In 2007, during the ArtFutura festival, I witnessed a brief conference by Jaume Plensa and it was love at first sight. His art, his thinking and his way of presenting them to me seemed something able to accompany the viewer into a higher dimension, to transmit an almost mystical energy. This artist joined the small circle of my idols and so, without realizing it, I ended up convinced that he was a superhuman being who was not really living on earth like us ordinary mortals.
My friend and photographer Angharad Segura, equally fierce admirer of the sculptor and with a great desire to portray him with her camera, one day put a flea in my ear, wondering if I could arrange a visit to his lab a few miles far from Barcelona. I was surprised that I had never thought about it before and quickly found a way to grant me an interview. Full of emotion as two teenagers who are about to meet their favourite rock star, Angharad and I went to the workshop where Plensa works. We were cordially welcomed by the artist and his wife Laura.
Confirmation: Jaume Plensa is not an inaccessible person and nor are his works. He is an extremely witty and affable man, his voice betrays a sincere smile, the smile of a man who somehow lives in another dimension, a dimension much closer to beauty, to truth, from which he draws his inspiration with joy giving some of it to the world with his art. I think this is the secret of his works, the force which they have, the reason why they will live forever in history.
On the Internet there are currently two videos that testify the fascination of the artist and his art: one is a documentary produced by RTVE (http://www.rtve.es/mediateca/videos/20091228/imprescindibles-jaume-plensa/657646.shtml, Spanish, French and English) and another record of his long speech at the ISC Conference (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQkkmyfF65A, nine parts, in English). Moreover, his website is full of pictures of him and there is an accurate documentation, as well as links to what has already been written about him.
Barbara Sansone: Do you feel more a classical sculptor or an artist of new media? Which profile best describes you?
Jaume Plensa: My opinion is that art history is only one: there is not a past and a future in art, but only one line in which artists fit. I think I’m deeply classical because sculptures of 5,000 years ago still move me. And for me classicism is an attitude and not a form. For example, I often work with the vibration of materials. An object produces a sound, when stroke. This is due to the matter of which it is made.
You, me, her, we all produce sounds. If I give you a blow on the arm we would hear a sound somewhat opaque, while there are materials such as metals, which produce more interesting sounds. And this is not music; it is the material which is speaking. Something classical isn’t it? Also, I have always been interested in big questions, those that we think about today, we thought about in the past and which we will think about in the future. Is this something classic? Surely, but it also is contemporary
As for technology: I am a child of today so I must use the tools the era in which I live gives to me. But the hammer, conceived in regards to its function has not yet been replaced. You can not hammer in a nail with your mouse. It is important to recognize when it’s time to use the hammer and when it’s time to use the mouse. Techniques are never a direction, but rather a vehicle. Ideas instead can be contemporary or classical while techniques are only accompany them. They are very important because they help to transform the aesthetics, but they are not an aim. In my work, technology is what I think I need to express a particular idea.
Barbara Sansone: You haven’t worked for the theater, the opera for a while…
Jaume Plensa: I am not a specialist in the opera and I think at that time this was the key that allowed me to transform the scenic concept. But for consistency, I had to stop. For the same reason I do not want to continue to teach if I do not want to become a professor. This year I taught in Chicago and I have been asked to stay. So, instead of teaching for six months as I did this year, I decided to hold a seminar of three weeks, which is a different theoretical concept.
My success as a teacher is due to the fact that I am not a teacher. A wonderful photographer from the MTI, who died recently, used to say: “try to teach without realizing that you’re doing it. When you realize it, it’s already too late.” When I read this sentence I thought it expressed exactly my own opinion. When teaching your students you have to leave messages which seem to fall silent and which decrease gradually. It takes many years, a lot of patience and a lot of self-confidence.
Barbara Sansone: Where do you like to exhibit the most? Perhaps in public spaces?
Jaume Plensa: Public spaces are the ones that allowed me to become well-known, but the reason why is simply because normally nobody assigns to them the value of a first category place. They are considered substitutes, as the typical “round-about”. But round-abouts are neither good nor bad: it depends on what we do with them, like everything in life. For me public spaces are very interesting for sculpture and art in general. In public spaces a kind of direct relationship between people, who have not sought it, and the artist comes to life. It is a relevant artistic issue. It represents the artist among other people and thus the piece of art must be very respectful. Public spaces do not belong to artists: they belong to everybody, to people as citizens and as individuals as well. The artist thus needs a lot of humility.
