Alexander Ponomarev: Macroscopia
Barbarian Art Gallery, 2011
The periscope mediates between surface and (hidden) depths, the visible and the hidden. It is a mechanical and metaphorical continuum between revelation and obscurity. It also facilitates the act of looking while hiding the observer.

It may be a poetic exaggeration to characterize the vision enabled by this apparatus as voyeurism – with all its attendant sexual overtones. And, doubtless, emphasizing the phallic nature of the periscope’s ‘erection’ is a banality. Yet, the issue of desire cannot be dismissed. Often the periscope operator wants to – visually – seize the scrutinized object in order to facilitate capture in a more comprehensive sense. In war this often entails physical destruction. In such a manner the act of looking is a prelude to violent assault – having a ‘wicked way’ with the object. Art theory is replete with feminist accounts of ‘the violence of the male gaze’ and – for every banality must be repeated – the rising periscope is well-known preface to unwanted penetration (of a hull by a torpedo).

One might bob along in the gender politics of the gaze – buffeted by a gentle wind of analogical satisfaction supplied by the suggestive nature of metal tubes and the all-male environment onboard Russian naval submarines. However, Ponomarev’s vessel is also a hermaphrodite of sorts. Wherever it appears in his oeuvre it is in the context of change, transformation or indistinction – including transition from one state of being to another.1 Moreover, it appears in the context of decoration – the alteration of tubular, military, modernity – by way of colourful paint, feathers, and even sequins. To say that the artist means to feminize the submarine is perhaps too specific (for there is nothing essentially ‘female’ about sequins). The point is merely that the well-known statement ‘gender is performance’ is a particularization of a more general notion that identity is performance. It is in this respect that Ponomarev’s submarines symbolize the fluidity of many powerful imaginative, social and cultural distinctions. In the case of his sculpture View Point, the periscope is not trained upon another submarine or even on an object atop the sea surface. Rather, it is co-extensive with a tree trunk. The operative question is as follows – How does this quasi-periscope perform and, accordingly, what desire does it seek to satisfy? By extension, what is its identity?

Perhaps View Point does not represent a periscope at all: Consider the gaze as a prelude to penetration in the context of nature – following Ponomarev’s introduction of the tree symbol. The immediate association is with the scopic regime of the microscope; the scientific looking whose goal is dissection or delving-into to better serve the purpose of mastery. One recalls the writings of Francis Bacon (not the painter!), who spoke of science as exploitation and subjugation of the natural world – a field of conquest. The historical consequences of this regime have often been characterized as the rape of the earth. Yet, Ponomarev’s View Point does not look at wood in terms of microscopia. Instead it suggests a kind of looking-with-tree, whose supra-physical sense we shall explore in due course. What are we to make of the sailor costumes on the two figures who operate View Point’s quasi-periscopes? Of course, Ponomarev’s previous employment as a submariner and merchant-seaman may have some bearing upon this issue. However, consistent references to the nautical in his oeuvre have more than biographical significance. When asked about the issue of symbolism he often invokes concepts and terminology from ancient Eastern metaphysics – such as he old Mongolian word ‘dalai’.2 This translates as ‘ocean’ but carries an extra sense: oneness or totality. He also refers to the Upanishads, and the metaphor that is Indra’s Net. As with the previous example, its concept is that of the primordial interconnectedness of all things.3 In other words, Ponomarev’s ‘ocean’ signifies an all-encompassing non-individuated reality that underlies appearances, which subtends seemingly discrete entities, gathering them together in its web.4 The sailor seems to be a symbol of he who charts this ontological terrain.

