February 2nd, 2012

A review, or glimpse into,
the book “White” by Kenya Hara.


white paper with black tape (Illustration: Williams Trent)

The slight unease about what this is exactly, how it should be placed, where it is pointing, is one of this book’s more edifying qualities. It is not exactly a design book, although this is much of it’s main focus and probably it’s audience. It’s a sort of visual philosophy. Hara says he has “attempted to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic.” The subject and starting off point is fairly focused in the sense that it is held together by a discussion of a single color, but quite broad in the sense that the book is also, or mainly, about a way of thinking and approaching the world. It’s a bold step off into abstract thinking. Perhaps this is more common elsewhere. But I can’t think of any examples of this particular style of inquiry here in the English speaking world emanating from the field of Graphic Design. The underlying assumptions and principles that govern most of the work is more often left unexamined. So it is good to have this from Kenya Hara. Not only do we get some insight into his approach or aesthetic, we are prodded or aroused into asking some questions of ourselves that aren’t often raised.

The object that is the book itself is pleasantly handsome and is worth mention. It’s a comfortable size and includes a string bookmark – a Japanese touch. There is a slightly vinyl feel to the case bound cover – probably a bit of a compromise which makes it possible to produce a large quantity of matte white books that don’t get dirty before they have even left the printer. There are nice touches like different paper, different white paper, for endpapers, title page, text pages. It’s Lars Müller publishers, but was printed in Japan. So perhaps Kenya Hara oversaw the design and printing himself, though no designer is listed with the other credits.

Book cover

The book "White"

The book opens with a discussion about the receptivity of white, its particular preparedness to be a meeting place of ideas, the receptacle of some event, or of our thoughts and emotions (kizen). Hara ends, not counting the epilogue about freshly fallen snow, with the great irrevocable event of a mark having been made on that white surface. The mark being made as an application of great skill behind which is great consideration and a reverent awareness of the graveness of the act. Largely what he is talking about is ink being applied to paper. Paper is the elemental white – multifarious but essential. (Maybe he wouldn’t use words like essential.) And ink is the elemental mark.

Essential sounds like such a western word. A word that seems pretty bound up with Western ideals of meeting directly with what is most important and doing away with all that may obscure it. When I talk about a symbol I almost always resort to words like essential, usually describing that symbol as a focused distillation of some idea or entity. I can’t help view it as some kind of particular isness, the core rather than the shell. So I would tend to describe the Japanese flag as a highly refined symbol that somehow manages to pack all of the ideas and associations with the land and people of Japan into one single representational circle. Hara, by contrast, says symbols like the Japanese flag or the Christian cross are “like enormous empty vessels that can hold every possible meaning.” What makes symbols like these powerful, Hara says, is their emptiness. I would have been, out of habit, inclined to say it was their substance.

For Hara, white is one of the great emtptinesses. But Hara also points out that white achieves much of its power, or bestows its power in the context of relationships, the figure or symbol and the white ground, the black letters on white paper. Familiar enough, but bears repeating. Yet he says in the chapter “Ruminating on White” that “I came to believe…it was narrow gradations, not great disparities, which mattered.” Sensible, but a kind of refinement which seems out of place in relation to Design, the art of the ephemeral, which is nearly always most effective with the greatest and jarring contrasts – the kind which he notes at the beginning and then at the end of the book in examples like the Japanese flag, the Christian cross and type printed on paper. Similarly on the vagueness and greyness in Hasegawa Tohaku’s “Pine Trees” he notes that “the painting’s very roughness and omission of details awaken our senses.” This meditation on the “Pine Trees” painting is given a fair amount of space and he includes a photo of “Pine Trees” as a gatefold at the back of the book. As part of this discussion, he mentions Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows” which is a book length meditation on just these fine gradations. However, he has earlier stated, a little grandly, “[w]hen white emerges from boundless chaos, it becomes information, namely, life…white emerging from the chaos of grey.”

Ginkaku/The Silver Pavilion

From Book "White" (Photo: Ueda Yoshihiko)

There are other of these fairly interesting and sensible but drifting side-trips into the self-contradictory or odd pronouncement. The relationships he describes between the natural world and human beings I find the strangest. On the one hand he recognizes the artificiality of flower arrangement and the impossibility of placing flowers decoratively in a small room “as if they are growing in a field” as Sen no Rikyu has advised. Hara recognizes of the tea ceremony that “the whole activity can be taken as a metaphor.” On the other hand he, further along in the book, states that “the Japanese garden embodies this delicate coexistence of mankind and nature.” This coexistence he notes is in the context of observing the cleaning of every white pebble, stepping stone, moss: “in short, the garden is maintained by an unending human struggle against the weathering process of nature.” What he is describing as balance and a coexistence with nature strikes me as a very artful, but near absolute, dominance over nature. Nature has become an occasion, a kind of venue for, as in the tea ceremony again, “a person to communicate with people and objects.” It is really the people and their objects that are the important thing. Nature becomes a kind of object.

Again, what we are mainly talking about here are relationships and of course it is mainly human relationships that we find in the corollary of nature or objects and their arrangement and design. Using the natural world to support the arguments is a bit of a stretch, but the point is taken that what we are talking about are significant, even fundamental, ways of perceiving and understanding the world. To us, as human beings, they matter. And the most enlivening parts of the book describe how these ways of perceiving the world differ from our own. Returning to the theme of delicacy and fine differences, Hara points out that “Japanese people tend to leave unclear matters as they are” as opposed to reaching for the ideals of precision and clarity strived for here, particularly in America, where we always want you to name the thing and tell us precisely what you are talking about. There is, in Hara’s view, a Japanese tendency, or strategy rather, of explicitly leaving the elephant in the room unremarked upon, unnamed, or as he says “bracketed” – “removing a crucial issue from discussion as a communication technique.” “The national flag of Japan can be used to illustrate this point.” In this sense I can see more clearly how powerful a delicacy (or a vagueness or greyness), in this case of omission, can be. There is a great deal of energy and tension as well as possibility and a kind of openness in the big thing left unsaid, the symbol which means everything and nothing, which is an occasion and a catalyst. This is the greatness of white, alive with the thrilling anticipation of a mark about to be made, alive with all of the possibilities that we can bring to it. I want to say that white then becomes a symbol of the imagination itself. But of course I am trying too hard to describe and pinpoint exactly what it is. In the Odyssey, Odysseus steadfastly wrestles with Proteus determined to firmly grasp him whatever form he takes. Hara would have pinned him by leaving him “bracketed”, surrounding him without touching him, grasping him without naming him.

Williams Trent