1. Sculpture as a
modulation of ideas.
It has just
been one decade since I have been following Jaume Plensa's creative
itinerary with passion. I don't like empty blabber, nor easy
adulation. But I assure you that over these ten years Plensa's work
has acquired an aesthetic density and weight that makes him one of
the most important international artists of our time.
In a world in which art is so often dissolved into
mere banality, in the following of trends, or, even worse, in a
cynical submission to the dictates of small lobbies, of small "mafias",
Plensa keeps the solitary flame of an artist who is committed to the
internal demands of his work in an exclusive and radical manner.
This is rarely talked about. And even less so in
art catalogues. But in order to reach into Plensas work the
First indispensable step is to be aware of his inner commitment, so
decisive in both art and life, which in his case confronts us with
an experience of authenticity, independence, moral sense,
coherence... With the capacity to say no. To make of sculpture a
form of radical interrogation.
This creative itinerary has grown thinner,
progressively lighter and subtler in its use of material formats.
For instance, Wie ein Hauch (Like a Sigh, 1997), his first
piece with glass bricks, shows what Plensa himself has called "a
miracle, the miracle of artistic findings".1
Findings and first formal modulations can also be found in Prière,
1989, La Neige Rouge, 1991, Wonderland, 1991, or
in the recently Finished Wispern, 1999. Findings. Marks.
Milestones for an itinerary.
Even from his beginnings in the early 80s, marked
by a dialogue with the ancestral, with the totemic features that man
extracts from mother nature in order to form his own image, the sign
of the inframince became apparent. For instance, I think
about Libro de vidrio (Glass Book, 1982), where the formats
transparency carries the material representation of words to the
fluid waters of sleep and memory.
This is the seed that will grow to form a
particular plastic cosmos, the Plensa Galaxy. The zodiac sign of
this galaxy is the poetic word: the spatial
materialization of the word, which thus acquires not only its
temporal essence, embedded in the sequential character of language,
but also its volume and form.
Now, as then, Plensa builds "one of the
quietest and most reserved parts of [his] work, the most difficult
one"2 by means of "the transparency and
nakedness of resin and glass".
The Plensa Galaxy forms an astral continuum in the
expansion of its manifestations: drawings, sculpture, graphic work,
opera sets, public works ... all of them linked by a common
derivation from the poetic. At the same time, it should be noted
that all of his work has maintained a constructive dimension,
poetically stylized: the purity of lines and forms is a constant
feature of his oeuvre.
The use of different formats is not due to the
requirements of the materials them- selves, but rather the opposite,
it arises from the need to reach different modulations for the
idea, which is the true motor of his work, and hence inscribes
its flight over anything that allows it to reach a distinct spatial
Jaume Plensa himself has recent insisted on this
subject: "As a sculptor I basically work in the area of ideas,
not with matter and forms, although each idea obviously demands its
own material and form; however, these are not my main concerns".3
Cast iron, dust and filings, aluminum, neon
lights, but also the fragility and evanescence of water, glass,
polyester resin,. alabaster, nylon ... And light!! Light in a game
of contrasts, of opposing densities, that structures volumes,
interior and exterior spaces. In their diversity, all of these
elements follow the same intention: to modulate ideas.
In the Plensa galaxy "ideas" mean, above
all, questions. Plensa himself has noted how one of his recurrent
obsessions is the idea of sculpture as "the best way to ask
questions" And he has given us a beautiful emblem of this
seminal idea in Firenze II, 1992, where a full question mark
takes the form of a conceptual totem. At the same time, to
question through sculpture is to enter the realm of dreaming, and
this is the reason for the work to have rêve, the
French word for dream, inscribes on it.
The formulation of questions does not have a
conceptual or theoretical origin, it arises spontaneously. The
questions inscribed in a recent series of twelve glass vessels,
placed on iron stands "simply occurred to me automatically"
says Plensa.4 It is an acknowledgment of the role of
chance in the plastic display of his ideas. This can also be noted
in such far-reaching works as Mémoires jumelles, 1992,
where the objects placed at the end of the iron truss rods share an
unmotivated space of remembrance, a fate that joins them at the end
of their spatial placement. A random contingency that also reappears
in the similarly diverse objects that compose the Proverbs of
Hell series, 1995.
