I’ve had a soft spot for Jaume Plensa’s sculpture ever since he bequeathed the ex-miners of St Helens and the rest of us who dwell on Merseyside the graceful beauty of Dream, the 20-metre tall head of a girl carved in gleaming dolomite, poetry in stone that can be seen by all who are heading for Liverpool on the M62. I had seen more of his work at Chatsworth in 2009. Now, visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for his enormously successful exhibition (extended by popular demand to December), I had a chance to consider more of his work and the ideas that underpin it.
Dream is an example of that aspect of Plensa’s practice for which he has gained most renown – producing work for the public realm. He has permanent works installed in Spain, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Korea, Germany, Canada, and USA. Best known are Breathing, a 10-metre high sculpture on top of BBC Broadcasting House in central London that is a memorial to journalists killed carrying out their work, and his most popular work, Crown Fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Breathing takes the form of a glowing beacon of light emanating from an inverted glass cone. A poem by the artist is inscribed into its surface, which refers to the life of the building. Its presence alters at night when, for a short time, a thin vertical line of transparent white light projects from the sculpture, connecting the building to the night sky.
Crown Fountain, a monumental public sculpture comprising twin 15-metre towers facing each other across a thin sheet of water that forms a 70-metre pool level with the adjacent walkways. Children and adults can splash across the water, while video portraits made from the faces of more than a thousand Chicago residents are projected on LED displays behind the glass blocks of which the towers are built. Every twelve minutes a spout of water emerges from the mouth of a projected face before the image disappears in a shower of water.
Crown Fountain met with derision in certain quarters, but Plensa described what happened on the evening before the inauguration when they decided to remove the barriers around the work to see what would happen:
It was as if we had put a magnet: children filled the space and then got back home totally wet. And the next day the newspapers printed a lot of critical articles. I argued that I hadn’t done a fountain to look at, but a space of freedom, where everyone could decide whether to go or not. That it was a space containing water, of course, because water is a metaphor of human life: our body is made up of water for 60%. Water is our natural state. I wanted to create an empty square (a concept exported from my Mediterranean culture), so that people could fill it. It’s empty because otherwise the space wouldn’t be left for people. The thousand faces in the work belong to the citizens, to those who really make up the city: a city for me is not made up of buildings. It is made up of people. But what do I mean by people? Everyone born, lives, dies and disappears and there is still people. We are anonymous, but unique: when a person dies he leaves an immense void.
Ogijima’s Soul has something in common with St Helens’ Dream: Jaume Plensa: both are artistic responses to places which needed to regenerate their economy. In St Helens the question was: what would follow the closure of the Sutton Manor coal mine? In the case of Ogijima, a tiny Japanese island, the problem was one of an ageing community, declining population, empty housing and the near extinction of the traditional fishing economy. Plensa once spoke of the parallels in an interview:
When Margaret Thatcher closed the mines, all the residents became unemployed. It took twenty years to rebuild the economy of that place. Only now people are beginning to raise their heads a little. The machines were dismantled. A hill 86 meters above the sea level made by the residual materials rose.
A group of former miners, the mayor, the curators of the Liverpool Biennial … and some people from Channel 4, really interested in this case, decided to make a park of that hill. But they wanted it to be a park with a soul. They choose me among some other artists. Then I made a first visit. I noticed that we had to extract the soul of that place. It was hidden somewhere. This was my challenge….
Dream, which received the award for the best sculpture of 2009 in England, was built during the crisis and received much criticism. It’s typical: everybody talks about the lack of banks and hospitals and you suggest spending money on some sculptures in public spaces. The leader of this group of former miners said something very beautiful on television: ‘Crisis
passes, art is forever’.
At Ogijima, he explained, the concept of the project was to create not just an interchange building but also a gathering place, a place where Ogijima’s community could welcome visitors and guests:
The translucent space of the house allows people to see permanently the landscape of the island, the beauty of the little town on the hill and the inland sea that opens in front of the harbour. The house is covered and protected by a roof made out with different alphabets. Like a poetical cloud, the roof projects shadows of these alphabets to the ground during the day and to the sky in the evening.
