity/ night comes/ like an untitled story.

And the nakedness of that which is/ loses the nearness of itself/ in nights and days.

The image that poet Steinn Steinarr sketches here in the thirteenth poem of his series Time and Water is meaningless to conventional reason and falls flat if we try to explain its meaning using logical rules. The language addressing us here points beyond the rationality that tells us raindrops are just water, a face just a mask, a day a number on a calendar. This is a language that points beyond prior definitions of words, to speak the language of images. Moreover, the images formed by these words are not based on any definite model that we can rephrase or refigure for purposes of explanation. The poet’s words and images penetrate our consciousness and leave behind an imprint or wound which we can’t define without falling into a purely banal mundanity from which the fantasies of dream have been excluded, all danger zones fenced and designated off-limits. Nonetheless we are moved. Moved because we feel this image echo inside us; it discloses to us a previously-hidden inner world of our own. This image, so simple that it almost comes to nothing, nevertheless becomes something infinitely big, like the drop that fills the bowl of our consciousness and ruffles the water clear out to infinity…

This occurs when poets reach the point of making living symbols, symbols that live not for their meaning but for their efficacy alone, the effects they elicit. As the psychoanalyst Jung said, a living symbol is always ambiguous; it points beyond the world of definitions toward the unconscious and unknown and ultimately back toward nothing but itself, since nothing else can elicit its effect. It is characteristic of all poetry to breach the previously-defined outer limits of language; the poet is always situated in the danger zone of delerium in which rationality dwindles and the demons of insanity become imperious, demons of the madness that dwells in each of us, that we know, for example, from our dreams. This is the madness that psychology has called the unconscious core of humanity’s natural urges. “The Ego is not master in its own house,” said Freud, and each person’s daily life is strictured by tension between rational regulation and those fantasies of desire that the poets alone can give form to in their symbols, symbols that lend wings to our desires and dreams. Desires and dreams are the other side of psychic want. We desire not what we have but what we lack. Our desires are the driving force we feed upon; poets lend them wings and help us to perceive them. To recognize our desires and dreams and know how to pursue them is the way to become ourselves. This roadtrip lasts as long as life itself, so long as the desire to live remains. To understand and perceive our desires and dreams we need symbols. Hence poetry is a vital necessity for humankind.

When we have defined a symbol’s meaning it ceases to be a symbol, for definition devours the unconscious and unknown part of the image, strips it of its efficacy and makes it into a sign. It no longer discloses the danger zone of our world of hidden desires, no longer points the way to ourselves. Hence it is vitally necessary for us to renew language, breach the defenses and security systems that stagnant social language locks us into.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written remarkable books on the psychology of the material world, especially with regard to the elements. At first a title such as his Psychoanalysis of Fire seems provocative; we have been taught that the material world is inanimate. Yet Bachelard proclaims that in relation to humankind nature is a living being, for man not only identifies with nature but is part of it and thus psychoanalyzes water as naturally as he does his neighbour. And in truth, from time immemorial, man has personified natural forces and psychoanalyzed them in myth and religion.

In his book Bachelard makes an important distinction between what he calls the formal and material imaginations. Formal imagination concerns the outward appearance of objects, their decoration and surface; material imagination concerns deeper and more inward material properties, which may concern gender, personal qualities, or an obsession, for example: fire is masculine, like sky, earth is feminine, like water; water tends toward the level, fire toward the vertical; a sunset on the ocean rim joins sky and earth and conveys death and rebirth, and so on.

Contemporary technologised society tends to regard nature and the material world as raw materials for human processing and consumption. In accordance with this view we have been taught that nature is inanimate matter. Steinn Steinarr’s poem series Time and Water, quoted above, shows by contrast a deep understanding of the psychology of water: waters manifest man’s fate. Living water from a spring never rests until it reaches its goal in level ocean: “the pain of water is infinite,” says Bachelard, adding, “In the depths of matter there grows an obscure vegetation; black flowers bloom in matter’s darkness. They already possess a velvety touch, a formula for perfume.”[1] The philosopher reaches for poetic language to illustrate his case and might equally have said, with Steinn Steinarr: “but my dream glowed/in a veiled life-ripple/while the depths slept on. And my hidden sorrow/ catches up with you/ like a blue-distant sea.”

The water in Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir’s round glass bowl rests on black sand on the floor of the narthex of Hallgrímskirkja and is ruffled by drops falling from the ceiling to murmuring notes composed by Daníel Bjarnason. The blueness of the walls envelops it and draws us on through the church itself to the apse  where the blue of the windows carries us on out into daylight.

Let us not ask what this installation means, for it is not an explanation of anything, no more than is the poem about time and water. We can search the mythology and theology of waters and spin from them countless parallels and references that might be historically informative: stories of purification, death and rebirth, stories about the water of life and milk of earth, stories about water as the image of anima and the bowl as maternal womb or milk-swollen breast, stories about ruffled water as the spirit stirring from above, about the healing springs of Asclepius and Mary and the pool at Bethesda in the Gospel of John: all these stories of the psychology of water are relevant to this image, and yet this image ultimately refers  to itself. It is an attempt to fathom the imaginative power of matter that ultimately is our own imaginative power, a signpost on the way toward becoming ourselves.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Sarah Brownsberger


[1] Translation E. R. Farrell, Water and Dreams, 1993.