In­ner Space ac­cor­ding to Jaume Plen­sa

Art Press - - L’INTERVIEW -

Jaume Plen­sa’s stu­dio is lo­ca­ted in the outs­kirts of Bar­ce­lo­na. The place is huge and some of the sculp­tures are mo­nu­men­tal, but what is real­ly stri­king is the pea­ce­ful­ness there, even though a whole team of as­sis­tants are bu­sy at their tasks. In this si­lence, each per­son is concen­tra­ting on the me­ti­cu­lous work of as­sem­bling and wel­ding to­ge­ther the mo­dels and the fi­ni­shed sculp­tures. Their hie­ra­tic, so­me­times ar­chaic qua­li­ty is the re­sult of ex­tre­me­ly re­fi­ned ma­king pro­cesses. For example, Plen­sa poin­ted out the fine layer of lead slip­ped bet­ween each of the blocks for­ming the large heads, which it is ne­ces­sa­ry to cut so that they can be trans­por­ted, and that give the im­pres­sion of floa­ting on air. Take al­so the de­li­cate, eva­nes­cent faces that we see on the win­dows of the small, clo­sed stu­dio space that the ar­tist has crea­ted for his dra­wing work. He is cur­rent­ly thin­king of ha­ving them exe­cu­ted on a trans­pa­rent sup­port. In Plen­sa’s stu­dio, people work on com­pu­ters, and al­so the way ty­pe­set­ters once did, pul­ling all kinds of let­ters of dif­ferent sizes and in dif­ferent al­pha­bets out of big box-like contai­ners. The giant heads I saw being made for the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­sée d’Art Mo­derne et Contem­po­rain de Saint-Étienne (March 10–Sep­tem­ber 17) are 4.5 me­ters high, in cast iron, and es­pe­cial­ly elon­ga­ted. Ve­ry nar­row. They give the strange im­pres­sion—one would al­most call it Pi­cas­so-like if they didn’t ac­cu­ra­te­ly re­pro­duce the fea­tures of their mo­del— of being seen si­mul­ta­neous­ly fron­tal­ly and in pro­file. Plen­sa ex­plains that to create this ef­fect, and gi­ven the fact that the vo­lume of the heads had been slight­ly com­pres­sed, he had to shift one side slight­ly in re­la­tion to the other, sho­wing me what he means by sli­ding one hand over the other. This simple ges­ture pro­duces the strange sen­sa­tion that they are al­ter­na­ting bet­ween three- and two­di­men­sio­nal spaces. CM

Would you agree if I di­vi­ded your ca­reer in­to two­main per­iods, the first of which in­cludes main­ly these kinds of ca­bins, dwel­ling units made in dif­ferent ma­te­rials in which the vi­si­tor could so­me­times fit his bo­dy, while the se­cond is de­vo­ted to the ac­tual re­pre­sen­ta­tion of bo­dies and figures? At the ve­ry start of my ca­reer I wor­ked on the fi­gure, in iron but al­so in ma­ny other ma­te­rials. Then, for near­ly ten years, I gave up the fi­gure and wor­ked more on the ab­sence of the bo­dy. I got people to en­ter vo­lumes that were more or less bo­dy-si­zed, but from which that bo­dy was ab­sent. To­day I’m going back to ma­ny of the ma­te­rials I aban­do­ned du­ring that per­iod and I’m ta­king a new look at the things I ex­pe­ri­men­ted with back then. The pro­ject for Chi­ca­go in 2004, The Crown Foun­tain, re­turns to the idea of the ca­bin: two big ca­bins were pla­ced fa­cing each other across a pool, and one of them had a screen on one side sho­wing the faces of in­ha­bi­tants of the ci­ty. As be­fore that I had in­vi­ted vi­si­tors to my ex­hi­bi­tions to en­ter the ca­bins, what was im­por­tant to me in this pro­ject was the people. I wor­ked for near­ly three and a half years on these vi­deo por­traits.

