Jaume Plensa (1955)
Born in 1955 in Barcelona, Jaume Plensa studied at the Llotja Advanced School of Art and Design and the Catalonian Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Sant Jordi. Ever since his first exhibition in 1980 in his home town, where he continues to work – as well as in Paris – he has travelled throughout Europe, the United States and Asia to create, exhibit and teach.
At the outset, the artist's interest centred on the figure, made out of different traditional materials (cast iron, bronze, wood, iron, etc..) and salvaged objects. Then for about ten years, it was conversely the absence of the body that he presented in installations, showing firstly a succession of 24 doors lit by a bulb with no way through (Wonderland, 1993); next, there were some cabins with walls made of glass or resin that were lit up and inaccessible, such as La Riva de Acheronte (1994) where the written word appears: extracts from Dante's Divine Comedy are engraved on the inside and are therefore reversed for the viewer, which also creates mystery. Then, it was possible to go inside: Lady Macbeth, The traitor and the porter (2000) makes us contemplate the duality of existence, between concrete and abstract, desire and revulsion, action and inaction etc..
The use of sound, which he had introduced in Love Sounds - cabins made in 1998 - was widely developed in an installation of bronze cymbals hanging on red ropes engraved with verses from William Blake (taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell): drops of water fall from the ceiling and hit the cymbals to make them resonate with a whole variety of sounds (2003). He did the same thing with gongs in Jerusalem (2006) at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and cymbals in World Voices (2010) in Dubai, thus showing the universal connection created by a work of art. This also seems to be the case when he created a double monument in Auch in 1992 in memory of the victims of the floods in Gascony in 1977: the biblical account of the Flood is engraved on a cast iron plaque, out of the centre of which a ray of light surges into the sky – L'Observatoire du temps – whilst on the other bank of the river Gers, four cast iron columns grouped closely together symbolise L'Abri Impossible.
From 2003, text and sound are combined in his curtains of letters that hang by threads and jangle as visitors pass through, in reference to the Song of Songs – even though they are extracts from Plensa's favourite authors (Blake, Dante, Baudelaire etc..) – and soliciting emotions and thoughts: "we also like to imagine that because sound is a series of spreading waves, all words uttered since the beginning of humanity could be recovered in space", in reference to the 'frozen words' of Rabelais' Quart Livre; "we do not necessarily fill space with physical objects but with our energy", as with our thoughts, in accordance with Blake's idea.
From 2004 he came back to figuration: condensing the experience of past experiments, he reinvented in Crown Fountain, situated in the Millennium Park in Chicago, a "hybrid of sculpture, architecture, video and water technology", which manages to merge opposites, the fleeting nature of photography and the perpetual nature of sculpture. Two enormous towers that face one another become screens for a succession of digital portraits – of a thousand inhabitants of the city – that spit out real water when they open their mouths; they thus spray the urbanites who are paddling in a pool where waterfalls of running water also pour down a huge wall.
Jaume Plensa's art then took a new direction, notably with Self-Portrait with Tree. A statue (in aluminium) in a sitting position tightly hugging the tree of life, a symbol of all living things, is covered with embossed words taken from his favourite texts to signify that books bring about an intellectual and physical transformation in us: the artist is reinterpreting the words from the bible, "The verb was made flesh".
Soon afterwards, inspired by the computer 3D design mesh that he uses to plan his sculptures, he created some heads out of a steel mesh made of entangled letters. They were portraits of young girls only – for "everything that is important and leaves a mark on our life is feminine" – aged between 8 and 14 and with their eyes always closed: Nuria and Irma in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton in England face each other in an interiorised dialogue, whilst integrating the environment through their transparency. It then became possible to get inside the head: Wonderland is on permanent display in Calgary opposite Norman Foster's enormous building: it serves as a shelter and creates a change of scale inspired by Alice in Wonderland, whilst at the same time playing with contradictions (presence/absence, concrete/abstract etc..).
At the same time, Jaume Plensa undertook sculptures on a large scale, still in a mesh of letters (steel or resin), which take the form of a crouching human – as a sign of interiority – but with the face, or often the whole of the front of the body, left unfinished "in order to enter it through the imagination." He increasingly stretched the letters, "for they are our roots" and anchored the sculpture in the given place, just as "it is good to always remember the place where we were born." Representative of this is The Soul of the Ebro (today in Antibes), which was created in 2008 for the Zaragoza International Exhibition on the theme of 'Water and Sustainable Development' in order to provoke serious reflection; or again Source – the body springing forth from a plinth in the form of a jet of water – installed on the way in to Montreal in 2017 for its 375th anniversary, which idealizes the very strong connection between man and water in the history of the city: it is a question of combining all energy to build the future.
Within the same perspective the artist seized on the universal language of musical notation to create Istanbul Blues (Place Vendôme in Paris, during the 2012 International Art Fair); then a figure seated in meditation enveloped in a Sphere (today in Bordeaux), made up of elements of multiple systems of writing, indicating the richness of the diversity of cultures but also the necessity of universal reflection for humanity. Together – displayed in the San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice during the 56th Biennale in 2015 – confirms the important role of spirituality in this dialogue between peoples, with a hand giving a blessing, made with eight different alphabets, suspended under the cupola, and the Oriental-style head in the nave.
This dimension is clearly combined with historical references in Dream, installed in 2009 on the site of a former coal mine near Liverpool (England), that inaugurated a new series of monumental feminine heads of different ethnic types with their eyes closed, but 'full' this time (cement and Spanish dolomite, resin and marble, alabaster, iron...) and which sometimes face each other (Love, Leeuwarden, Holland, 2017). The bodies also became 'full' and whole from 2007, with Les Anges, which was pinned to the wall of MAMAC in Nice, without wings and "too fat to fly. They represent us well: with all our faults we also have the capacity to spoil life". Made from translucent resin and lit by an internal light, they prefigured groups of figures: scribes in a crouching position like them but in the town, and perched on steel columns 12 metres high. At night each one is lit up by one colour that gradually moves on to the others. Conversation in the Place Masséna in Nice has seven of them, representing the people of the seven continents, whilst the moving light symbolises their communication, bringing hope: in this way "we can transform our faults into qualities."
Since the beginning of his career, Jaume Plensa has produced, independently of his sculpture, a considerable body of work on paper, employing mixed techniques that combine pencil, aerosol paint, photographs, wax and sawdust, most often in black and white. The depth given to these drawings by the collages of photos, the letters in plastic etc.., their sometimes unusual dimensions, and their symbolic themes, visibly connects them to the artist's sculpted work which today is found across the whole world.
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