In any, case this immediacy of questions and also
of ideas refers us to a certain surrealistic background in Plensa
acting as a full psychic freedom, a sort of transcended poetic
automatism. Another possible echo of this can be found in the glass
constructions, transparent houses of dreams and human desires, whose
First poetic formulation were the glass houses imagined by the
Visual transparency, the desire for communication
with the spectator, is something that has intensified with
the increasingly numerous commissions for public works and theater
sets for La Fura des Baus. According to Plensa, this has
shown him the need for austerity, the necessity of being even more
austere.5 It is also related to an anti-museum
attitude in his work, the concept of the work of art as an idea and
an experience to share with the public, as something open.
In reality the question, the self-questioning, is
present in all of his works: drawings, sculptures, theater sets or
public installations, always built with an open poetic sense that
leaves the spectator with the task of finding his own answer to what
is conceived as a tentative formulation, as a plastic
materialization of one or a few superimposed subjects. As an attempt
it is impossible to fulfill, but what is worthwhile is the
challenge of trying, of reaching the dream.
Hence, for Plensa sculpture is a way of
questioning and attaining calm amidst the persistent agitation of
human dreams. Macbeth, 1606, William Shakespeare's
impressive tragedy, has played a decisive role as a clue to this
At the beginning of the second act, after killing
the king, the murderer tells Lady Macbeth of his distress ("Methought,
I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep"
- the innocent sleep").
This is what Sleep no more, 1988, evokes:
over an iron sheet, where a quote from Macbeth is inscribed, three
rectangular iron blocks are piled up, with three hollow cavities or
spherical molds. It is impossible to continue sleeping. Guilt has
overcome Macbeth. It is the death of "innocent sleep", of
balmy sleep, of the quiet of the night.
The association of Macbeth with Plensas
idea of sculpture was already established by the end of the 80s: "it
is the perfect incarnation of sculpture, this sense of memory that
Macbeth has, this is sculpture. It creates the most perfect poetic
form to understand sculpture"6. And he has recently
referred to it again: "the best definition of sculpture ever
offered: physical relations as a means to discuss abstraction; kill
the king in order to kill sleep"7.
The only solution is to kill the king. Or to give
a plastic form to the idea, the question, the dream. The
confrontation "innocence/guilt" is superimposed on another
one, "sleeping/insomnia". All of it is prepared in
Shakespeare's drama by the way in which Macbeth kills the king:
while he sleeps, having previously put his servants to sleep by
making them drink wine so "that memory, warder of the brain,
shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason a limbeck only."
At this point, poetry and sculpture coincide: they
bring the universality of the idea, abstraction, to a time or to a
space, to a perceptible physical dimension: "Great poetry is
sculpture. (... ) What kills Macbeth is his remorse, his incapacity
to sleep. Sculpture, as I understand it, is always an alliance
between something physical and something abstract, an alliance of
idea and matter. I also find this in the great images of poetry."8
Macbeth, who has soiled human sleep, Will no
longer be able to sleep. The guilt over his crime Prevents
it. But then, and this is the point on which Plensa focuses his
attention, the violent death of a particular individual, the king,
is really a "physical" form of reaching an abstraction.
The end of balmy sleep, the killing of innocent sleep.
2. Islands in time.
The confrontation guilt/innocence expresses two
opposites that underlie a good deal of human actions. In it we find
the flow of passion and feeling that overcomes us and that may lead
us way beyond anything we can imagine.
In Plensa, the red thread of the opposites joins
Shakespeare with another of his creative references: William Blake
(1757- 1827). "l like to represent things by means of their
opposites. Anything else would be journalism."9
This is an echo of Blake's emphatic assertion at the beginning of
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790- 93): "Without
Contraries there is no progression".
