How do we engage with a work of art that is deliberately remote, silent and withholds information?
In a talk arranged by Engaging with the Humanities at Oxford Saïd and the Oxford Character Project, Ian Kiaer, Associate Professor of Fine Art and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Ruskin School of Art, explored how we might ‘read’ a monochrome.
A ‘monochrome’ of course means just one colour or a limited tonal range of colour. Kiaer introduced the idea with a picture of Gary Hume’s Incubus.
This is a large work on panels cut to the exact size of hospital doors that the artist measured in a London hospital and painted in institutional magnolia. ‘In one sense it is just a painted surface,’ said Kiaer, ‘but there is also a sense of its being distant or remote to the viewer. It’s not giving much, it’s not generous. As a surface it remains silent, as if you have to bring your thoughts or yourselves to this object. It demands that you do a lot of the work.’
But, faced with such a ‘deadpan’ work, with a surface that is not ‘speaking’, what is the viewer to do to engage with it? ‘What is going on if you have to bring everything to it?’
Kiaer read from The White Book by Korean writer Han Kang. The book is itself a meditation on the colour white, and the passage he read contained a microscopic description of how the author painted a rented room and its door white to cover stains. The description of this act of painting, of covering up, in fact opens up a world in relation to the stains, the scratches, and the marks on the door.
Han Kang’s text gives us an idea of what we might be looking for or feeling when we look at a monochrome – or, as the title of the talk suggests, ‘read’ it. But text is a much more accessible surface than Gary Hume’s silent work.
And there is perhaps a suggestion that the silence of the monochrome contains more than words can express. The art historian/philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman explained how he experienced the Fra Angelico fresco of the Annunciation as a monochrome, and how his language began to break down as he tried to describe what he was looking at. As Kiaer said, it was ‘ultimately about the expanse between the two figures – really just white paint on a white wall. He tried to make grunts, a “whack of white” – trying to express the physicality of the experience of the work that text fails to touch.’
This inadequacy of text is brought out more explicitly in Cy Twombly’s blackboard paintings, which take place in ‘the moment between writing and drawing – mark-making in the in-between space that he is creating’. As Kiaer pointed out, the blackboard supposed to be a carrier of information, but in the blackboard paintings it resists that. ‘It pulls you in to an idea of writing that is bodily and different to writing is we know it.’
Perhaps the ultimate monochrome is Kasimir Malevich’s black square. Often seen as ‘one of the first deaths of representation’, this black square paints out anything that could be a figure. ‘It becomes an object for the first time… It is matter of fact, a surface that you can paint like a table…Both dumb and stupid and just a painted door, and at the same time hugely meaningful.’
It was of course ironic that Kiaer should be talking about works of art that are about communicating through silence, and about not giving out information, in a lecture theatre. The screens on which his slides were projected are used on every other occasion for text, and for broadcasting information. In fact, the unsuitability of the lighting for projecting pictures of white monochromes exaggerated the ‘work’ required from the audience, making us rethink how we normally engage with information and how we could approach reading more actively.