Inner Space according to Jaume Plensa
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.
MEMORY IS FEMININE
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.
ANGELS THAT ARE TOO BIG
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
(Ph. I. Baucells © Plensa Studio)