Luminescent journeys, chromatic wanderings, hypnotic voyages… no need for visas or diving gear: Nathalie Junod Ponsard takes us light-years from our realities into a world where the space-time continuum is out of synch, where gravity loosens its grip, and where time expands.

By revisiting the chromaticity diagram, Nathalie Junod Ponsard creates entirely new atmospheres.

Using light almost exclusively as the vehicle for her site-specific artworks, Nathalie Junod Ponsard takes us on expeditions in space and time whose destinations sound like captivating promises. “Hypnotic Capsule”, “Vertical Wandering”, “Floating Horizon” and other such journeys punctuate this atypical body of work that we might place at the intersection of several movements. Coloured Field Painting, Geometric Abstraction, Op Art, Land Art and Minimalist Art all suggest underlying affiliations, though her work cannot be pigeonholed within a past or present artistic movement. Nathalie Junod Ponsard has created an artistic language of her own, where space, geometric volumes, colours-in-light and movement endlessly coalesce. These introspective, contemplative, atmospheric artworks, where interior landscapes merge with exterior worlds, have radiated outwards and reached the four corners of the globe: the artist has left her mark in major cities including Beijing, Hong Kong, Tangiers, Rome, New York and Los Angeles. Every time, her art alters the viewer’s perception, blurs the perspectives of buildings, softens the outlines of objects, accentuates spatial volumes and makes us experience unexpected physical sensations. Spaces seem to be given a new skin, which we traverse in a state of semi-consciousness.

Since she began creating art in the late 1980s, Nathalie has always used light like a paintbrush and has never shied away from working with large buildings.

Whether the venues are prestigious or more modest, she reveals them with the same meticulous care, presenting them in a new light. “The sun is my only spotlight” she said, referring to “To Share The Landscape”, a piece she created for the Singapore Art Museum, which found itself completely immersed in fields of light.

Whether for the impressive Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, office buildings in Paris or a multi-use space at the Pompidou Centre; whether inside or outside; and whether in private or public places, the artist always imbues the space with the same dreamlike energy. She creates atmospheres never experienced before, bathed, it seems, in a kind of gas or ether. A 21st century sfumato whose execution leaves little room for imprecision or chance. On the contrary: everything is perfectly controlled. Using complex calculations, an in-depth analysis of the space and extensive knowledge of physics and even biochemistry, the artist develops programmes that might be compared to symphonies of light dancing on the façades of buildings. From dusk to dawn, “Lateral Expanses” (2011) imbues the front of the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris with a permanent sense of mystery. From magenta to green, we are swept along in an endless sensual movement. Other buildings filled with light from inside create an unsettling atmosphere in the interior spaces, for example “Electric Landscape” at the Ekaterinburg Museum of Contemporary Art in Russia. Lit up at night like precious boxes visible from afar, these luminous monumental sculptures lend a new density to the artworks they might contain. Chromatic notes, distributed according to a precise protocol, redefine the space. Like the conductor of an orchestra, the artist makes projectors, LEDs and fluorescent tubes work in harmony: each responds to a precise programme depending on its position. Sometimes, gel filters placed over the windows filter the natural light. If the building is taken for what it is, with its architecture, its irregularities and sometimes its graffiti and its scars; if it undergoes no physical transformation, in a spirit of extreme formal minimalism, it is so that the soul of the place can be revealed.

We experience this as we walk around the space as if in a hypnotic state. The artist knows all about light waves, their varying intensity and the effects they have on our moods and emotions. Some colours have a calming effect or make us feel sleepy, while others reactivate the senses and galvanise us into action: put simply, colours influence behaviour. Nathalie Junod Ponsard creates new altered states of consciousness.

For the first Nuit Blanche Festival in 2002, she flooded the Piscine de Pontoise swimming pool with euphoric red light, while green light from above punctuated the efforts of the swimmers like rhythmic breathing. A similar principle was applied to a skating rink in Montreal in 2012, which was filled with a relaxing chromatic variation ranging from indigo to deep purple. In 2004, at the Bauhaus, she created a dizzying visual effect by rotating two complementary masses of light. In Paris, at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in 2018, another combination of complementary colours influenced plants and accelerated their growth. As for the recumbent statues in the Saint-Denis Basilica in 2014, simple palpitating lines changing from purple to indigo and moving from the forehead to the feet made the figures appear to come to life before our eyes.

At the Farnese Palace in Rome in 2007, a mosaic of horses and acrobats seemed to be set in motion by shimmering purple light, while just above it, visitors moved around as if weightless, submerged in a moving green halo. With “Floating Horizon” a permanent installation at the MACRO in Rome, twenty-two lines in pairs of complementary colours move up and down a wall 14 metres high next to a staircase, making visitors feel disoriented.

Temporal references also start to blur, slow down or expand. This was the case with the installation at the Luxelakes Museum in Chengdu, China in 2015, where spotlights on the floor made the space unfold like a piece of origami or shimmer like a cut gemstone. 

We might imagine that despite its economy of means, Nathalie Junod Ponsard’s work uses too much electricity at a time when we know that our natural resources are limited. But she is sharply aware of environmental issues and, far from being wasteful, has always been eager to use materials that consume little or no energy. One of her latest installations in Paris is a perfect example. On the Place de l’Europe-Simone Veil near the Gare Saint-Lazare, the roundabout has been given a “collar” thirty-six metres in diameter. “Precious Brilliance” sparkles without the slightest need for electricity: it relies on glass beads set into a series of photosensitive disks. These vibrant reflective elements are activated by the surroundings: streetlights, traffic lights, the headlights of cars and trains. This is one of several permanent or semi-permanent artworks by Nathalie Junod Ponsard in Paris: others include the façade of the Gobelins Manufactory and the fountain on the Place André Malraux near the Ministry of Culture (installed until 2020). For the Mobilier National in 2011, she created a carpet entitled “Mirage” that seemed to generate its own light, and another huge carpet in the same spirit was chosen for the Salon Murat at the Élysée Palace. Tireless and never short of energy, Nathalie Junod Ponsard is already working on her next projects: one for an exhibition venue in a huge former grain silo in Shanghai for 2021, and the other for the Paris Olympics in 2024. A bright future indeed.

Translated from French to English by Martyn Back