Sea of Metaphor
Calvert 22 Foundation, London, 6 Oct – 21 Nov, 2010
The works in this exhibition issue from journeys undertaken by Ponomarev: to the Arctic, to the bottom of the ocean, and while tracking the 60th latitude of the Atlantic onboard a scientific research ship. All of these voyages imply unbelievable stories: about how the artist managed to persuade an admiral to allow him to paint an operational nuclear submarine with colourful markings. Or, how he convinced the commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet to marshal ships and a smoke screen in order to make a real island disappear. Such tales raise the question – Why? It is here that the true adventure begins, for Ponomarev’s art invites meditation on the relationship between illusion/fiction and ‘reality’, the utility of art, and the shifting tides of personal and cultural history. Moreover, his practice effects powerful and surprising conjunctions between aspects of cultural and natural life that are frequently, ostensibly, separate. His works forge lived connections between naval officers and esoteric philosophy, the Italian renaissance and torpedoes, the romantic landscape and geopolitical conflict over natural resources. His practice is at once metaphysical and intensely material.

The ocean has been called the principle dramatis persona of Ponomarev’s oeuvre. Of course, his previous employment as a nautical engineer, submariner and merchant-seaman bears upon this fact. However, the consistent references to water have more than biographical significance. When asked about the issue of symbolism, the artist often invokes concepts and terminology from Eastern metaphysics – such as he old Mongolian word ‘dalai’.1 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.2 In other words, Ponomarev’s ocean signifies the idea of an all-encompassing non-individuated reality that underlies appearances, which subtends seemingly discrete entities, gathering them together in its ontological web.3

In the Vedas the idea of primordial unity justifies rejecting the everyday world, for the latter is conceived to be a ‘veil of Maya’, mere illusion which distracts one from the more fundamental ‘reality’. Appearance is downgraded, and this means that the manifestation of (individual) self is to be abandoned however possible. For centuries, sects have outlined various methods for achieving this release, 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 ‘reality’ could only be approached through ‘non-empirical’ cognition, advocating aesthetic experience – including exposure to art – as key to removing the veil. Perhaps influenced by the watery imagery of dalai, he described the illusion 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”.4 According to his vision, removing the veil of Maya is akin to the boat overturning and the boatman being plunged into the boundless ocean, his (individual) self-conception lost in the profound deep.

Schopenhauer’s boatman finds an echo in Ponomarev’s Deep Water Graphics (2010), a new 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 image was distorted and shrunk by subjection to water-pressure at depths of up to 4km below sea level. In consigning these pictures to the abyss Ponomarev’s ‘self’ is, quite literally, reduced. Thus, the works proffer empirical access to the 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-destruction/reduction as proof of ‘real’ life. They are also a kind of resurrection.

Another work demonstrates even more spectacular engagement with this metaphysical terrain. Maya: A Lost Island (2000) is a video work in two parts. The first screen shows Ponomarev scratching away at a paper map, removing all symbolic trace of the eponymous land mass. It is erasure performed in a perfunctory manner – easily done, like deleting an unfortunate sentence from an otherwise satisfactory text. In the second video one encounters the realization of this gesture on a massive scale. It is footage showing the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy deploying maritime flares to make a real island, in the Barents sea, disappear. The action is an incredible counterpoint to the individual performance. Ponomarev’s project draws a veil of smoky artifice over a place whose name signifies delusion. It depicts a ‘real’ chimera, Maya, wrapped in an illusion – a powerful paradox.

Ponomarev’s actions at sea may be described as courses charted across the field of oneness or counter-intuitive conjunction. But his art is not merely esoteric. Indeed, his symbolism cannot be understood without attention to its social depth or dimension. Unity is achieved only through surmounting practical challenges, “as a voyage”. The military-artistic action that conditioned Maya: A Lost Island did not come about by filling out an application form. It was the end result of what Ponomarev calls his “strategy of adventure” – an intensely pragmatic and socially engaged practice. “As an explorer, I like frontiers”, he says, “but many people, including critics, do not understand this. I have followed, and follow, borders, but do not intend to live according to established institutions. If an artist starts living that way, he ceases to be an artist. […] I [step] into a different space. To implement my constructions I [have] to penetrate other spheres and demonstrate my artistic activity there – which is a social and cultural act”.5 These words also apply to The Northern Trace of Leonardo (1996), whereby Ponomarev convinced an admiral to admit him to a secret naval base. Eventual consent was the result of the artist’s dogged pursuit of serendipitous connections, laborious negotiations and important drinking sessions. After further weeks pursuing the ‘strategy’ on site – typified by leading grizzled submariners in a vodka-fuelled sing-a-long of Yellow Submarine – his ambitious goal became reality: he was granted permission to paint one of the nuclear submarines with ‘anti-camouflage’ designs. When the vessel was properly decorated it left the harbour in order to ‘sew’ his signature into the ocean.