The letters composing the roof are random. They are just simple letters, no words, and they aim to represent the different cultures composing our world, using the following alphabets: Japanese, Hebrew, Arabi, Latin, Chinese, Greek, Russian and Hindi. An alphabet is probably the most precise expression of one culture. It is the product that results after centuries of traditions, developing and transformations. Alphabets are the self-portraits of cultures and the best example of world’s diversity.
The project is homage to Ogijima’s people. The shape of the project is inspired by the shape of shellfish that is always building its own house around its own body. This project recalls the huge effort that island communities have made through the ages to create and protect their own culture. It is a homage to the sea as a bridge connecting cultures.
We had seen Plensa’s work, too, in Nice in 2009, where the main square – the Place Massena – had only recently been completely redesigned as a car-free space with fountains and benches presided over by the delightful sculptures of Plensa’s Conversation in Nice, seven statues representing the continents seated atop tall steel poles and colourfully illuminated at night.
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park, our first sight as we drove into the park was of La Llarga Nit (Blind), another piece from the same family of sculptures as Conversation in Nice. The idea for these works was drawn from the stylites or pillar saints of the early Byzantine Empire, Christian ascetics who sought spiritual fulfilment residing for years on small platforms raised high above the ground. This sculpture takes its title from a poem by the Valencian poet Vicent Andres Estelles which refers to the poet’s duty to interpret a society’s fears and hopes. Plensa sees the artist as a spiritual guide, revealing ways of seeing and understanding life. But this figure’s hands are over its eyes; he is blind to his surroundings.
Nuria and Irma, on the roof of the Underground Gallery, is, like Dream, a monumental portrait. Whereas Dream portrayed his own daughter, this piece represents two ordinary girls, one the daughter of the owner of a Chinese restaurant near Plensa’s home. Plensa means these figures to represent us all, irrespective of sex, race or age. The portrait of the two girls is formed by an organic mesh that allows us to see inside and through the heads. Plensa comments:
What I got from that piece was the capacity to explore the other side of the skin. … It’s very Taoist in some ways – it’s this little thin line that separates full and empty. … We are so beautiful outside but you can’t believe how beautiful we are inside.
Jaume Plensa has described the exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park as the most complete he has ever staged. The Exhibition Guide states:
Plensa’s work always deals with humanity, with body and soul, and is largely figurative. Even when the body is physically absent it is implied: gongs need to be struck by a mallet held in a hand to create sound … and text needs to be read and absorbed by the human mind. Whether fashioned in steel, glass, bronze or alabaster or with light, vibration or sound, the ideas and associations are the central concern. Plensa believes that sculpture is an extraordinary vehicle through which to access our emotions and thoughts. […]
The artist’s work is particularly concerned with the fact that people are losing the ability to converse, both with others and with themselves, and his work actively sets out to make us reconnect with our own souls. To Plensa, life is the key concern and he describes art as merely a consequence of life, but one which possesses an enormous capacity to touch people deeply, to introduce beauty into any situation, to celebrate our potential.
Plensa is very widely read and often refers to how his family home was filled with books as a child. Throughout his life he has discovered poems and texts that have moved him profoundly and it is these rather than the visual arts that have provided the broadest source of inspiration, often being directly referenced in his own work. Yet it is not just works of literature that fascinate him, but language itself.
An abundance of letters and words, often forming the outline or shell of the human body, has come to characterise his sculpture and drawing. Plensa’s use of both language and the figure makes his work particularly accessible and poignant as it exists directly in the world we inhabit; it is universal. Yet through these material elements it reaches out
to the immaterial, to the mind and the soul; even when alluding to life’s adversity it is hopeful and unashamedly beautiful.
29 Palms is a curtain of text composed of poems by Plensa’s favourite authors. It is the physical embodiment of his notion that we are surrounded by an invisible cloud of poetry. The poems are represented by suspended, cut steel
letters that cast shifting shadows onto the walls and floor. Plensa makes text physical, freeing it from the page and transforming it into three dimensions. Children and adults are encouraged to make the poetry sing by gently running their palms along the curtain.
