An Interview with Artist Jaume Plensa


On a mid-September morning, the day after a busy, energetic opening night for EXPO CHICAGO, I rushed into a calm, spacious Gray Warehouse, which opened on the west side of the city this spring. In front of me was a giant, carved wooden head of a girl, with a single finger pressed to her lips, gesturing for silence.

The contemplative figure, Julia's Words, welcomed me to Secret Garden, an exhibition of new, mostly large scale works in wood, stainless steel and bronze by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, who was exhibiting for the first time in Richard Gray Gallery’s newest outpost in Chicago. Plensa has grown to love the city, since he was commissioned in the early 2000s to create what is now one of the public’s most loved and well-known sculptures, Millennium Park’s interactive Crown Fountain, which he says he visits each time he comes to town. Plensa’s latest body of work, spanning two exhibition spaces – One Thought Fills Immensity at Richard Gray Gallery in the Hancock Tower and Secret Garden at Gray Warehouse on the west side – explores silence as a gift in today’s noisy world. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation and exhibition tour.  –GV

CGN: Congratulations on this newest exhibition. Tell me about Secret Garden, here at the Warehouse, as well as the idea to hold a companion exhibition, One Thought Fills Immensity, in the gallery’s eponymous Hancock Center space across town.

Jaume Plensa: Well, in the other, smaller spaces, it’s ideal to develop a very intimate kind of work. There’s a certain scale; so there I have been using that space for [my alabaster heads] which have this kind of strange inner light, this illusion which seems related with the soul. And here [in the Warehouse] the works are probably more related to the body.

CGN: These works here are your first explorations in stainless steel.

JP: Yeah, that’s right. It’s the first time I’m casting my portraits, or my heads, in stainless steel. I’ve been using a lot of stainless steel but more to modulate the light, but this is the first time I’m casting with it, and I’m pretty happy because I first did many drawings with graphite. And that was the same color, the same texture as what we would end up with. I was dreaming to have this strange color that seems simple, but this thing with the light, it’s touching in a gentle way.

CGN: It’s very thin, light.

JP: Because it’s not shiny, but it’s not matte. It seems like something strange. I finally got it after I spent a few years trying to find the right balance.

There are ways to play with the materials. In that [back] garden space [in the gallery] I have a wooden sculpture that is cast in bronze. I did the model in wood, but the piece is cast in bronze. Then it’s painted in white, which completely confuses the materials, which I think is also important. There is this idea that you, of course, use materials - materials have an incredible memory – but at the same time material is just a base and support. Well, I like it to do that kind of joke with the material.

CGN: Please tell me a little bit about your focus on the face.

JP: Well actually, you know, when I did the Crown Fountain, it was for me, something extraordinary to have that relationship with the people who we were filming at that time. We did all the video, and then we did incredible post-production, stretching the faces to fit all the mouths in the same place, the eyes in the same place, to try to give the same spread to all the portraits even if they have different origins, different ages and shapes.

When I finished that project I was so moved by the relationship with people that I decided to continue in parallel with my work with text portraits. But, I decided at that moment only to do portraits of a young woman, because I always thought memory and future were female – men are a beautiful accident, but just an accident in-between. Since that moment, that was around 2004, I’ve been taking portraits –maybe I did 14, maybe less. I used [them] a little bit as a canvas where I could dabble in different ideas - elongating, stretching. I did many things with them [and] with mesh heads only. For me it continues to be important that when you finish the portrait you realize you are not doing any specific person, you are making a kind of mural where we can feel reflective. It’s taking this kind of spiritual position, with the eyes closed, as always. In the Crown Fountain, it was the moment when every person we were filming, I asked, ‘Now close your eyes and put your lips in the position, blow to make a kind of gargoyle effect.’ You could tell people were concerned to close their eyes, but it was just beautiful to see them in that position, and I kept in that position, because finally in some ways you are describing a hidden wall that all of us, we keep inside.

CGN: Do you visit the Crown Fountain when you come to town?

JP: Always. It’s funny because look, it’s so many years already since we unveiled the piece.

CGN: 13 years.

JP: But, every time that I’m in Chicago, the first thing I’m going to, the fountain. To be sure that it still exists.

CGN: What surprises you from the time you had the initial concept for the Crown Fountain, to when it was unveiled, and then to what it continues to be?

JP: Well, I remember, for many people, it was funny to see that the sketches I did at the beginning and the final piece were the same exactly. We spent almost four years working on the project. We had so many people helping on different levels – architectural, LED screens, the water systems, the big plaza, well a lot of things. It’s funny that we had the capacity to keep everyone on my first concept. It’s really amazing. And every time I’m returning to Chicago to see the piece, I’m really happy because people completely embrace the piece, and it’s not anymore mine.

CGN: It makes people so happy.

JP: I think so. It’s a piece that belongs to Chicago, now. It’s a part of the city.

CGN: 2017 was named the Year of Public Art in Chicago. What you just said speaks to what the City is trying to accomplish – to show that art is not static, or untouchable up on a wall; it really belongs to the people.

JP: Well, I remember when I was commissioned to do the Crown Fountain. It was incredible, because I’d always had the idea that Chicago probably has one of the most extraordinary architectural scenes, but it’s also one of the best for art in the public space. My friend once said, ‘It’s so complicated of a project in Chicago, because you feel that you are visiting the house of your grandparents, and you are more interested to listen to what they say than to talk, because you have so much to learn.’ In Chicago when you walk around, well, you feel [every artist’s] name, and I guess to me it was important to do my own work not just on a bigger scale, but to try to offer a new gate, a new possibility in the public space.

