Before addressing the specifics of the work designed by Nathalie Junod Ponsard for this exhibition, it would be useful to situate the artist’s overall approach within a historical perspective that began in 1912-1913, when the premise of a visual language dubbed “kinetic art”, “optical art” or more broadly still “perceptual art”, was first formulated1 Giacomo Balla, Kazimir Malevitch, and others, the aim of this sensitivity was twofold: in harmony with the deeper understanding of reality provided by modern science, it involved denying the limitations of matter by exploring the thresholds of the visible. In other words, the material medium remained, but only as a field of activity for a luminous, shimmering phenomenon. These initiators of abstraction rejected the traditional idea of composition, which could no longer be a fixed arrangement of formal elements and chromatic values. In some of their major works (Balla’s Compénétration iridescente (1912) and Malevitch’s Plan en dissolution (1917-18), for instance), the result is a generalized shimmering effect, most often produced at a psycho-physiological level (which one might situate between the eye and the brain), using techniques such as intermittent light or simple variations in tone. The traditional scope of the artwork was transformed: it was no longer the fixed, distant field of representation, but instead a highly variable domain defined by the spatio-temporal reality of the perception of an observer—which itself formed an integral part of the work. From the 1960s on, and in the real space of the exhibition venue, artists like James Turrell, Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Le Parc, Robert Irwin and Fujiko Nakaya in turn exploited the elasticity of visual perception according to a Heraclitian conception of flows, where truth is only accessible to the senses on a temporal and phenomenological plane (Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau- Ponty, Rudolf Arnheim). The artists mentioned above began to use techniques such as direct electric light (instead of indirect light, formed by pigments fixed to the canvas in some way) or motion (both actual physical movement and an internal sensation of movement). In this regard, it is significant that the first direct light sources in art (in the work of François Morellet, Dan Flavin and Julio Le Parc) appeared on an architectonic scale: that of the environment. Considered as the extended framework of light propagation, the setting becomes the work itself; it submerges and surrounds the viewer moving around inside it, most often in the presence of other viewers experiencing the same thing (this was prefigured in Le Parc’s Cellule à pénétrer (1963) or Soto’s Pénétrables from 1967 onwards). This process of gentle coercion, of power exercised over observers, is crucial to Nathalie Junod Ponsard’s work.
The present work, entitled L’épaisseur de la lumière, which the artist currently plans to produce for the main hall at Fondation EDF in Paris, turns out to be complex to describe, in marked contrast to the simple, intense experience it will provide when viewed in vivo. It will, in any case, as always in Nathalie Junod Ponsard’s work, like that of Daniel Buren and Felice Varini, be a site-specific piece, in other words a work produced in relation to the specific features of a particular locale2 Nathalie Junod Ponsard does not make the slightest material or structural alteration to the setting in which she is asked to intervene: the space is simply painted in pearl grey, the most neutral hue possible and one that is best able to form a background for lumino-chromatic modulations3 whose variations over time give us the impression that they are in motion. According to a principle of binary interaction, complementary chromatic values, such as blue and red, oppose each other in the space, dividing it into two equal but constantly changing rectangular blocks. The work functions on the same principle as a revolving light on a police car, with one notable exception: there is no rotating two-colour light source in the centre of the space. And yet, thanks to a system of on/off switching and complex alternating colours, the two coloured zones (or blocks) pivot in space around a central axis, like the rotating beam of a lighthouse. Pairs of colours appear one after the other and, in a way, are equivalent. All that matters is the binary choreography of their interaction. Half way between Anthony McCall’s expanded cinema (where projected light, made almost palpable by artificial fog, invades the space), or Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (where three identical rooms are bathed in coloured light) viewers of Nathalie Junod Ponsard’s work walk freely around a paradoxical environment where colour is completely dissociated from form: the coloured light covers the floor, walls and ceiling like a skin dissociated from its body. Painting, sculpture and architecture cohabit but do not mingle. Made up of large monochrome expanses, Épaisseur de la lumière is as abstract as possible—in the sense favoured by certain key figures in modern art such as Mark Rothko or Josef Albers, who tried to free painting from the domination of the image by imbuing their painted surfaces with a new kind of spatial density. Nathalie Junod Ponsard’s work, insofar as it explores the limits of perception and combines optical intensity with formal asceticism, is, in many respects, part of the very same movement. Born from a sustained dialogue with architecture, her chromatic phantasmagoria make light the unsuspected agent of a gentle form of sensorial coercion and the necessary vector for aesthetic experience.
Matthieu Poirier is a critic, art historian and exhibition curator.
1) From my PhD thesis, defended at Université Paris-Sorbonne (2012, publication forthcoming). The presentation 1 of this story was the central theme of the exhibition I curated entitled Dynamo. Un siècle de lumière et de mouvement. 1913-2013 that was held this year at the Galeries Nationales, Grand Palais, Paris (Chief curator: Serge Lemoine; associate curators: Domitille d’Orgeval and Marianne Lemoine).
2) As is always the case with Junod Ponsard, the work can (at a pinch) only be transposed into a locale that has 2 very similar structural characteristics.
3) Despite the powerful architectonic effects his works create, Felice Varini, also puts a thin layer of paint or 3 painted adhesive—a skin—on the walls of the space where they are presented. This principle sets Varini and Nathalie Junod Ponsard apart from other artists of the Light & Space movement such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin, whose works are primarily sizeable constructions, even if those constructions escape the attention of the viewer.