Plensa often refers to his belief that our life experiences leave indelible yet invisible marks on us which can be read by those who know us best. This belief is expressed through a family of figurative works with text imprinted on their surface.
In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, three internally lit fibreglass figures have the terms panic, stress, anxiety, insomnia, hysteria and amnesia inscribed on their faces. The Exhibition Guide adds:
The physicality of these words branded on the skin openly reveals conditions of the mind that are usually internal and hidden. Their posture reflects a natural method of defence, to make the body small, curling it in on itself for safety, echoing the protected position of a baby in its mother’s womb.
Plensa describes Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil as ‘angels rooted to the walls, unable to fly, yet still radiating light from within’.
One of the most striking rooms in the exhibition contains Alabaster Heads, a series of heads carved from alabaster. They are based on photographs of children from different ethnic groups which are then digitally elongated and carved into the stone.
Plensa uses light in his sculptures in many ways. In In the Midst of Dreams, Plensa speaks of wanting to represent
the soul. Whilst the human form is solid and recognisable, the human spirit is the opposite: he attempts to represent its ethereal nature by utilising the comparable properties of light. The words on the faces are taken from Oscar Wilde’s letter written whilst in Reading Gaol which drew attention to the physical and mental consequences of poor conditions in prisons: hunger, disease, insomnia.
There was a long wait to enter the next exhibit, Jerusalem, as only a small number of people were allowed in at any one time. Jerusalem is a circle of suspended brass gongs engraved with quotes from the Song of Songs, in Plensa’s words ‘probably the most beautiful text about love, eroticism and the human condition’:
I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.
The gongs are exquisite objects, their surfaces marked with beautiful text. Each gong has a mallet, and persons entering the room are encouraged to take a mallet and strike a gong. The room resonates with a swelling sound (the attendant wears headphones). For Plensa, the immaterial element of sound reflects William Blake’s idea that ‘one thought fills immensity’.
‘Do not touch, only caress’
This is a rare exhibition because in that you are actually encouraged to touch and interact with the work (and photograph it for personal use). In the case of the gongs in Jerusalem, Plensa is asserting his belief that sculpture has the potential to engage not only visually, emotionally and intellectually, but also through our bodies.
On the lawn in front of the Underground Gallery is Heart of Trees, one of the family of works in which Plensa incorporates his self portrait. In these seven sculptures the arms and legs of the figure are wrapped around a tree trunk. Each bronze cast covered in the names of composers important to Plensa. The embrace is a recurrent feature of his work, reflecting Plensa’s desire to connect and to assert the importance of touch. There is a statement here, too, about the relationship between body and soul, and the importance of nurture – the tree as a metaphor for growth and transformation.
Yorkshire Souls I,II and III consist of figures made from letters from many different alphabets, each placed on a foundation of stone. There is a subtle contrast between the airiness and lightness of the figures and the solidity of the stone. The figures are grouped, as if in conversation.
House of Knowledge, placed in the Bothy Garden, is another piece in which the human body is shaped from a network of letters. The figure is massive – eight metres high – and the front of the figure is open so that we were able to walk inside – for Plensa this is a metaphor, as we ‘complete the work ‘like a soul in a body’.
While we were taking in the exhibits, a crew from Yorkshire ITV were filming a segment for the regional evening news programme Calendar, which has been asking viewers to vote for the best regional attraction. At the moment YSP is in the lead.
I have enjoyed a great deal of Plensa’s work, especially Dream. I found much that was enriching in this exhibition, but I think there is also a shallowness in some of the work. The reliance on text and quotations results, in some cases, in a work that is prosaic and over-literal. Twenty-Nine Palms, with its delicate array of suspended letters, is pleasing to look at, but as visitors of all ages drew their hands along the shimmering curtain of text, I did wonder whether it meant anything more significant for us than than the delicate, tinkling sound that we made.
Though Plensa explains his work in terms of deep philosophical thoughts, and draws on his extensive reading of literature from many cultures, his work can sometimes seem to express quite simplistic ideas. Take, for example, this text from the limited edition print being sold in the YSP shop:
Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.