White and emptiness

Kenya Hara’s little book White is a meditation on the colour’s qualities as a field of imminent possibility.

For Hara, a design director at Muji, the blank white canvas radiates a numinous energy that invites thought to take form. The sense of invitation inspired by the colour has long been noted by Japanese culture, which has evolved a cluster of words to attempt to give the concept adequate expression:

The etymology of the word shiro, or ‘white’, one of the four traditional Japanese colours, is rooted in the ancient wordshiroshi, which is in turn connected to the words itoshiroshi and ichijirushi. All of these terms are based on the corporeality of things. Ichijirushi is a clear and objective condition which manifests itself in the purity of light, the lucidity embodied in a drop of water, or the force of a crashing waterfall. Shiroshi, on the other hand, is the state of consciousness we enter when we focus on these things, when our senses seem to vibrate like the strings of a koto. Over a long history, these ancient words were absorbed into the concept of ‘white’ or shiro, and established as an aesthetic principle.

White is like the shell of an egg, ‘the membrane that forms the boundary between this world and the next’. And:

In the old days, Japanese referred to the latent possibilities that exist prior to an event taking place as kizen. In so far as white contains the latent possibility of transforming into other colours, it can be seen as kizen.

The book has a fascinating chapter discussing the fundamental importance of the invention of paper in affording new creative possibilities, not just for the pragmatic reason of providing a more convenient canvas then earlier materials such as papyrus and parchment, but because of its colour: a bright, shining surface that encouraged invention:

[T]he invention of paper can be seen as having cast a bright light over the course of human history … Our imaginations have been incalculably altered as a result of having given that principle of whiteness material existence in the form of a thin, stiff sheet … Paper is the materialised energy of itoshiroshi, that extreme form of purity that is ladled out of chaos and which appears to us as both potentiality and actuality. Human beings who come into contact with its latent potential are naturally driven to express themselves.

The invention of paper ‘was a breakthrough that evoked a primeval world of unblemished purity and calm’.

For Hara this concept of emptiness, of a figure emerging from a white field, is of fundamental importance within Japanese culture. He discusses the ancient art of screen painting, which employs the ‘the technique of using emptiness to set the image free on paper’, with particular reference to Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610).

Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku
Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku

The concept motivates the design of Shinto shrines, attended by white robed priest, which demarcate sacred spaces left empty to invite the presence of the gods. And it is at the heart of the ‘tea ceremony’, the performance of the most common everyday task, in the unremarkable setting of a sparely furnished garden house. It is the sheer ordinariness of the ritual that clears a space for the imagination to wonder at the brute fact of existence:

When a host invites his guest into his tiny teahouse for an exchange of thoughts, there is a reason for the scant furnishings: one’s imagination expands in uncluttered, simple space … For example, a basin filled with water and floating flower petals allow the host and his guest to imagine themselves sitting together under a blossoming cherry tree.

Hara’s unvarnished little book works a similar magic upon its reader.

White by Kenya Hara is published by Lars Müller Publishers.