It was dusk when we sat on folding chairs in the concrete courtyard, our backs to the industrial steel bins. We tapped personal screens made of unbreakable sapphire to turn on our flashlights, and took turns looking down each other’s throats. Lit by crystal-white light, her mouth was a slick bioluminescent red.1 We wrestled amongst growing decibels, craning the colours of our irises and tunnelling our black pupils forward, attempting to see further down than the other had seen.2 Tongue tips reached for chins and jaws nearly dislocated in our efforts to OPEN WIDER. But the oesophagus is not a periscope. All we could see was the arc of the tongue dropping away, the back wall of the wet throat illuminated and then everything disappearing into the dark – like the curvature of the sun on the Earth between day and night.
In Novalis’ 1802 fragment novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the protagonist is gripped by a dream of a blue flower: a fantasy of azure taking on an organic form that can be held between the fingers. In the dream, the flower opens to reveal a face, which comes to be that of Matilda – the subject-body of the protagonist’s longing. Later, when they are dancing together, the protagonist’s eyes focus in on the blue veins visible under her white skin, following them as they creep from her neck into her cheek as if they were roots. This image has stuck with me since I read this story, and now, when on the metro in summer, I find myself zooming in on the flowing blue vein of the person opposite me, watching it surface at the inner elbow as the sleeve of their T-shirt flutters, winking in the through-breeze of the carriage.3
I will never see the colour of my lover’s liver, kidneys or stomach – or at least, not in a situation in which they are safe – but the desire to see inside is what keeps me close to them. In Stigmata, Hélène Cixous writes that, ‘For us, eating and being eaten belong to the terrible secret of love. …Because loving is wanting and being able to eat up and yet to stop at the boundary…Want me down to the marrow. And yet manage it so as to keep me alive.’4 The house of the erotic is made from the desire to eat the beloved whole; to consume them and simultaneously be consumed, but to hold back, is to vacillate on the threshold. Those who make the whiff of this desire into concrete reality arguably release all of its erotic appeal. You can salt any meat, but it is the longing to be consumed that provides the true flavour in cannibalism.
This push-and-pull sensation when approaching the knife edge of erotic contact – or rather, the line of possible and impossible – is the physical imaging of desire, as well as fascination and hunger, sensations that live nearby. The stomach cramps, expanding and contracting, with the need to be filled. As does the eye. The superior tarsal muscle, a smooth muscle in the upper eyelid, causes the human eye to widen – to appear ‘wide-eyed’ in shock, arousal, horror or a heady confluence of all of the above. This muscle contracts and relaxes, beating like the wings of a bright bird keen to mate. It spawns a look so intense that a potentiality arises
beyond human physics, that of the eyes breaking the skin.
The veins are an instance in which an internal body colour can be seen, but still remain inside. There are a handful of corporeal myths about the blue colour of veins: that their walls or the blood running inside them is what makes them blue. The blood in veins is dark red, and therefore from the outside veins should appear the same. Yet, human eyes see veins as blue because blue light has the only wavelength that can travel through yellow fat. The epidermis acts like a filter, meaning it becomes part of the colour, so vein-blues – as well as internal yellows, purples and reds – are darker or lighter dependent on the skin of the body they are in. Red light can only go skin-deep, which is why the purple fronds of bruises can be seen, and why blushing is an aspect of the romantic palette. These phenomena bring the internal and external into contact due to clouds of blood at varying degrees of oxygenation rising to the surface. However, while evoking fascination akin to a hand sliding behind steamy glass, these reds are rather shallow in terms of human vision.
As the wavelength of light able to go deepest into the human body, blue light untethers the sovereignty of internal and external.
It unsettles the moat of the skin from below, not causing ripples in water and tar, but rather a scudding sweat and goosebumps. This is why there is such a charge in seeing the blues of veins – it is the deepest internal colour humans are able to see while keeping the body intact; it is a chromatic possibility at the limit of the naked eye. This erotic charge is amplified by vein-blues often appearing luminous through this prism of fat. They palpably contain Etel Adnan’s ‘sinking of colour into light,’ the blue scintillations of the horizon, when the liquid of the ocean bleeds into the light of sky.5 Colour as exhaled breath.
Another myth: that blood turns from blue to red the moment it hits the air. Oxygen coursing into an incision in the body’s surface, changing the colour before your eyes. There is no scientific truth in this, and yet this myth in particular persists in the eyes of cultural imagination. If it were true, it would be akin to indigo – a colour that does not really exist by itself, only as a result of chemical reactions. When the colourless compound contained in the green Indigofera plant comes into contact with water it produces a murky yellow substance, which then turns indigo blue – but only when it comes into contact with oxygen. Perhaps this myth is unrelenting because it points to human desire for a hidden power, a belief that our bodies are capable of something more that just needs to be discovered. Such chromatic transformations are possible, however, in other bodies.
