Gunalan NADARAJAN - An aesthetics of transparency

by Gunalan Nadarajan

In a recent book, The Vision Machine, Paul Virilio, argues that the overwhelming and pervasive use of light which were historically instituted to illuminate and distinguish the specific elements within the cityscape, have paradoxically blurred out the distinctive characteristics of the built environment.
Also the specificities of buildings in today’s cities are usually lost in the night primarily because of the standardization and uniform application of architectural and surrounding city lights. It is in the light of the “nocturnal photoneutralization of urban space”, I presume, one could start encountering the present architectural intervention of Nathalie Junod Ponsard, for what she has done is exactly to bring to the fore the qualities of this particular architectural space.

Nathalie Junod Ponsard has worked with light as an essential medium for her architectural interventions for quite some time now. She has worked with lighting installations in India at Jantar Mantar, in Hong Kong, in France and in Europe. Her works seek to explore and expose the spatial structures of a given building or site with light in ways that aesthetically reinvests these spaces.
One of the constitutive and most striking features of this Alliance Française building is its use of glass both as a structural support and a focus of aesthetic pleasure. And Nathalie’s work is as much about light as it is about the glass enclosure this building is. The introduction of glass was a significant step in the development of an aesthetics of transparency in architecture. The German cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, in a relatively little known article, “Experience and Poverty” of 1929, commented that through glass architecture, “everything comes to stand under the banner of transparency”. The opacity of the brick and stone walls which denied visual access to the “interior” of a building was replaced with the semingly easy transparency afforded by glass walls. However, the glass facades that have become so characteristic of modern architecture are not entirely transparent as they are made out to be. The glass surface has a dual relationship to light. Firstly, it becomes a surface exactly by its capacity to reflect the light that falls upon it. Secondly, it also allows us to forget that it is surface by the fact that light passes through it easily. In fact, it is the very capacity of glass to reflect which allows it to absorb. Nathalie’s work here has carefully subverted the reflective qualities of glass. Her lighting allows one to forget for a while at least the materiality of the glass façade and thus happily languish in the interior spaces that have been illuminated. Interestingly, while the light interventions sustain an illusion of the absence of the glass, the steel supports that structurally keep them in place have been transformed into an elaborate grid parodying a modernist aesthetic. The functional, in a cheeky reversal of fortunes, has become the decorative.
One should examine the complex negotiations that need to be made when undertaking architectural interventions like Nathalie’s. Architectural space embodies the programmes that it institutes, the functions it serves, and such an artistic intervention into architecture is bound to disrupt and sometimes disturb such programmes and functions. However, the challenge, especially in a city like Singapore were there is very little unbuilt space, is exactly to find ways to reinvest our built spaces with a heterogeneous range of possibilities, I recognise and congratulate in Nathalie’s art work today such ambitions.

Gunalan Nadarajan
Art critic theorist and curator.
Dean, Faculty of Visual Arts, Lasalle-Sia College of the Arts Singapore