Venka Purushothaman - Outside the aquarium of the modern world

by Venka Purushothaman

Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology; in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, "all that is solid melts into air."
Marshall Berman [1]

The modern world is a maelstrom of global crossings of many kinds: capitalist, terrorist, secularist, fundamentalist, etc. that engender several possible human responses ranging from communal celebration to democratic suppression. Within this maelstrom, the habitat of the human remains inimitably solid, structured and unfettered by the tensions between urban life, nature and human action. The modern city is not only the centre of all maelstroms but, in actual fact, is also the conjurer and the destroyer of its own actions. 
The modern city and its planning structures hold the key to human psychology and action. The weaving of roads and buildings, lines and contours, ebbs and flows, concentrations and pockets are all characterised differently and the urban structures increasingly become unitary and numbing of the human spirit. These concerns form the inspiration behind the works of French artist, Nathalie Junod Ponsard.

Ponsard studied in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts Nantes and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris and primarily practiced installation art. Her own life of travel - to places as far and wide as Europe, India, Hong Kong and Singapore - has shaped and formulated her current artistic practice, which can be said to be a palimpsest of international ideas.

Ponsard can be akin to a flâneur - a secret spectator of the spectacle of spaces and places of the city. Charles Baudelaire notes this of the flâneur :

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. [2]

The flâneur becomes an existential being seeking to discover the mystery of existence and being in the urban, capitalist city. Ponsard seeks out things that capture her gaze and thus completing her own sense of self in a new found land. As flâneur, Ponsard works show an awareness of the brevity of capitalism, which leaves no place, no space left of its aura or its mystery. The urgency to identify and proposition new dimensions and new ways of seeing becomes Ponsard's primary concern with urban life in the city-state of Singapore.

All societies develop their urban characters by the work they do. The city-state of Singapore, located slightly off the north of the equator, is often described as a capitalist metropolis par excellence. A once small fishing village, well placed within the ancient civilisations of South East Asia, Singapore - as we know of it today - is a western imaginary. Imagined by one Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, it was primarily created as an economic means for the then waning power of the British Empire in South East Asia. But this imaginary is the island's strength. It knows of no other cultural or historical mapping but an economic one. This poses a unique problem in negotiating the cityscape, which plays out the dialectic between urban control and incompletion. The cityscape and the urban landscape are testaments to the economic imaginary and not to any form of cultural ballast.

Ponsard's fascination with this economic wonder and its urban spaces is negotiated through three basic principles: the notion of interiority and exteriority in public buildings; notion of geometry as the grammar for explaining human existence; and the notion of primary colours which have strong references to the science of the universe. Using light as a medium, and armed with a philosophy that embraces the art movement of Minimalism, Ponsard constantly seeks to get to the essential core of a Singaporean experience. She formalises an aesthetic identity by overlapping spatial, architectural and functional ambivalences, inherent in all public structures, by using minimalistic lighting to illuminate non-mimimalistic objects, things, people and spaces and also illuminate things that are not there. In this process, Ponsard creates virtual spaces out of real places. Challenging as it may sound, this principle of virtuality guides Ponsard's endeavour to make visible the invisible.
Ponsard has engaged with Singapore with several major installations in major public buildings including the Alliance Francaise and the Singapore Art Museum. In these major exhibitions where sections of buildings are illuminated, Ponsard has drawn attention to the architecture, history and current use. Ponsard's works have brought to forefront two main issues: firstly, the use of spaces as perceived by its users and its observers do not necessarily tally with the outcome of the space culturally and historically; secondly, the city-state is over lit. While public housing in Singapore primarily provides for basic lighting the line between lighting for security versus lighting for brightness and a sense of abuzzness is constantly crossed. When is it too much? The answer lies in the cultural condition of the given society.

Ponsard's mission to change the character and response to a space in order to provide for new vision to an, otherwise, ordinary or daily space forces her to assiduously consider the climate, her choice of space, what people do in it, the movement of views and the kind of spectatorship it invites. In a manner of speaking, she transforms the viewer into a spectator peering into an aquarium of modern life. But if we all are spectators of spaces, then are we seeing enough or have we really seen? If our visual perception of a space is only a sum accumulation of what we have been taught to see, are we then really blinded by the prescribed visuality ?
We may look at spaces, as mere settings in which things, people and buildings are arranged, Merleau-Ponty, the renowned phenomenologist, would see spaces to be the "means whereby the position of things become possible." [3] Here Ponsard's works concur.