This great poet and artist, maverick and
visionary, chose Emmanuel Swedenborgs (1688-1772) esoteric
mysticism as a subject for his ironic parodies, at a time when his
doctrines were very popular, particularly in England.
Blake's idea of the need to join opposites is
echoed in the voice of the devil, who denies the errors of "all
bibles and sacred codes" and asserts that "Man has no Body
distinct from his Soul" and that "Energy is the only life
and is from the Body". It is in this context where
Plensa places his 73 Proverbs of Hell, "collected"
by the poet as he "walked around the tires of hell", and
whose number represents an essential poetical and symbolic reference
for all of Plensas work.
Islas, a 1995 installation, has 73 boxes of light
with the names of artists that live in Plensas interior,
placed on the branches of the trees along the avenue in Santa Cruz
de Tenerife. Islands (2), 1996, reproduces the same idea,
displaying the boxes with names in a lengthwise line along the upper
part of the wall. Isole a Gubbío, 1996, shows the
names inscribes not on boxes, but on 73 pieces of iron and concrete
with a large iron ring, evocative of tombstones, and also of
poetical and conceptual steles.
73 is also the number to be reached by a work in
progress: Wispern, in its second version shown in this
exhibition, which consists of 21 containers from which water drops
slide onto 21 Chinese cymbals. "The waves of the submerged
cymbal are also rocky" wrote the great José Lezama Lima.10
The resonant expansion of water and sound reaches the module of
time, the cipher of age, the bridge of identification.
Talking about Wispern, Plensa has noted: "l
am not as much interested in the use of weight, of proportion and
numbers as in obtaining energy. The water drops produce different
sounds because the Proverbs of Hell that are engraved on the
cymbals have their own specific weight."11 Hence,
the engraving of the word alters the physical properties of the
object and yields the apparition of energy, in this case a sound,
different in each case, just as every proverb has a different
expression. But the root of this distinct energy is strictly bodily,
just as Blake would have it.
A way of operating this expansion of thought in
space is what Plensa discovers in the proverb of Hell on which he
has insisted the most: "One thought fills immensity". For
instance, in number 32 of the series of sculptures Proverbs of
Hell, 1995, something that would imply the "spiritualization
Poetic word expands in space, acquires a form and
with its materialization it also generates sound. In Wisperns
case, the water drops introduce a sequence, a temporal dimension
that transgresses academic limits, a merely spatial conception of
sculpture. The ultimate sense it attempts to explain is the extreme
difficulty of attaining silence in fullness. And it also offers
another sort of identification: the one that is reached between the
"bodies" of the works, the body of the artist and the
bodies of the spectators, and their respective sounds.
Every artist is always present in his works. But
in Jaume Plensas case this personal presence is carried to the
maximum intensity. The first version of Wonderland, 1993,
was made of 38 iron doors with a light bulb placed over them. Doors
that lead nowhere, fixed to the wall, "a black mirror, with
nothing to look at behind", as Plensa said when they were first
shown to the public. But, again, the number has great importance: at
the time Plensa was 38 years old.
The five cabins of Love Sounds, 1998, are
spaces for meditation where one can not only "feel", but
also listen to the electronic reproduction of the internal sounds of
the different parts of the artist's body: heart, hand, liver, thigh,
neck. Obviously what is sought here is an intense process of
identification with the spectator.
The use of the body as a plastic module is a
constant feature of Western artistic tradition. It ranges from the
various "canons" of Greek sculpture, to Le Corbusier's "modulor"
in this century, to the bodily module of Vitruvius and its
inscription in the circle and the square by Leonardo da Vinci. We
are talking about "scale", something that is completely
central, essential, to the aesthetic process of sculpture.
In Plensa this sense of anthropological fixation
of scale, one of the most important elements of continuity in our
plastic tradition, is displaced. Instead of a generic or universal
'module', Plensa himself, his own body, becomes the module, and not
only in the external sense, but through the union of the outside and
the inside, of the public and the intimate.