Barbara Sansone: Moreover, the charm of art in public spaces is often so charming not only when contemplated but also because it has to be used somehow.
Jaume Plensa:Yes, it leaves you the freedom to use it as you like. In my opinion art in public spaces should introduce something that is not in the city already: personal freedom. Last year I was invited to hold a lecture in Des Moines. There, one of my sculptures was bought by a collector who gifted it to the city. I spoke in a beautiful theater, full of people, and at the end asked if there were any questions. One lady remarked that throughout my speech I asked people to touch my work, to live it and feel if it was hot or cold, rough or smooth, while, rather close to my sculpture there was a sign saying “Please do not touch” . I replied that the administration had made a little mistake and that it had forgotten to complete the sign. The text should have said “Do not touch it: caress it”. You caress your wife, you don’t touch her. And this is what people should do with art: it needs to be caressed
In public spaces, on the contrary, sometimes the physical relationship people have with the work becomes vandalism. In 2000 I was asked to create a work that represents the government of Brandenburg at the Expo in Hannover. Instead I realised a work that travelled around the province of Brandenburg. It was three sculptures of people going in a different place every week. When they arrived in the east part of the city, near the border with Poland, one of the sculptures was completely destroyed. This too is a way of expression: those people had an educational problem. Destroying the work was the only way to express it. The episode did not make me sad: we just rebuilt the sculpture. But what happened made me reflect on politeness. Art is very important from an educational point of view even if not from a pedagogical one.
Barbara Sansone: Then, reformulating my initial question do you prefer to exhibit in public places or in the “white box”?
Jaume Plensa: Every place has its own point of interest. Public spaces are really interesting but personal exhibitions as well. And sometimes the two dimensions compenetrate one into each other. For example, next year I will exhibit at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England. It is a kind of an open air museum, where I am able to do works of great intimacy even if without the white box. These works use light. I like them a lot during the day because they seem more distant, anonymous.
But at night, when it’s dark, they acquire their special magic, as if their souls come out. Do you remember the exhibition I did in New York last September, those big bright heads on a bed of stones? A collector from Sweden bought a work very similar to that one and installed it outdoor. And there that work had a totally different way of being. In the gallery in New York it was magical. Outdoor it is something totally different. At times it is even covered by snow ..it is more integrated into everyday life.
Barbara Sansone: What are the basics of creating?
Jaume Plensa: I think mainly intuition. Einstein, whose writings have contributed greatly to my growth and my training, used to say intuition is more important than knowledge and I believe this principle is fundamental in creation. Duchamp, for example, that usually is considered a conceptual and cerebral artist, actually was a man who relied entirely on intuition and above all, on the comparison of contradictory concepts. To me also this one is one of the major basics of creation. When everything sparks, a friction between opposites creates something that can not be explained, something unexpected.
For me creation is a mystery and this is why it is fantastic. So why an artist is good and another not? This is a good question, a mysterious one . But it does not interest me. What counts is to do something. Mario Merz (a tender giant) used to say it with his words: “What can we do.” His work is a key-stone. And it is important to live by mistakes. I often found myself defending mistakes as a starting point to work. Doing things you do mistakes. But who does not do any mistake? An artist should believe in himself and in mistakes too. An artist should watch at mistakes as something positive. I am quite a professional from this point of view.
Barbara Sansone: Really? Which mistakes Jaume Plensa does?
Jaume Plensa I constantly do mistakes. Over the years you learn that you grow thanks to your mistakes. Diseases also are a way of growing, like everything that shakes your security. This is what makes me think that brain is the basis of creation: brain is the wildest place of the body, not the most rational. It is a damp and dark place where suddenly two ideas come together without you intending it. In my opinion, creation is very similar to brain: a dark space, wet place. And you must insist. You were wrong? It doesn’t matter. Edison, the man who invented the light bulb, used to say a very nice thing: “I wasn’t wrong 10,000 times; on the contrary, 10,000 times I found out that in order
Barbara Sansone: Why Crown Fountainwas so successful? ?
Jaume Plensa: Probably because in this project I have been able to sum up everything I’m talking about and make it physical. In the case of this fountain I had let’s say the inspiration or whatever.. call it what you want, and in particular I had a lot of help from the sponsors. In public spaces there are at least two people facing problems. When working in public spaces you need somebody who can help you; because political world is very wild. You need a shield to protect yourself up to incredible levels.In Chicago I had this luck: the Crown family, for some reason, behaved as my praetorian guard.