It was very risky for me, but I guess the Crown Fountain more than took one of my works and made it bigger; it was really to try to embrace many of my dreams of thinking what a public space could be in that place. For example, I wanted to create an emptiness, a plaza, and really invite people to be in a gathering place to meet and enjoy. I also wanted to return to something that for me, because I am European, was so normal, but probably is hidden in this country, which was the gargoyle. In Medieval times all these fountains would have grotesque faces spitting water from their mouths. For me it was something that I wanted to return to the public space, but with real people within it now. I guess it was complicated project. Conceptually it was very clear, but it was complex to be done. It’s thanks to the incredible help of the Crown family, because they trusted and believed in the project. We have an understanding. It’s so beautiful in that way, because they said, ‘Jaume, we don’t understand, but you feel so compelled. Okay, so lets do it.’ And I guess it’s a very special piece that I never wanted to do again. Because all the cities in the world will ask me to do it again, or something similar and I said, “No, it was for Chicago and should be only in Chicago.

CGN: It really is a gift. Thinking about the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture this year, the public’s perception of the sculpture today is so different than when it was introduced. We can’t know how [it] will be seen 50 years from now, and the same is true of the Crown Fountain.

JP: They did restoration last winter on the screens, and though we call it restoration to say something, it was almost an ethical issue. They corrected a little bit of the level of the floor, and they changed a few glass blocks and the LED screens. The LED screens were working well, but it was because the knowledge is only so vast that I remember that our LED screens were very thick. Now, they are thin. Today they are also ten times cheaper, with ten times the brightness. The concept continues to work so well.

CGN: Please tell me about your wooden sculptures in the show.

JP: I used a very dense kind of wood. It does not float. And it’s great because it’s so dense that there is not any buckling. It’s really like a stone and I love it, because in the carving you get these kind of veins, and this strange color in the face and in the hands as well that is a position saying, ‘Silence.’ I don’t really know how to ask for silence today, because we’re in a very noisy moment, in terms of ideas.

CGN: There are a lot of distractions.

JP: Distractions. Messages, messages, messages. And I’m upset about it, but I guess we just have to reintroduce the concept of silence in our life.

CGN: There are different connotations of silence – some are negative.

JP: It’s not exact. I agree with you, but the concept of sound is different. Silence to me is the capacity to be you with yourself and to try to understand the rest of the world, not to be apart. No, no, no. I love community. I love society. But I think we have to offer people silence as a gift today.

CGN: You want to give people the chance to be silent.

JP: It’s funny – more and more people feel uncomfortable when there’s a silent place. For instance, you find music everywhere. There is so much sound – music, music, music – you may just want to enjoy a moment, or your own sounds, by yourself [Laughter].

These sculpture here have, as always, their eyes closed. This [pointing to each one] is Julia, she’s a girl from the Basque country. Here Isabella is from Sao Paulo [Brazil]. She, Carlota, is from Barcelona. She’s Laura Asia, a Chinese girl but from Madrid. Over there is a Chinese girl from Shanghai who is living in Vancouver. And she’s Paula, who is a girl living nearby my studio.

CGN: Have you met all these people? Have you imagined them? How do they come to have the names and residences?

JP: It’s an accident. In the beginning, I was asking to take a portrait of the daughter of friends and things like that. Now, many times, people say, ‘Look, I know a person, or, my daughter is wonderful,’ and I check, and if it’s okay, I take the portrait, and then I manipulate the volume of the face.

CGN: But, it’s still them.

JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Obviously I know the name, I know the parents, I know the families. I know everything.

CGN: They look so light, that they look ethereal.

JP: That’s something that I’m also trying to get – that these things disappear when you are walking. They are losing the volume. When you look back from the other side, I guess I brought something with the material – it seems they are floating. They will be like a drawing on a page in this way.

CGN: You’ve worked with text for a really long time, incorporating many different alphabets and characters into your figures. What was the inspiration behind that?

JP: I grew up in a family obsessed about books. My father, he was always buying books and reading and reading. My visual education was more text, than art or images. On Sunday morning we were always together when he went to buy secondhand books in old markets. It’s true that I’ve been fascinated by words and poetry. I remember one day I decided to use, as a material, all this information that I collected in childhood. So my first piece with text was about [Shakespeare's] Macbeth, because I always thought that Macbeth, the man, was one of the best definitions of his culture. When Macbeth killed the king, he realized that he didn’t kill a body or the man, he killed the possibility to sleep. I love this concept, because in sculpture, it’s always the same, you cannot describe. A painter could talk about the everyday life, but the sculptor is always talking about big obstructions – love, hate – but nothing in between. And I guess you are using physical elements, you can touch and caress, but you cannot describe. And that is Macbeth – I sleep no more.

That became my first piece of this show, I Sleep No More. Then I understood the text as a beautiful metaphor about community, about society. One letter alone is nothing, but together with other letters you get a word. A word with a word becomes a text, and so on. A person alone is nothing, but together with others we become family, a neighborhood, a city, a county, a country. My portraits are similar – I love diversity, that is the richness of our society, and it’s the same as putting all the alphabets together, creating amazing diversity and how well we are when we are together. 

Secret Garden and One Thought Fills Immensity are on view at Richard Gray Gallery and Gray Warehouse through November 11, 2017