But how does the archaic metaphysical doctrine of dalai cohere with Ponomarev’s qualification as a nautical engineer – that is, his status as a man of science? The answer is to be found in the artist’s passion for the work of the Russian philosopher-scientist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) – considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, radiogeology and – significantly – ecology.5 Vernadsky rejected the traditional approach to biochemical analysis on the grounds that it was reductionist, instead emphasizing ‘the interconnections of a system or organism that produce a whole greater and more meaningful than the parts’.6 The “biosphere”, as he termed this supra-organism, is a complex choreography of matter functioning as a unified totality – operating in a manner both physically and cognitively impossible for its individual components. As one commentator has put it, ‘[t]he biosphere can be understood analogously as a kind of superior intelligence of the planet. The multiformity of all planetary life is integrated in a singular organismic mechanism dedicated to the functioning of the earth and to the photosynthetic incorporation of solar rays into the order and structure of life’.7 One recognizes the incorporation of the ancient metaphysical notion of the unity of opposites and – as previously mentioned, the primordial oneness of being: dalai – recast in this modern notion of a supra-physical mechanism. Rather than being a case underlying ‘reality’, which presupposes a veil of illusion or maya, it is an overlying function.

The biosphere is the broadest biophysiological point of view, the global sum of all ecosystems.8 We may term it a macroscopic perspective. View Point is the name of Ponomarev’s sculpture for a reason, a clear reference to positional vision. To look into the tree, to see through it, up through its branches and out through its leaves: What a peculiar idea. What is it like to see with a tree? A question or implication that is almost nonsensical. But not entirely, for it posits a fusion of the observer and the apparatus. The work thus represents a sublime idea: To have a vision by way of tree is the co-extension of Tree and Me. To see through photosynthesis is a literal statement of Vernadsky’s conception of the biophysical unity of seemingly discrete organisms. The fusion of the tree trunk and the periscope seems to suggest a look that is macroscopic – a beyond everyday sight; a synthetic supra-organismic visuality.

View Point represents vision from a macroscopic standpoint. The fact that the viewers/sailors are not actually standing – either on a point or in position – but floating coheres with this interpretation. To see within and through the macroscope is, Ponomarev seems to suggest, to lessen the weight of everyday individuations/determinations. His sailors are mere vessels, lacking all but the most basic figurative schema; arms, legs, heads etc. There is no realistic skin, fake eyelashes, waxwork or color on show; they are light as air and hollow, floating within a larger matrix (the biosphere).

For centuries, sects have outlined various methods for losing oneself in primordial unity, such as meditation and mantra. For the ancient Greeks it was Dionysian orgies, ecstatic intoxication through drink, dance and song. In the 19th century the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that this ‘reality’ could only be approached through ‘non-empirical’ cognition. Perhaps influenced by the watery imagery of dalai, he described the process in nautical language: “Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in the stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so […] the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis”.9 According to his vision, non-individuation is akin to the boat overturning, with the boatman plunged into the boundless ocean, his (individual) self-conception sunk into the profound deep.

Schopenhauer’s boatman finds an echo in the sailors of View Point and another work by Ponomarev – Deep Water Graphics (2010), a series of ten self-portraits on polystyrene cups, created while onboard a Russian scientific ship. Thrown overboard and then dragged to the ocean floor in heavyweight containers, each was distorted and shrunk by subjection to water-pressure at depths of up to 3km below sea level. In consigning these pictures to the abyss Ponomarev’s ‘self’ is, quite literally, reduced. In one sense the works proffer empirical access to an ontological undertow, physical evidence of the meta-‘truth’ that the principle of (self) individuation is tenuous and context-specific. The resulting objects, which have been recovered for our benefit, are a kind of self-reduction as proof of ‘real’ life. However, they are also – simultaneously – a self-portrait of the Atlantic Ocean. Each hollow cup is assigned a longitude, latitude and depth – in both physical and symbolic terms – along with Ponomarev’s likeness, so that the conditional distortion and reduction of the artist’s face in Deep Water Graphics is tantamount to dalai’s own coming into view. This is to say, each cup represents the macroscopic, biospherical organism of which both the Atlantic and Ponomarev partake. In this case, instead of seeing-with-tree it is a case of being-with-sea.