They defended to death me and my idea. The project lasted four and a half years, of which we needed the first two only to convince the city that the work was worth it. Everyone wanted to destroy it: they did not understand it, because it was not an object, he hadn’t clear physical boundaries. People mistakenly thought the two towers were mine and what was in the middle was not. Even the vacuum in order to exist has to be created. At a time when our lives are so full of noise the vacuum has to be created, as well as silence.
The evening before the inauguration me and the team manager who helped me in the construction of it decided to remove the barriers to see what happened. 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 1000 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.
Barbara Sansone: What other elements did you put in it?
Jaume Plensa: First of all, the gargoyle, a traditional architectural element of my culture, which has always fascinated me since I was a child. I have also been influenced by the fountains by Barragán, a Mexican architect who used only gravity. I have always thought water jets going up were something absurd. You can’t manipulate water. Water is subject to gravity, when you cry or when it rains water falls downwards. In “Crown Fountain” in particular the idea of giving life through the mouth is represented. The idea of words. In every cultures there is a moment in which life is given through the mouth.
Barbara Sansone: And in the end people started take possession of this space…
Jaume Plensa: Yes, the next day people came with their towels, so the fountain in the end became a space of freedom. In the space that defines this pool, water is only 3 mm high: you can walk in it without taking off your shoes. But people takes them off and leave them on the sides. This is another element that fascinates me. In the past I used shoes in some of my works, but I noticed that they were associated with holocaust and that was not my intention. I used shoes because for me they are like a camera of our lives. They keep gathering elements of our physical life. But I had to stop because of this misunderstanding. And now watching the side of the pool of Crown Fountain full of shoes is really exciting for me.
And children, who have fewer prejudices than us, did not ask if the fountain was technological, grotesque or a piece of avant-garde. They simply got mad. The space is extremely safe and this was one of my obsession: I wanted to be sure that children could stay there and have fun without needing their parents next to them. It is extremely safe. It is impossible to slip, there aren’t any holes you can accidentally put your feet in, nobody can fall on anything. The water technology required a careful study: I spent a lot of time in a pool where we recreated the gargoyle and we perfectly calibrated the pressure and the impact of the water. When the faces close their eyes and “blow” the water spray, people below could be not looking at them; therefore the jets should not have been not violent. This work is a celebration of life, it does not express violence.
Barbara Sansone: Actually your works transmit only positive feelings…
Jaume Plensa: Every time somebody tried to commission to me a monument to death, I refused. I always wanted to celebrate life and death only as a part of life. And Crown Fountain is for me a great celebration of life. It’s nice to see so much confusion, people, noise. And nothing during the winter season. During winter the water fountain does not work and becomes a sort of Zen garden, waiting for spring. The role of seasons in a work of art is another aspect I really like. In Chicago during winter everything is covered with snow. Only the two towers of the fountain emerge, but the faces never assume the position of blow. We created separate video clips to avoid a ridiculous expression of the faces when the water jet does not work.
This work was technically very complex, even though as a result, looking at it it seems the easiest thing in the world. Chicago is also a very windy city and I wanted to absolutely avoid the wind jet crawling pathetically on one side of the face. We put a sensor: when the wind exceeds a certain number of nodes the water system blocks and the winter system is activated. It never happened, because tolerance is very high. What makes me very happy is that every year the arrival of springs is announced in newspapers when Crown Fountain start working again. The work has become a clock announcing the change of seasons.
Barbara Sansone: And also as an essential element of the city.
Jaume Plensa: Yes, but you know that architects and politicians can not stand emptiness. When there is an empty space they simply think there is nothing or that somebody must have forgotten to put something. And because not all of them really understood my work I’m still struggling in order to avoid that some of them destroy my Crown Fountain putting things over it. In my space, for example, there are temporary exhibitions of sculptures by others. Life in public spaces is very wild, but it is also why I like it. I am not sad in saying this. Because if you are able to survive, you are an hero.
Galleries and museums offer protection to artists: people going to museums go to see art. If they do not understand it they believe it is because of them, they don’t doubt what they see is art.People always do it, on the contrary , in public spaces and I like it. I like taking risks, I like to solve my problems and for this reasons public spaces excite me. Crown Fountain has managed to become a great hybrid piece of art. It mixes architecture, social dimension, technology (we had to invent some technologies) and team work, another thing I really like.