A vivid example of this is how prawns turn from translucent grey-blue to thick coral pink when placed in boiling water or hot oil. Seeing the chromatic transformation of a prawn from grey to pink with your own eyes is deeply erotic – it brings out the saliva in vision, makes it moreish. Their transformation is akin to the human body turning from frozen to molten after seeing an ex- or future-lover unexpectedly on the street, prompting you to imagine their thighs moving beneath their blue denim. Prawns subvert chromatic human standards in high-contrast, which would lead one to believe that through the cooking process they are transforming from cool to hot, from dead to alive. Their strange grey and shocking pink are close to human body colours, yet accelerated into otherworldliness. The frisson of slight corporeal difference that can be tasted while relaxing in a bar’s terrace. Pink prawn touched by puce tongue – an internal colour existing at the valence of inner and outer, only seen when the mouth is open to the light.
Another transgressive body is that of the cochineal bug, which lives and feeds on the prickly pear cactus, lodging its white chalky form around the spines. Due to the carminic acid they use to deter predators, when crushed their bodies produce a deep red colour.6 Imagine them being crushed, their bodies palpitating between white and red, reminiscent of the two types of blood cells flowing inside you as you read this. And ‘crush’ is a word in the English language used to describe wanting with such fresh, adolescent intensity that your body would crush into theirs, grinding to make a new chemical compound. It is a linguistic proxy for an action that goes beyond usual, corporeal physics.
In a 1949 letter Alina Szapocznikow, suffering from ovarian tuberculosis and confined to a single room, writes to her lover, ‘And everything is white and aquamarine. Even I am light blue (an insipid colour) and nearby there are very red, almost glowing roses.’7 In her highlighting of red and aquamarine, Szapocznikow seems to describe not only what is there in front of her, but also the specific extra-dimensionality that comes with the hyper-sensuality of longing, sickness and death. Anaglyph 3D glasses, in which one lens is red, the other cyan, are used to extend ocular possibilities.8 For the anaglyph experience, a red image and a green image from different angles are displayed on screen, but the glasses only allow one image to enter each eye, effectively forming the image of three-dimensionality inside the brain – it is internal not external.9 The colours used to create three-dimensionality on a 2D plane – to transgress the optics of the reality you are in – are also the pair of chromatic extremes when testing if a body or food is acidic or alkaline.10
In her 1973 text Água Viva, Clarice Lispector writes, ‘For I want to feel in my hands the quivering and lively nerve of the now and may that nerve resist me like a restless vein. And may it rebel, that nerve of life, may it contort and throb. And may sapphires, amethysts and emeralds spill into the dark eroticism of abundant life.’11 The difference between blue and colours like sapphire or aquamarine is that the latter do not have the robust nature of a primary colour. They float alongside green and yellow. Posting a video of a tardigrade on my Instagram story, I try and write in the same colour as the dark aquamarine of its midgut using the dropper function. Nothing lines up with the colour I’m seeing; it’s impossible for technology to mimic it. A pang in the stomach, a charge through the nerves occurs in witnessing these seemingly singular liquid colours – the ocular arousal of seeing something out of the ordinary (the erotic quality of first sight).
Colour is at its most abstract in the form of paint – a thick liquid that doesn’t make sense on its own, needing an object or wall to ‘exist.’ Apart from liquid chemicals, or the acid and mineral pools found in such landscapes as Dallol and Iceland, the only other physical form of colour almost singular in its abstractness, is the yellow of an egg yolk. A
liquid colour contained by a translucent membrane. A mundane but strange symbol of genesis, its particular yellow expresses the very thingness of abstracted or pure colour existing in the human world. There is little else that presents like the yolk, other than
their cousins sweetbreads and roe. The colour itself is a plush partner to the spiky archaic word for yellow: gorselight. The etymology of the word ‘yellow’ offers an origin of pleasure; yellow has the same Indo-European base, ghel-, as the words ‘gold’ and ‘yell’; ghel- means both bright and gleaming, and to cry out. The eye cannot fully penetrate the yellow of a yolk, but by instinct we know its density comes from layers of translucence placing it close to veins in terms of ocular possibility.
In Juzo Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo, a couple crack an egg in their hotel room. The man pours its yolk from the shell into his mouth like a shot of communion wine, and they pass it slowly between them. Using only gravity and the tips of their tongues, they pour and plop the yolk in a strange, sexy form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Yolk yellow is passed between them as if it is oxygen. It is a ball of vivid colour, with an alien depth. Again it holds the potential for transformation, but not into a different colour – into a breathing bird. It contains both death and life, pain and pleasure. Imagine letting an egg yolk rest neatly in the pink and blue veined floor of your mouth under your curved tongue, sliding against the back of your teeth. It will nourish the cells of your body with its thick yellow if taken alone in your kitchen as a shot in the morning. And often they are cracked on the heads of politicians, buff broken shell and yolk dripping down their fuckfaces on the street in front of television cameras, the one who did it having been egged on by red stillborn rage.