Four major projects in Singapore are worth a special mention.

Architecture of Light and Flux of Energy - installation of light on Alliance Francaise Singapore Building (Dec 1999). Highlighting the glass architecture of the building, Ponsard engaged with a light installation, which sought to redefine the spatial structure of the building. Light, here reinvents spatial metaphors from one of urbanism to one of aesthetics. Ponsard anthropomorphised light into a manipulator of spectatorship.

Cosmic Geometry - The Substation (May 2000) was a major installation work metaphorising the concept of the Sun and the Moon. Unlike Ponsard's lighting of architectural spaces, this exhibition was focussed on the primarily principles that guide Ponsard approach to visual art. The exhibition revealed her preoccupation with existential philosophy, geometry, the principles of the universe that structure everyday life and the art movement, Minimalism, which is her preferred mode of practice. This exhibition underscored the importance of philosophy to her approach as flâneur.
To Share the Landscape - Gallery Evason Project (June 2001) brought to the forefront the monochromatic screens of the Gallery Evason to the investigative gaze of the public. The work in itself sits on the boundary of natural and urban space. Using three primary chromatic colour filters, in a non-intrusive manner, to highlight the monochromatic nature of the gallery space, Ponsard successfully reconstituted the natural and artificial lights that flowed into the space through the filters which echoed the Gallery Evason's own modernistic position in a re-developed centre of town.

To Share the Landscape 2 - Singapore Art Museum (Dec 2001) is a follow-up exhibition to the Gallery Evason project. Conceptually similar, the architectural context is shifted from one of modernism (Gallery Evason) to the classical (Singapore Art Museum). This exhibition heightened an interesting proposition: that any spatial negotiation has to be mediated through the paradoxical relationship between the history of a space, its existential quality and its inter-relationship with its user/spectator.
Ponsard's use of light as both technical and aesthetic device is worth noting here. Be it natural or artificial light, Ponsard anthropomorphises light into a 'being' that draws its existence from its absence/presence. Light not only serves as an agent of change but also develops a visual stature in its own right. Darkness theatrically represents a penumbra of underworld activities, which Ponsard effectively manipulates to her advantage and uses darkness to frame her illuminations. This use of light and dark highlights the paradoxical relationship of these two elements in the making of the modern city. Her play with the visual field is also characterised by the formal predominance of geometrical shapes, which endow spaces and objects with high level of compositional abstraction. In her major works in Singapore, Ponsard not only plays with light, transparency, perception and filtration to provide new aesthetic dimensions to spaces but also, develops a greater appreciation of the visual field through the celebration of the simplicity of Form. Form, geometric or otherwise, often forgotten by the formal spaces that surround it, discards its utilitarian value for an aesthetic sensibility. This is achieved through a great degree of luminosity, which blurs the line between perception and visibility: the former being socialise in all humans and the latter methodically capturing what is seen without ideological tampering. The end result being the viewing spectator, if engaged, is brought to the closest possible threshold of visibility. Such polarities, confrontations and negotiations bring about a heightened awareness of the least acknowledged power of spaces, geometry and colour that forms the modern city.

 


Ponsard continues to be influenced by Minimalism and its search for essentialisms in visual arts, which serve as open texts for interpretations. Modern life lends itself to this with its capacity for perpetual renewal and transformation. Ponsard's small but valuable attempt to engage with the modern city draws its inference from the Parisian world of Charles Baudelaire. To tackle the Singapore imaginary is at best challenging and Ponsard, in her own manner, has made a mark in an otherwise saturated urban system. Her current interests have taken her to explore the major themes in relation to human biological systems. We, the viewers, while we may be part of the modern world, do actually sit outside the aquarium of the modern world. Ponsard allows us a peek into the ebb and flow of life, which constantly reinvents itself, as "all that is solid melts into air."

NOTES
[1] Marshall Berman. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. London: Penguin Books, 1982, p.15.
[2] Charles Baudelaire. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 1964, p. 9.
[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 243.

Venka Purushothaman is a cultural critic who lectures in art theory and arts management at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore. He regularly reviews the visual arts and speaks on art and cultural policy at various public forums. He is also a member of expert panels on the arts and cultural policy in Singapore.