You had a huge cas­ting ses­sion, right? No, it wasn’t a mat­ter of com­pa­ring people, I was more concer­ned to present the most di­verse mo­saic pos­sible of the ci­ty’s in­ha­bi­tants. I as­ked for help from The School of the Art Ins­ti­tute and, with two tea­chers there I set up a lit­tle of­fice to contact as ma­ny people as we could. The di­rect re­la­tion was ex­tra­or­di­na­ry. When I star­ted out, I made a lot of self­por­traits be­cause we are al­ways cu­rious about our­selves, whe­reas when we look at others we can al­so look at them in a per­so­nal way. An old man could be your fa­ther, a young child your son, or he could be­come the icon who re­pre­sents eve­ryone’s child. This ex­pe­rience af­fec­ted me dee­ply and I wan­ted to conti­nue with por­traits, but on­ly with young girls. I have al­ways thought that me­mo­ry is fe­mi­nine, that the fu­ture is fe­mi­nine and that we men are an ac­ci­dent, an ex­tra­or­di­na­ry ac­ci­dent, but an ac­ci­dent even so. When, in a fa­mi­ly, the mo­ther di­sap­pears, the fa­mi­ly di­sap­pears too. If it’s the fa­ther who di­sap­pears, the group conti­nues to exist. Tra­di­tion is fe­mi­nine, eve­ry­thing that is im­por­tant and that marks our life is fe­mi­nine. That’s why I de­ci­ded to make por­traits of girls bet­ween eight and four­teen years old. It’s a mo­ment when beau­ty changes ve­ry qui­ck­ly, which means that whe­ne­ver I make a por­trait, you could say that on­ly a short while af­ter­wards my mo­del no lon­ger exists. The big foun­tain in Chi­ca­go was a hy­brid bet­ween sculp­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture, vi­deo and hy­drau­lics, etc. It marks the con­clu­sion of ma­ny of my ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ments. The idea of com­bi­ning pho­to­gra­phy, which has the ca­pa­ci­ty to cap­ture the ephe­me­ral, and sculp­ture, which dia­logues with eter­nal things—that fu­sion of op­po­sites be­comes pos­sible. Eve­ry­thing chan­ged with the por­traits the way I make them to­day, por­traits that al­ways have clo­sed eyes, be­cause in­ner space takes the place of the ca­bin, which I no lon­ger need. Apart from these heads of young girls with their eyes clo­sed, you have al­so made trans­pa­rent heads in steel mesh, the big­gest of which are pla­ced di­rect­ly on the ground, wi­thout a base. Whe­ne­ver I was wor­king with the team on the com­pu­ter and we were loo­king at the scan of a head, we saw this blue mesh of the 3D ima­ging. I was

loo­king at this form and, like a good Me­di­ter­ra­nean man, I wan­ted to touch it. We spent months loo­king for ways of trans­for­ming this vir­tual form in­to so­me­thing phy­si­cal. In the end we de­si­gned a mesh, but not the one ge­ne­ra­ted by a com­pu­ter. It took us nine months to make that first head and I have kept the same mo­dule for years. We still make molds from it. With these trans­pa­rent heads you can see the in­ter­nal forms, for example that of the ear, and it’s ve­ry beau­ti­ful. In some places the mesh is ve­ry dense, in others, ve­ry loose; it’s a ques­tion of ma­the­ma­ti­cal har­mo­ny, so­me­thing al­most mu­si­cal. These are forms of “conten­tion” and I can­not “draw” in a single ges­ture be­cause if I did eve­ry­thing would break. When the piece is ins­tal­led, you can see through it and eve­ry­thing around it is part of it. I ins­tal­led the first two in the York­shire Sculp­ture Park and the whole gar­den be­came part of these sculp­tures.


Aren’t these al­so the heads of young girls?

Al­ways, and just as they are: no ma­ni­pu­la­tion.

Don’t you al­so plan to make heads that people can go in­side as they did in the ca­bins?