Such actions – convincing the otherwise inscrutable Russian Navy to do his unlikely bidding, to make his caprice a collective project – are a testament to Ponomarev’s charisma. The man can – in a figure of speech not so far from the truth – move mountains. In a sense, he is an intoxicant, and it should be noted that he often quotes from Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat (1871) when talking about his work. Such projects effect the convergence of apparently isolated activities, objects, ideas and civil identifications. They culminate in a kind of social-artistic euphoria, the drunken slip of Schopenhauer’s boatman overboard, into dalai. But in the aforementioned examples the lost principium is not so much ‘self’ as it is the Russian Navy’s separation from ‘art’ and/or Ponomarev himself – terms which may be taken as metonyms for all the military’s ‘others’.6 The lack of distinction between the artist’s imaginative goals and those of the navy represents an underlying – (sub)cultural – ‘reality’. This is to say, without an ‘other’ there can be no (military) conflict and its attendant suffering. One does not have to subscribe to antiquated metaphysics to appreciate this vision. Indeed, we may recall a statement made by the fictional Captain Nemo, one of Ponomarev’s heroes: “The sea cannot be controlled by tyrants. They can still raise lawlessness on the sea surface, wage wars and kill their own kind. However, underwater at the depth of thirty feet they are powerless and their might simply wanes! Oh! Come to live in the depths of the seas!”7 A Situationist slogan also springs to mind: ‘Under the paving stones – the beach!’

However, non-individuation is also challenging – the precious glimpse of an excruciating secret, like staring at the sun. Yes, it is a joy to see a tool of war – the submarine – ‘returned’ to art, its stealth function reversed. Likewise, it is nice to know that weapons have been misused to produce smoky poetry – the epic picturesque of Maya: A Lost Island. But under the purview of Ponomarev’s metaphorical-metaphysics, whimsy performs a dialectical somersault, the temporary social utopia described by relational aesthetics is foreclosed; it is apparent that organized war-structures are moved by folly. Somewhere, a death-dealing system may be in thrall to a veritable Don Quixote! Moreover, as exemplified by the The Northern Trace of Leonardo, art plays handmaiden to subjugation and an anti-human functionality. It ‘decorates’ it. In fact, Ponomarev employs the submarine as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of human imagination, undercutting the common association of art and technology with the good:

According to myth, Prometheus gave the man the gift of fire, and with it the ‘arts of civilization’ – including mathematics, science and agriculture – so that we might not live ‘in holes, like swarms of ants, [o]r in deep sunless caves’.8 But his reward was suffering. Chained to a rock, Zeus sent a vulture to tear out his liver and each night, following the day’s mutilation, the organ would regenerate so that torture could recommence at sunrise. The noble intention, the gift of knowledge, attended by agony – a fate worse than death. Such hyperbolic misery aims to impart the lesson that ‘wrongdoing is of necessity imposed’ on titanic striving.9 Elsewhere, Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. Why? He is not just trying to punish himself for the transgression of coitus with his own mother.10 He is trying to un-know. The destruction of his capacity for sight is an impotent attempt to draw a veil over the truth that he previously sought. He wants to plunge the truth into darkness, to make it disappear – but to only skin-deep avail.

We still recall these myths – and hence their lesson – because they are relevant. Consider the title of a biography for the so-called ‘father’ of the atomic bomb, Robert J. Oppenheimer: American Prometheus.11 It was ‘truth’ – in physics – that he sought first, only to lament its discovery. ‘[I]n some sort of crude sense’, he wrote, ‘which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose’. American Oedipus would have been a better title. Before him lived an Italian Oedipus: Leonardo Da Vinci’s striving did not just produce the Last Supper but – somewhat less celebrated in schoolbooks – designs for armoured vehicles including tanks and a submarine. He was not the only contemporary giant to master the art of war. Verrocchio was employed to cast bronze cannons for Lorenzo di Medici and before him Giotto designed the fortifications of Florence. In such figures the roles of artist and war-engineer, man of science and man of suffering, were combined. Indeed, these ‘humanists’ and visionaries developed creative ways to end human life. Da Vinci was hardly insensitive to the tragic dimension of his talent. In fact – as Ponomarev has noted – he encrypted his submarine designs, justifiably fearing that his idea would lead to ‘murder at the bottom of the seas’. His inner oracle spoke truth. Subsequently – in a manner of speaking – the coitus of this great renaissance artist and Oppenheimer resulted in the nuclear sub, a key representative of mutually assured destruction.12

