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Follow the Yellow

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Jia Chai - Phuket, Thailand - image courtesy APF

If Wassily Kandinsky’s feel for yellow rings wrong, then get thee to Phuket, Thailand, to the Vegetarian Festival, where yellow is warm, calm and very violent.

Held in the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, in honour of the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods, the Festival of Jia Chai is known for the practice among devotees of ritualised self-mutilation.

While mortification rituals are as old as god itself, those particular to the Jia Chai originate in 1865, when the local Chinese community, tin miners in the main, devastated by ‘fever’, probably malaria, was saved by a travelling opera company’s emergency recourse to a strict vegetarian diet and to a variety of associated acts of purification.

Devotee - image courtesy Reuters / Dario Pignatelli

The festival begins on the first night, at midnight, with the gods descending from heaven by way of a holy pole. The following nine days are filled with ceremony. Processions carrying representative gods in sedan chairs make their way through streets lined with yellow flags. The flags are signs that the food on sale is pure vegetarian. Everyone wears white.

A god called Pak Tai – Supreme Emperor of the Dark Realm – watches over the dead, and over the Ma Song, the devotees, in whom warrior and warrior horse spirits temporarily reside. Possessed, the devotees pass objects – metal rods, knives, swords, umbrellas, exhaust pipes, bicycles, guns – through their cheeks and tongues. They climb bladed ladders. They walk on fire coals. They bathe in hot oil. Yellow headdresses and yellow T-shirts stand out against the smoke.

The reaction to all this is predictable. Visitors are stunned, amazed at the feats of the Ma Song. For local Taoists, it is normal. The so-called ‘entranced horses’ are, for the rest of the year, their brothers, their sisters, their parents and children. During the festival they are gods, devil catchers. They are cleansing themselves. They are making peace with animals. They are living in heaven and in hell. They are making things all good.

Procession - image David Longstreath / EPA

Written by FreeState

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Some Meanings for Yellow

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Wassily Kandinsky - Yellow, Red, Blue

Yellow has many meanings. It is the colour of the sun, and of wheat, and candle light. For some, it is the colour of cowards and xenophobes, of disease, of growing old. It has been the colour of terror, of madness and of kings.  In one or two countries, the yellow joke is adult, as are yellow movies. In others, it is divine, holy, the earth and the sun and everything.

In physics, strange to say, yellow is simply the colour of a light with wavelengths of between 570 and 590 nanometres. Light like this excites the medium and long wave cone cells of the retina. Indigo blue – for reasons of the length of its own wave – is yellow’s perfect compliment. Fully fledged tritanopes are blind to both yellow and blue. If this means nearly nothing, then be at peace. Just know that your brain is a very clever thing indeed.

For Vincent van Gogh, yellow was the colour of hope. Van Gogh lived in a yellow house. Yellow is everywhere in his work. There have been number of theories as to why. Digitalis is one. Van Gogh was prescribed digitalis for his mania. Highly toxic, one side effect of digitalis is its propensity for producing yellow tinged hallucinations in users. Suspected glaucoma is another (theory).  More (bio)physics: glaucoma is a disease of the eye; if you get it, your cornea swells and light sources are perceived as being surrounded by halos – a bit like those that sometimes surround the moon.

Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait

Whatever the truth (and there is no evidence for either), Van Gogh clearly felt yellow more keenly than most. Wassily Kandinsky would have sympathised.’ Kandinsky heard his yellows. Literally.  And Kandinsky wasn’t mad. Or sick. Or addicted to drugs. He understood yellow as the noise of warmth, of fire, even. Yellow, he said, is ‘terrestrial’, violent, a colour both ‘painful and aggressive’, which – like hope sucked of warmth – describes perfectly Van Gogh’s own private yellow hell.

Actually, we’re misrepresenting Kandinsky. He did not think yellow the colour for madness. He called it eccentric, by which he meant off-centre, in the same way that engineers or mathematicians speak about off-centre wheels and circles. He was a synesthete. Yellow, like the sound of a violin, soars, is strident, calms, punches holes in compositions – hence its capacity for warmth and for violence. Like the sun. Like humans.

staging of Wassily Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound

Written by FreeState

February 7, 2012 at 12:45 pm