Such things al­rea­dy exist, in Calgary, Ca­na­da, where Nor­man Foster construc­ted a big cur­ving buil­ding that crea­ted a kind of square in the cen­ter of the ci­ty, and I was as­ked to oc­cu­py it with a sculp­ture. I made a work promp­ted by the de­sire to get in­side a head. (That’s where the big­gest and wil­dest space is!). Foster’s buil­ding is gi­gan­tic. What can we do, we wo­men and men who are like ants com­pa­red to such buil­dings? I tur­ned the head in­to a shel­ter. There’s an en­trance on each side and the head is po­si­tio­ned in such a way that you can see all the ci­ty’s skys­cra­pers through it. The idea comes from Alice in Won­der­land, with its constant changes of scale. That great ex­pe­rience of wal­king around in­side a head is so­me­thing I had when I was wor­king on these pieces, but once they were fi­ni­shed I clo­sed them and vie­wers couldn’t share it. In Calgary, people are at last in­vi­ted to go in­side.

How did you de­ter­mine the scale of this

work in re­la­tion to Foster’s buil­ding? He was al­ways tel­ling me, “Jaume, mind the scale!” And I would ans­wer, “Don’t wor­ry, the scale is cal­cu­la­ted not in re­la­tion to your De haut en bas / from top: « No­made ». 2007. Acier peint. 800 x 550 x 530 cm Ex­po­si­tion / Ex­hi­bi­tion at Bas­tion Saint Jaume - Port Vau­ban, Quai Ram­baud, Mu­sée Pi­cas­so, An­tibes, 2007 (Col­lec­tion M. et J. Pap­pa­johns, Des Moines, Io­wa Ph. J.-L. An­dral). Pain­ted stain­less steel « La Fo­rêt Blanche ». Ex­po­si­tion / ex­hi­bi­tion at ga­le­rie Le­long, Pa­ris, 2016. (Ph. F. Gi­bert © Ga­le­rie Le­long) buil­ding but in re­la­tion to the people” So­meone gave me a book on the ar­chi­tec­ture of cor­po­rate head of­fices. Now, the co­ver of that book is a re­pro­duc­tion of my sculp­ture, ex­cept that the cap­tion, in­side, says that it’s by Foster. That’s in­ter­es­ting. It means that the sculp­ture has ta­ken on the spirit of the place.

Foster isn’t mad? Foster must be de­ligh­ted! I’m the one who should be an­gry! It’s a suc­cess, even if my name isn’t in the book, which confirms that art breathes life in­to things.

Ano­ther set of sculp­tures you made, ei­ther in re­sin or in a steel mesh consti­tu­ted by a tangle of let­ters, uses the form of a squat­ting man. Is that man you? It was me. In fact, there are se­ve­ral dif­ferent figures,

knee­ling or squat­ting. This kind of pos­ture is ve­ry ge­ne­ral, it’s al­most a neu­tral form ex­pres­sing my in­ter­est in in­ter­io­ri­ty. It’s al­so a fe­tal po­si­tion or a po­si­tion of rest. I had the idea of doing a man, but when the sculp­ture was fi­ni­shed, there was no gen­der. It was a hu­man being.

These cha­rac­ters have no face. No, give or take the odd ex­cep­tion. Once the form is there, the face is pro­du­ced by the vie­wer’s ima­gi­na­tion. Ge­ne­ral­ly, the whole front of these sculp­tures is open. If you can’t en­ter them phy­si­cal­ly, you can in the ima­gi­na­tion. I think the face can be an obs­tacle ra­ther than an in­vi­ta­tion. It’s a gift we give to others, but it’s al­so a door with which we close our­selves to others.

Is there a spe­ci­fic re­la­tion bet­ween the size of the let­ters and the size of the sculp­ture? Dif­ferent so­lu­tions are pos­sible: big let­ters for ve­ry small figures, small let­ters for big figures. Per­haps at ano­ther time in my life I will drop this re­la­tion to text, but for the time being I want to keep it. And, more and more, I work by stret­ching out the let­ters, which get like those tree roots that come up out of the earth. In my work, the let­ters come out of the earth to construct the hu­man bo­dy. I think it’s great that we al­ways have the me­mo­ry of where we were born. Sculp­ture, too, has a ve­ry strong re­la­tion to place. In­deed, let­ters and text are al­rea­dy like a kind of por­trait of the hu­man being, be­cause we have the ca­pa­ci­ty to talk, and if tal­king is like mu­sic, wri­ting is like the score of our bo­dy. I try to write this score. It’s been an ob­ses­sion of mine for years. Life is constant­ly tat­tooing us. My first work of this kind was Tel Aviv Man, in 2003, which mar­ked an im­por­tant tur­ning point. I had al­rea­dy made sym­bo­lic pieces with let­ters as­sem­bled and hung like cur­tains. I was ma­king a cur­tain like that when I thought to my­self, “That’s en­ough. You’ve got to make a hu­man fi­gure.” I pi­cked up all the let­ters and I made a first man, which was in fact hung up.