Thus, Ponomarev’s submarine is a potent metaphor for the potentially tragic convergence of interests and/or functions in highly creative endeavours. In a common turn of phrase, one encounters an ‘iron fist clad in a velvet glove’. Conversely, we may picture Leonardo’s velvet hand – the touch which rendered La Gioconda’s smile – encased in an iron gauntlet. The symbolic function of the submarine encapsulates both scenarios. It seems related to the centaur allegory as characterized by Niccolò Machiavelli – its face speaks sense or ‘law’, and perhaps beauty, but its posterior is a brute with cloven hooves.13

More generally, the submarine underscores the relationship between surface and – hidden – depths, representing passage from one reality to another; the tension and interrelation between the visible and the invisible; consciousness and the sub-conscious. Base (2003) illustrates such conceptual terrain. The work was created while the artist undertook a residency at the former studio of the sculptor Alexander Calder, who was also, at one time, a seaman. It is a nine-metre-long tube mounted horizontally on steel scaffolding, filled with a tonne of water. This structure forms a tunnel through which a miniature sub travels. At the end of a slow journey the black craft rises from the liquid, raised by a winch system, before performing a chameleon-like transformation in which its exterior blushes with brightly hued markings. The sea-change in its appearance issues from the drying of water sensitive paint. The model vessel’s journey from darkness to light, and vice-versa, is a model for life itself.

A video work called Heliotropism (2005) also situates existential and mortal drama in relation to the themes of ascent and descent. It begins by showing an industrial-looking cabin which could be the interior of a rusting spacecraft. A few inhabitants – hard at work, swearing like Russian sailors – people the capsule, fixing god knows what with hammers and spanners. Their work is interrupted by a series of banging jolts, prompting more swearing and further activity. At the end of this hazy process a somewhat shaken Ponomarev exits the claustrophobic space and greets the sun with a deep breath and a relieved facial expression. He is above deck on a small vessel in the middle of the ocean. What seemed to be a creaking Sputnik was actually a lifeboat from the research ship Academic Sergei Vavilov – the footage recorded its descent from stowed position high above the water to its splashdown in the Atlantic. The boatmen were trying to detach the craft from its tethers and seal the relevant hatches. The jolts were crashes into the side of the mother ship, caused by wind during the precarious drop. It was desperate activity on a rickety lifeboat – the absurd work of self-preservation – and a plunge towards the ocean before greeting the heavens. The fog of uncertainty clears: it is another of the artist’s parables.


Ponomarev’s symbols are highly charged in the context of contemporary geo-political conflict over natural resources. In fact, both the submarine and the Arctic play central roles in the new ‘great game’. 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. Since then four other polar nations have attempted to prove that their continental shelves extend into Arctic waters. Their respective goals are the same – to secure rights to hitherto unclaimed stores of minerals, oil and gas. Industrial exploitation of such 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 region – and, consequently, the rest of the planet. In light of this geo-political drift towards the poles, and to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, we might read the metaphorical reduction of self in Ponomarev’s Deep Water Graphics as a warning: If we go overboard then we are lost. It seems there are further depths to his art.

Sea Stories

1. R. N. Rahul Sheel, ‘The Institution of the Dalai Lama’, The Tibet Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3. Autumn 1989, pp. 31-32.
2. ‘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.
3. It is not too abstract a concept. After all, up to seventy-eight percent of our own bodies are made of water.
4. E.J.F. Payne (ed.), Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. I, Dover Publications, New York, 1969, pp.352-353.
5. See Leonid Lerner, Captain of Contemporary Art: An Interview With Alexander Ponomarev.
6. In concrete terms, it is the negation of the submarine’s stealth function.
7. As cited by Jean-Michel Bouhours in ‘Surfacing? Is there any depth at all?’ in Maria Leontiner & Natalia Safonova (eds.), Alexander Ponomarev: SubTiziano, Barbarian Art Gallery & RNA Foundation, Moscow, 2009, p.21. We should also note that Ponomarev is an avid reader of Verne.
8. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays, Penguin Books, London, 1961, p.34.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p.50.
10. Both parties performed the act while ignorant of their familial relation.
11. Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Knopf, New York, 2005.
12. Cold War rhetoric seems to have influenced the founding director of New York’s MoMA. Indeed, Sarah Wilson reminds us that Alfred Barr spoke of his museum as ‘a torpedo moving through time’.
13. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Penguin Classics, London, 1999. p.56.