In his well-known book from 1980, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes of a pair of concepts: the ‘punctum’ and the ‘studium.’ The latter denotes the contextual interpretation of an image, the former the wound – the heart pang – that comes with recognition within the image. Julia Kristeva describes a similar sensation – that of being struck by colour – in relation to witnessing the blue ceiling of the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, with her own eyes. She writes, ‘Blue is the first color to strike the visitor as he enters the semidarkness of the Arena Chapel. …One’s first impression of Giotto’s painting is of a colored substance, rather than a form or architecture; one is struck by the light that is generated, catching the eye because of the color blue. Such a blue takes hold of the viewer at the extreme limit of visual perception.’ The blue of veins, the yellow of a yolk – both strike the eye, oscillating possible and impossible across its glossy surface, like the wet bristle of a car wash, before seeping in, mixing with intraocular fluid.
To experience a chromatic punctum, to be physically struck by a colour on the street. Examples in the prosaic rather than religious realm include the glistening pink peel of the sunburnt white body as it wanders around beach towns, a spectre of rays and too much pleasure like Breton’s Nadja on spring break. As well as vape smoke on city streets – a miasmic dove grey that conversely stinks of strawberries, affecting pink in the brain. Other chromatic punctums that are sheer yet still as heavy as a ham hitting the groin are found in legs seen through prosaic black tights, silver scaffolding netting, goose bumps; it is wet T-shirt competitions in Walkabout, nipples and skin showing through wet windows of white cotton, sweating through summer sheets so they cling to the torso. It is Lispector saying: ‘What am I doing when I’m writing to you? Trying to photograph perfume.’12 These align with the erotic monochromatics of baking hot white balconies and baking hot black tarmac in the scrape on your knee from where you slipped down the curb, eyes to the sky. It is white milk being drunk into the nightshade of the body.
It is murky canal water snaking through the city and flashes of chrome and is that flesh? Below. It is black and blue flies circling a bowl of white sugar. It is black lights used in hotel rooms to see ultra violet human stains of pleasure and pain. The black holes of pupils widening and opening up like the ass or pussy hole to take it all in. A pure dark circle while you spin a colour wheel and it inexplicably turns into a white O. Errant colour, colour drained and re-plumped on the lips. It is a blue-lit room forbidding you from seeing your veins and entering them using steel not sight. The eroticism present in the possibility of seeing a new colour – it arriving out of nowhere, fresh and wet on our spectrum – is given some actualised form at the supermarket fish counter. Things from deep conditions brought up to our surface, the colours rendered alien, slippery, oddly charged by fluorescent lights. Previously sedate, the fish opens its mouth as the mist jets turn on: a flirtation. This is also why neon colours are considered sexy, why signs outside strip clubs are made from neon to tantalise the eye beyond the hum-drum. There are chromatic shades acknowledged scientifically as forbidden: red-green and yellow-blue. They are composed of pairs of hues whose light frequencies automatically cancel each other out in the human eye, making them impossible to see. Akin to the transformation of prawns and cochineal bugs, there are also so-called ‘chimerical colours.’ These are imaginary colours that can be seen temporarily by looking steadily at a strong colour until some of the eye’s cone cells become fatigued, temporarily changing their colour sensitivities. After the initial interest of the colour revolution in the 1980s, the sciences treated these things like the crazy old aunt in the attic of vision. The name the revolution gave to the forbidden colours was mud. Rich and slick brown soil combined with water – a thick compost that causes everything to grow creeping blue roots.
- You can see this internal red too, right now, by placing the distal phalanx of your finger over the lens of a phone camera.
- While a neighbour overlooking the semi-public courtyard watched, his eyes stuck to the window with a glue made from disgust.
- I first read this book in Carol Mavor’s ‘Blue Mythologies’ seminar module at the University of Manchester during the spring term of 2011. This is also where I first read of Roland Barthes’ punctum and Julia Kristeva being struck by colour, which I will discuss later. I gratefully acknowledge and thank Carol for these blue teachings, which have since been published as Blue Mythologies: Relfections on a Colour, Reaktion Books, London, 2013.
- Hélène Cixous, Stigmata: Escaping texts, Routledge, New York, 2005, pp. 124-25.
- Etel Adnan, Surge, Nightboat Books, New York, 2018, p. 10.
- The colour of cochineal was coined in Perdu. Named after the bug it comes from, it dates back to at least 500 CE.
- Agata Jakubowska (ed.), Lovely, Human, True, Heartfelt: The Letters of Alina Szapocznikow and Ryszard Stanislawski 1948–1971, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Warsaw, 2012, p. 83.
- Images of hundreds of pairs of eyes covered with these glasses in the illicit space of the cinema have existed for almost 100 years, with the first 3D movie coming out in 1922.
- A white room altered to express the heightened senses of its inhabitant is also found in Chantal Akerman’s 1974 film Je, tu, il, elle, in which, during a romantic loss, the protagonist paints her room blue, then green; a delirious, chromatic consumption, throughout which she herself only consumes powdered white sugar.
- Vincent A. Billock and Brain H. Tsou, ‘Seeing Forbidden’, Scientific American, February 2010, p. 73.
- Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, Penguin, London, 2014, p. 43.
- Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, Penguin, London, 2014, p. 43.