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Blue's Blues

By Michelle Hui

Mark Rothko, No 14 White and Greens in Blue, 1957. Oil Painting on Canvas, 90.2 × 69.9 cm. Photograph taken from

“Just as blue pigment spread on canvas may help a painter accurately represent nature or give to his work the aforesaid melancholy cast, enhance a pivotal pink patch or signify the qualities of heavenly love, so our blue colours come in several shades and explanations,” writes William H. Gass in his treatise on the colour blue, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. A meditative exposition on the colour blue and its symbolic, emotional, and erotic associations, Gass reveals there’s more to the colour than what meets the eye.


For centuries, the colour blue and its emotive and visual qualities have captivated both artists and authors alike. Ultramarine, one of the world’s most expensive pigments, sent Johannes Vermeer’s family into spiralling debt following his generous use of the colour in his works. Centuries later and a few countries over, the discovery of blue-and-white porcelain works from China by a group of artists and intellectuals from the Aesthetic movement sparked a frenzied fever for the glazed porcelains in Britain. In a more modern setting, rice is now dyed with the pigments of the butterfly pea flower for its blue colouring. Books and music have also been similarly consumed by the colour blue and its emotive connotations, with Joni Mitchell’s seminal Blue album in 1971 inspiring Amy Key’s memoir, Arrangements in Blue in 2023. The enduring resonance of blue through time is undoubtedly perpetuated by its natural omnipresence in both the sea and sky, two entities that have proudly worn their garlands as subliminal forces of inspiration in the arts, literature, music, and more. For me, I’m interested in the emotive nuances of blue and how it percolates through our lives.


In writer and artist Larissa Pham’s essay, Blue from her book Pop Song, the alluring colour remains frustratingly out of reach. She speaks of a blue that paint can’t simply capture, a blue that is found in places “ distant cities or mountains or even the flat lip of a foggy horizon at sea.” For Pham, the “...hazy, achy, atmospheric blue is the product of the distance between us and the places we observe, and that gives it its particular poignancy, I think: closing that distance precludes ever meeting it.” With wearied, melancholic elegance, Pham reminisces of her blue desire during the spring of 2017. A period marked by her burnout, Pham underwent an existential crisis, compounded by the results of the presidential elections in 2016 and a general despair at the state of the world. She eventually packs up and heads to Taos, a town nestled in the deserts of New Mexico in search of the hazy, atmospheric blue she writes of.


“When I was asked where I wanted to go, I always pointed at the bluest mountains. I wanted to be inside that heart-breaking turquoise blue, not stuck down here with the mortals among grey-green sage bushes and dusty-red ground; I wanted to be both there in the place and behold its beauty at the same time…I never got to the blue place, that the world keeps turning and the horizon keeps rolling just out of reach, no matter how many exists you miss,” Pham laments in the endless sandy expanse of the desert and its infinite blue skies, the scenery retaining an inscrutable and unattainable distance away from her. Held in the liminal space of her blue ambitions, Pham embarks on a Sisyphean task to close the gap. Blue, here, stokes a burning desire to continue on her journey, dangling a treat overhead to keep her going. It is an unreachable point, but the process of getting there is also a source of comfort and motivation to keep moving.


I recently had a class on the topic of sleep, and the topic of burnout was brought up in the readings. In Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han discusses the psychology behind burnout, suggesting that “the late-modern achievement subject does not pursue works of duty. Its maxims are not obedience, law, and the fulfilment of obligation, but rather freedom, pleasure, and inclination.” Depression, which often culminates in burnout, notes Han, “...follows from overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak…It wears out in a rat race it runs against itself.” Is blue, written in this context, waving a giant red flag for us? I argue that it is a cautionary tale that speaks of the desire to persist, to pursue pleasure, but also as a gentle reminder to recognise when to press pause. In the blue brinks of burnout, we should acknowledge that the pursuit of the unattainable can often lead us astray, and that it is more than okay to stop.


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