The idea evokes a bi­bli­cal theme: the word

made flesh. The hand that was hung up in the church of San Gior­gio Mag­giore in Ve­nice was made of let­ters. When the ab­bot of the San Gior­gio com­mu­ni­ty saw the hand he said exact­ly the same thing. The let­ter was be­co­ming flesh. I am not a Ca­tho­lic but I was ve­ry hap­py with that be­cause so­me­times, in sculp­ture, your in­tui­tion takes you to pro­fun­di­ties that are beyond you. People have sent us let­ters, no­ta­bly the Bi­shop of Sa­lis­bu­ry, who spoke of theo­lo­gi­cal right­ness. It was mo­ving. At San Gior­gio Mag­giore I al­so ins­tal­led a head just fa­cing the door, be­cause spi­ri­tua­li­ty, trans­pa­ren­cy and light go to­ge­ther ve­ry well. The hand and the head were fa­cing each other, like in a conver­sa­tion. For the head, I had cho­sen a young Chi­nese girl. The pro­ject was cal­led To­ge­ther be­cause God couldn’t care less what our re­li­gion is. In the same spirit, I use and mix all the dif­ferent kinds of al­pha­bets. This ges­ture by the hand [Plen­sa bends his fin­gers so that the big fin­ger and the thumb form a C, and the in­dex and thumb a J] which, in Rus­sian icons for example, si­gni­fies “Je­sus Ch­rist,” is al­so the ges­ture of so­meone tea­ching, not a dic­ta­tor’s ges­ture [Plen­sa makes a jab­bing mo­ve­ment with his fin­ger]. And it’s a ges­ture that is to­tal­ly a part of my Ro­man Ca­tho­lic tra­di­tion. And then there was al­so that big cor­ri­dor with the heads in ala­bas­ter, like a me­di­ta­tion cham­ber open to all.

What with the dif­ferent ways you treat the face, and your use of ma­ny, ve­ry dif­ferent ma­te­rials—cast iron, steel, bronze, ala­bas­ter, glass, wood, re­sin (so­me­times lit from in­side)—is your ap­proach conscious­ly expe

ri­men­tal? In recent years I’ve gone back to ma­ny of the ma­te­rials that I wor­ked with in the past: stain­less steel, which is the most sa­tis­fying for the let­ters, and then cast iron, wood, glass, like for the ca­bins. It’s as if I was col­lec­ting all my past ex­pe­ri­ments and now de­di­ca­ting them ex­clu­si­ve­ly to the por­trait. The white por­traits that were ex­hi­bi­ted in Pa­ris (1) were ori­gi­nal­ly sculp­ted in wood. I bought these huge trunks of ce­dar. But the por­traits star­ted to crack. I love that, but I wasn’t sure I could let the pieces out of the stu­dio. I had to find a way of free­zing this de­ve­lop­ment. So I cast them in bronze, but it wasn’t the bronze I wan­ted, I just wan­ted to cap­ture the cra­cking when it was at its most beau­ti­ful. I the­re­fore pain­ted them white, so that you can’t iden­ti­ty the ma­te­rial. I li­ked this loss of ma­te­ria­li­ty, which is so­me­thing I’ve al­ways tried to achieve by ai­ming for trans­pa­ren­cy and light­ness.