I really like being alone but I love collaboration and I believe people will collaborate in the world of aesthetics in the future. I felt like an orchestra conductor directing some great musicians. If you look at the drawings projects we did in the first place you can see they are exactly identical to the result. This testify the high-quality of the team I worked with, which was very faithful to the idea. It also testify the efforts made by the family of angels who protected me. Here is the key to the success of Crown Fountain. Some planners told me that they think Crown Fountain is the best public space ever built (they don’t talk about sculpture, they talk about public places!). It is a real satisfaction.
Barbara Sansone: How was the experience of Ogijima’s soul?
Jaume Plensa: Magnificent. When I went to the inauguration of the work with Laura, we took the ferry, we arrived on the island and stayed there all day long. And we watched how the work lived. It is a very technical and sophisticated work. It’s as if I had put a diamond on the hand of a person. The hand keeps performing its everyday actions. So you can see ladies inside the building cooking udons, a man leaving his bike, another one cleaning. You can see the ability to embrace and absorb the work! We were really moved by it. Coming back on the ferry we looked like the 2 happiest people in the world. The island is beautiful. It’s one of those places where you could buy a house to go and rest.
It is part of a group of 77 isles which, in the morning mist, seems to float. Only 100/200 inhabitants lives there and they are all lovely people. The village climbs up the hill. On the top there is the temple. A lighthouse is on one side of the island. Suddenly, in spring, everything is covered with flowers, irises, everything becomes yellow. The opportunity to work in a place like this is a great privilege. What you do when you work in a place like that is just completing the landscape, making the last stroke in a framework which is already wonderful. You have to do something that makes what is around even better. Working in a public space is often an excuse: the piece of art is not the work itself but what the piece of art generates around itself.
Barbara Sansone: As it happened even in St. Helens.
Jaume Plensa:The two cases have something in common. For example, both are places which needed to restart their economy: Ogijima because it is one of those communities that are old and do not regenerate (its population is old, there are almost no fishermen, houses are empty); St. Helens as well (a village of miners who unlike Ogijima has a harsh landscape, typical of the northern England). When Margaret Thatcher closed the mines, all the residents became unemployed. It took 20 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 (very active in public spaces) 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. We made a lot of mistakes but with the cooperation of all we finally succeed. The opening ceremony was a big day. More than 2,000 people and the band were in procession. A song entitled Dream, like my work, was written for the event. This is the real life of people. It seems people are not intellectual. I think this really is. This is life.
Public spaces probably attract me a lot because they are true: if someone gives you his hand you feel it. And if somebody gives you his hand it’s because you have returned the pride in his own place, you’ve restored a sense of dignity. Doing a work in Chicago is very easy, because Chicago is a unique city in this sense. It is full of street art: Picasso, Miro, Calder, Chagall, all ancestors of mine. Chicago is the place my grandparents were from. St. Helens is something different.
There I had to invent a space, to create something from a scratch. 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.” The curator of the Liverpool Biennial was deeply moved. Can you see? Art has a wonderful social function.
Barbara Sansone: And did Barcelona ask you to do anything in public spaces?
Jaume Plensa: No, in Spain a few people knows me, but that’s okay [he smiles].
Barbara Sansone: I think that’s very unfair. And in Italy?
Jaume Plensa: The same thing. Italy is similar to Spain. Both these countries are so beautiful and so complicated. They are both suffocated by beauty. It is very difficult for them to face their cultural importance. When I was young I lived in Germany and probably grew up with a different mentality. Then I moved to Brussels and then in Paris, where I taught for a short period (but, as in Chicago, I thought it was better not to keep doing it). We still have a house there, but we do not go there often.
Instead we got back here, we live close to the airport. In Spain I actually a restricted social life. But I like Spain and I feel proud that thanks to Crown Fountain people start thinking that the Mediterranean culture has something to say (for me Crown Fountain is a Mediterranean square). I think we have much to say, but we need to do it avoiding our folklore. And in any case I think that being a foreigner, even at home, is something good.
Barbara Sansone: Can we go down to the lab and see the sculptures you are working at?
Jaume Plensa: Sure, let’s go. We are currently constructing the sculptures that will be in Houston and here you see the “soup of letters” we use to compose them. Here there are some heads made of alabaster: as you see I work with the heart of alabaster but I also leave around the part that is normally discarded, because I like it very much. This is the representation of a 3D model I then physically realised. It was not easy. The first time it took me nine months. Now I’m working at a 3d model 12 meter high (the one you see is only 4), which will be installed in Calgary, Canada. It will also have an opening to enter in the center of the sculpture and there will be a wishing well also.
