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The Materiality of White (MoW)

Funded by the The Norwegian Artistic Research Programme (PKU 2022 - 2025)
Principal Investigator: Associate Professor Marte Johnslien
Host institution: The Oslo National Academy of the Arts

The chemical compound titanium dioxide (TiO2) circulates extensively through our material, biological, and economic systems, most of the time completely unnoticeable: in the food we eat, the paper we print on, the paint on the wall, and our iPhone chargers. The substance was originally discovered and patented as a white pigment by Norwegian chemists Peder Farup and Gustav Jebsen, and production for the global market began in the mine Titania AS in Sokndal, Norway, and in the factory Kronos Titan AS in Fredrikstad, Norway, in 1916. Revolutionizing the colour industry, the TiO2 patent brought into the market a pure white paint that resisted miscolouring due to dirt and rust; TiO2 has been called “the whitest white” and its material properties are inextricably related to invisibility, durability, and homogenization. 


Throughout the 20th Century, the material was increasingly used in combination with other colours (as coating for concrete, glazing for ceramics, and additive in plastic) thereby changing the aesthetics of surfaces in art, architecture, and design—its extreme covering ability made surfaces smoother, brighter, and more opaque. After a hundred years of mining, the extraction of TiO2 has left an irreversible change in the local landscape: The environmental trace of mining modernism consists of a vast cut through the surface of the earth and a grey artificial desert of mining waste. Do we need our world to be more white?

The protagonist of the project 'The Materiality of White' (MoW) is the white pigment TiO2. MoW investigates the materiality of the color white through ceramic works and archival material; through analyzes of the Norwegian history of the pigment; and through critical investigations of the future of the white pigment as a smart material. In MoW, TiO2 will be studied by using artistic research methods; visual anthropology, fieldwork photography, production of artworks, analysis of archival material, critical writing, book design, and exhibition making.   

The aim of the project is to highlight TiO2's materiality and ubiquity, and to contribute to critical thinking on the color white and its mineral origin. The act of making TiO2 visible will be achieved by processing the material in ceramic sculpture, developing a technical compendium for TiO2 in ceramic glazes, by displaying the historical context in exhibitions, as well as developing a theoretical and critical reflection.

The Materiality of White is a further development of Marte Johnslien's PhD in artistic practice from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (2020). 

Project partners: Jøssingfjord Science MuseumDalane Folk MuseumØstfoldsmuseeneThe Norwegian Mining MuseumVelferdenROM for kunst og arkitektur, and KRAFT.

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Marte Jonnslien, White to Earth (Oslo: ROM forlag, 2020). Graphic design by Carl Gürgens.

White to Earth was bestowed with the award of Norway’s most beautiful book in 2021.

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