You have made squat­ting figures that you fix at right angles to the wall, ove­rhan­ging. The ef­fect is ve­ry stri­king be­cause of their scale. You think they’re going to fall. What made you choose this mode of re­pre­sen­ta

tion and these di­men­sions? I have been wor­king with these figures for years and I have al­rea­dy pla­ced some of them, in va­rious colors, on the top of poles. In Nice for example. The idea came from birds that are like lights, mo­ving all the time and wat­ching hu­mans from up high, seeing them as ve­ry lit­tle. Pla­ced on the wall, these figures exis­ted on­ly as white light. They are angels that are too big to fly. They re­present us ve­ry well: with all our flaws, we still have the abi­li­ty to illu­mi­nate life. We can trans­form our flaws in­to qua­li­ties. Eve­ry time I ins­tall one of these figures whose scale is too big, it touches me. “The an­gel” is like a fly that hangs on the wall—and it is not “too beau­ti­ful.” You said you are cur­rent­ly “ga­the­ring to­ge­ther” past ex­pe­ri­ments. There is a big sculp­ture in “let­ter mesh” in your stu­dio, one that can be en­te­red. There are other let­ters han­ging on the in­side, like the ones that went in­to your “cur­tains.” If you move them, they knock to­ge­ther and pro­duce mu­sic, a bit like your ins­tal­la­tions with gongs and cym­bals. In those days I was in­ter­es­ted in the vi­bra­tion of mat­ter, and these won­der­ful words by William Blake: “One thought fills im­men­si­ty.” We don’t ne­ces­sa­ri­ly fill though with phy­si­cal ob­jects, but with our ener­gy. The gongs and cym­bals were an ideal way of sho­wing this. The work you men­tio­ned contains let­ters that will pro­duce sound in a ran­dom fa­shion, un­der the ef­fect of the wind, or be­cause so­meone has mo­ved them, other­wise there is no sound. In the case of the gongs, each one had a mallet, wai­ting for so­meone to take it and strike. It was a de­ci­sion, and the vi­bra­tion pas­sed through the bo­dy.

Be­cause sound consists of sprea­ding waves, one can ima­gine cat­ching in space all the words spo­ken since the ori­gins of hu­man­kind. Your cur­tains could be seen as

clus­ters of these words gras­ped in space. I star­ted wor­king on these cur­tains when so­meone gave me the Quart Livre by Ra­be­lais, which has the pas­sage about the fro­zen words: an ex­pe­di­tion rea­ching ex­tre­me­ly cold wa­ters could hear speech im­pri­so­ned in the ice.

You have said that the most im­por­tant di­men­sion for you was time. Co­ming from a

sculp­tor, that’s ve­ry sur­pri­sing. To­day there are things I can do that I wasn’t ca­pable of doing yes­ter­day. This is my time. And then there is the time of the work. The work has its own time, you can’t make it go fas­ter. You have to adapt to its rhythm. There is a rhythm for ap­proa­ching it, ano­ther for thin­king about it, ano­ther for ma­king it. In the case of works made for pu­blic space, what concerns me is their scale, in re­la­tion to the people who will be in contact with them. In my per­so­nal work, it is time, be­cause, wha­te­ver I have to do, I need to grow, as a per­son. The work must be the conse­quence of my ex­pe­riences, of what I am.

Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

(1) Ga­le­rie Le­long, Pa­ris, Fe­brua­ry 4–March 24, 2016.

À gauche/ left: « Crown Foun­tain ». 2004. Verre, acier, écran LED, bois, gra­nite noir, eau. 2 tours de 16 mètres. Bas­sin d’eau : 70 x 14 mètres. Millen­nium Park, Chi­ca­go, Il­li­nois (Ph. L. Me­di­na © Plen­sa Stu­dio). Glass, stain­less steel, LED screens, light, wood, black gra­nite and wa­ter À droite, de haut en bas / right, from top: L’ate­lier, jan­vier 2017. The stu­dio ; Trois sculp­tures des­ti­nées à l’ex­po­si­tion du mu­sée de Saint-Étienne. 2015. Fonte. 4, 50 m (Ph. J. Hen­ric). Cast iron

Jaume Plen­sa.

(Ph. I. Bau­cells © Plen­sa Stu­dio)

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