The non-specialization of the – scientific/technological – gaze, the ‘generalist’ look at the world, with the world, and the consequent hollowing-out of our self-centeredness, has come along way from its ancient mystical-metaphysical foundations. It is a trope that is of great contemporary significance in the context of debates about climate change and conservation. In some respects it is the most generally accepted utopian vision of our age, albeit one frequently invoked as a counterpoint to dystopic realities – such as the mass of jellyfish that choke parts of the Mediterranean coastline, stinging bathers who deign to dip their ostensibly innocent toes in the ever darkening morass. However, macroscopia is less a fantasy than it is categorical imperative in a world of oil spills, strip mines and other byproducts of our contemporary ‘global’ vision. It is, to paraphrase the modernist engineer and visionary Buckminster Fuller, an ‘operating-system for spaceship earth’ that ecologists desire.

In this respect View Point can be taken as an instance of agit-prop, a striking metonym for way of seeing that requires more partisans. The uniforms on dalai’s sailors – officers of the biosphere – are a seeming call to the bridge of our cosmic vessel. This is a modification of a theme that the artist has previously explored with his fleet of submarines for ‘the interests of art [and not war]’ which, since the Northern Trace of Leonardo (1993), have surfaced around the world in locations as diverse as the Paris, the Loire and Moscow.

However, Ponomarev is a (post)Soviet man brought up on a diet of dialectics, so his metaphors are apt to somersault. Further realities and connections come bubbling up from beneath the surface of his works. His symbols are highly charged in the context of contemporary geo-political conflict over natural resources. In fact, the submarine plays a central role in the new ‘great game’ whose rules, as conceived by the players, are not macroscopic. In August 2007 a Russian submersible dived deep below the North Pole. Then, at a depth of 4,261 metres, its mechanical arm dropped a titanium flag onto the seabed. Following this act, four other polar nations attempted to prove that their continental shelves extend into Arctic waters. Their respective were the same – to secure rights to hitherto unclaimed stores of minerals, oil and gas. Industrial exploitation of these reserves is only possible now, given the year-round opening of the Northwest Passage – a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific. This new Arctic highway is the result of climate change, which has reduced the average amount of pack ice in the region. If the booty is successfully extracted, pollution resulting from its use will compound the effect on this part of the world – and, consequently, the rest of the planet. In light of this geo-political drift towards the bottom of the ocean we might read the floating dummy submariners in View Point as a challenge: Partisans of the macroscope must stake their claims to real ground.

Alexander Ponomarev: Macroscopia

1. His action The Northern Trace of Leonardo (1996) – whereby an operational nuclear submarine was painted with colourful ‘anti-camouflage’ designs – made a hidden weapon visible ‘as art’, under the sign of Leonardo Da Vinci, while simultaneously rendering ‘art’ unto war and its attendant suffering. This was an art historical statement as much as anything else. After all, Leonardo – perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived – designed the first submarine in his Atlantic Codex but encrypted his results, justifiably recognizing that his idea could lead to ‘murder at the bottom of the seas’.
2. R. N. Rahul Sheel, ‘The Institution of the Dalai Lama’, The Tibet Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3. Autumn 1989, pp. 31-32.
3. ‘Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.’ See Francis H. Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, Penn State Press, 1977.
4. It is not too abstract a concept. After all, up to seventy-eight percent of our own bodies are made of water.
5. Paul R. Samson & David C. Pitt, The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society, and Change. Routledge, London, 1999.
6. Ibid. p.390
7. Amy Mandelker, ‘Semiotizing the Sphere: Organicist Theory in Lotman, Bakhtin, and Vernadksy, PMLA,Vol. 109, No. 3 (May, 1994), pp. 385-396.
8. The biosphere is the subject of ecology – the science of the biosphere – an interdisciplinary practice integrating astronomy, biogeography, meteorology, geophysics, evolution, geology, geochemistry, hydrology and other life and earth sciences.
9. E.J.F. Payne (ed.), Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. I, Dover Publications, New York, 1969, pp.352-353.