This is also very classic. Heads are a traditional element in many cultures: Mexico, Cambodia, Far East. Faces even appear on the surface of Mars … and I’d like to know the great artist who made them [he laughs]. Here you can see several models: Dream in St. Helens, the building of Ogijima and the sculpture that I will bring at MIT. It has been realised for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the university. In this case I used the characters of the maths’ alphabet. Now we are beginning to work on a sculpture 8 meters tall for the University of Frankfurt. There will be another opening ceremony in Salzburg next October.
Barbara Sansone: And this is one of the boxes that went to the Nasher Sculpture Center!
Jaume Plensa: Yes! Being invited to this center, which is based in Dallas in a fantastic building designed by Renzo Piano, was an honour. It was the first time an exhibition was dedicated to a living artist. I put eleven of these heads in a row, as at Karnak, in Egypt. I’ve always been fascinated with repetition. I think it’s a very primary act that generates emotion. I told to people during the inauguration that as an exception that day they could touch the statues. The guards had a thrill, but afterwords they touched them like everyone else. Sculpture does not exist if you don’t touch it. Each substance has a different texture, a different temperature.
In a museum of course physical contact with sculpture is not common. I try to keep this classic. Every sculpture has its own language and I do not like when the artist imposes his point of view. Miro used to say ” you should assassinate painting, through painting” . Sculpture has to be transformed from the inside of itself. Now I am telling and explaining a lot of things. During my exhibitions I am not present and able to do the same thing. So, my work has to communicate everything on his own and of course everyone will do his own reading, everyone will give its own interpretation.
Barbara Sansone: How many people work here with you?
Jaume Plensa: Some are on vacation now. Usually six employees work here. They are technical people with a certain artistic sensibility. Everyone knows very well how to do part of the work. Everybody has his own precise role. Sculpture works like this. And sometimes it’s sad because I would like to do everything on my own and I can’t.
Barbara Sansone: But you also draw…
Jaume Plensa: Yes, right now there is an ongoing exhibition of my drawings at the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Three years ago it has been renovated during summer, when there usually are a lot of visitors. Then I was invited to present a selection of my sculptures to be put outside it, because inside the display of sculptures is not allowed. After analyzing the area I decided to propose only one of my work, Nomad. It was very successful. They asked me to leave it where it was, the bastion of Saint-Jaume, but the sculpture was already booked elsewhere and the mayor could not afford to buy it.
But once taken away it left a great void. After six months the mayor called me and told me that everybody wanted it back where it was. So he promised me that if he won the next elections he would find a way to welcome my work back. He could not afford it, but he could at least pay for the manufacture and I accepted his offer with pleasure. The mayor then won the elections and the sculpture was reinstalled, while inside the exhibition of my drawings was inaugurated.
Barbara Sansone: The figures you create are always male figures, while their heads are always female, is it right?
Jaume Plensa: The whole figure is actually a hermaphrodite. The sculptures I made with alabaster and stone are always girls, 9 to 12 years old. Future is feminine as a concept. men can cause movement, but do not keep it. They may cause events, but have no memory. Memory is female. If the husband dies in a family, the family goes on. It’s not the same if the woman dies. I can see it in nature. I have two cats in my garden. The male cat gets the female one pregnant and disappears [he laughs]. Future is feminine as a concept that’s what I think. So the better way to represent it for me is a woman-child at the time of transition. Boys do not go through such a moment, but they live a longer adolescence and suddenly become men. And it is curious that when I mould the heads of these girls and then stretch them vertically they suddenly become more mature, they seem older. I do not know why: maybe their eyes closed, or the absence of colour…
Barbara Sansone: And what about those figurines of letters? They are delicious!
Jaume Plensa: I had never done this before. Lately I feel the need to work with smaller sculptures. And you know that this is really more difficult than working on large sculptures? But it’s true, they are gems. Letters are graphically very nice. They were revised and cleaned up over the generations, until they were reduced to essential signs. Can you imagine a better way to represent a culture than with the alphabet? I do not know, I am like trapped by it [he laughs].
Barbara Sansone: What a beautiful life you have …
Jaume Plensa: Yes, I’m happy [he smiles].
Indeed Jaume really seems very happy. He does exactly what he should do and exactly where he should do it. To end this meeting was not at all easy. This artist has many wonderful interesting anecdotes to tell and tells them in a so funny and poetic way. In his laboratory, where he forges such beauty, the atmosphere is unique. Therefore, returning to the station, Angharad and I felt as if we were in a cloud. We watched the faces of the people of the town wondering if they know what happens every day next to their house. Probably they don’t and they are really missing something.