The Colour of Nothing

Recently Belgian Artist Frederik De Wilde exhibited a square blacker than any human being has ever seen before. Blackboards look black but actually reflect as much as 10% of the light falling on them. De Wilde’s black square reflects 0.01% – one thousand times less.

There is an impressive image here. New Scientist magazine has described it as an attempt to paint nothing.

The work is a reflection of the celebrated Black Square that the Russian Malevich showed in St Petersburg in 1915. The image above is an image of Malevich’s work I found in Wikimedia Commons. The painting had huge influence at the time and I believe at the end of his life the artist had it hanging in his bedroom. Today it’s in a fragile state (with the black foreground crazing to reveal the white below), and in another echo from the past De Wilde’s NanoBlck-Sqr #1, which uses carbon nanotubes on a white frame, is so delicate that you are only permitted to view it under supervision.

But neither Malevich nor De Wilde have captured what nothing looks like. The blind have a better understanding, which you can share by a thought experiment.

Right now, what do you see round the back of your head?

You’ve no eyes there, so you just saw (or didn’t) nothing. And it’s not a bit like black, is it?

This might seem trivial or frivolous, but it’s not at all. I have a large blind spot (a scotoma), that occupies nearly half my visual field. People frequently ask me what I see there. They intuitively expect it to be a black patch.

But it’s not: it’s nothing. That’s very hard to explain. And impossible to paint. Even invisibility has a sort of appearance. Nothingness doesn’t. So how could it have a colour?





About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
This entry was posted in 101 experiments in seeing, Art and vision, Blindness and visual impairment, The brain and visual perception, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Colour of Nothing

  1. Lynne Dixon says:

    I think that’s a really useful way of conceptualizing it & explaining it to others. If I close my eyes, what I ‘don;t see’ through the front of my head is blackness, whereas what I ‘don’t see’ through the back of my head is nothing – you may as well ask what I see through my ear or through my thumb.
    I remember reading something in the OU documentation for visually impaired students that said very few people registered blind actually have true blindness. I took that to mean ‘total blackness’ but even that must be less of an impairment than ‘total nothing’. Perhaps blackness is a kind of sight & could explain blind people’s ability to find their way around?
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  2. stumathews says:

    When people ask you what you see there, you can say that you don’t see it anymore so you don’t know.

    You might describe nothing as its impact on something: you can say what you can see is smaller because of it.

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