But then, strictly speaking, we would be talking
about a poetical Module, a crystallization of energy as the
manifestation of a vital force in the work. The artist becomes a
mediator, somebody who offers his body and soul in an open process
This is why authenticity is so decisive as a
characteristic value of this plastic proposal, a proposal that would
be immediately destroyed were it to derive towards any sort of
self-complacency or cynical exhibition. The artists personal
mediation intensifies the poetic components and the ceremonial
intention of the work. The plastic horizon it leads us to is the
meditation and search for purity as essential elements of art.
The artist's strong personal involvement does not
imply any kind of narcissistic stillness. The dynamic sense, the
displacement of energy of which each work is a symbolic deposit,
lead Plensas proposals to an opening towards the other,
especially towards creators, artists and writers, so lonely in their
tasks (hence, islands, in its different versions),
just like any human being in the decisive moments of experience, of
life and death.
As Rimbaud established "l am another" ("je
suis un autre"), self-portrait is the dream or the creative
word of the others; we can only perceive our self this way: "l
made a self-portrait. But it does not represent me. It shows the
names of all the artists that were meaningful to me. I exist through
It is now that we can better understand the deep
identification of Plensa with some great poets, and particularly
with William Blake: "Goethe, Shakespeare, Baudelaire Dante,
T.S. Elliot and above all Blake are among my great travel
companions. A small light amidst great darkness."13
What we can glimpse through these open
identification processes, by means of the flow of the idea and its
materialization in word and plastic works, is the always
unattainable horizon of overcoming solitude. Contingent human beings
in a time of transition, with similar anxieties and threats. This is
what bonds us with Plensa and what links him to artists-islands
and their poets, particularly Blake: "He also grew up in
difficult times and lived -as we do today- two hundred years before
the end of a century. He was also a loner, lacking support from
schools, beliefs or political parties."14 A loner.
Like Plensa. Like you, reader. Like myself.
3. The unattainable
Please touch. Plensas sculptures are
conceived for the public to interact with them: places to go in and
out, lights and sounds that take us to a different environment, and
the gongs: Chaos-Saliva, 1999. Do not hesitate to hit them.
Feel the reverberation of sound. Please touch.
La Neige Rouge, 1991, is a piece that starts so
many things and represents a deep transition. Built in neon and
iron, the image of iron flowing, incandescent, with a fantastic
luminosity (the epidemic red, the twilight of hell, and this
is what light must look like on Mars ... ) and a constant and
hypnotic noise. From this piece onwards Jaume Plensa has given an
increasing importance to light and sound.
It is coherent with the maker's will to transfer
the characteristic dynamics of natural elements to the work of art.
Water, which flows, gives life and regenerates, as in The
Personal Miraculous Fountain, 1993-1994, a marvelous piece which
unites the artist with anonymous workers. Fire, which molds iron or
aluminum and turns them into ductile carriers of the word. Air,
which rusts and pollutes, but also ventilates and purifies. And,
finally, the earth we live on and which lives within us: the
constructive metaphor, the gestation of a world.
In this parallel universe sound and light operate
as intangible marks of our desire: the fullness that escapes us, the
desire that moves us. The two large cast- iron spheres, made in
1991, in which red snow crystallizes into a poetic emblem, marking
two opposite meanings: Désir (desire) and Rêve (dream),
again establishing the plastic and poetic balance that Plensas
All his work flows from this continuous interplay
of contrasts: "l could not live without duality, contradiction,
imperfection. Talk about silence with sounds, about lightness with
weight, about movement with stillness." (Plensa 1994a, 44). It
is a dialectic way of understanding reality that, as has already
been noted, has one of its main theoretical and poetical references
in William Blake's work.
But now I want to return to this subject to
emphasize how, through this indirect method, Plensa seeks an
inversion of the common aesthetic senses which confers upon his work
a great intensity and richness. The use of light and sound should
not be understood in this perspective simply in a "direct"
sense, but rather as signs and vestiges of the impossibility of
attaining a full representation of their opposites: darkness,
silence. The growing importance of weightless and subtle materials
in Plensas work has to do with this aspect: they can be used
as transition areas, as bridges between opposites.
In the two versions of Scare of darkness, 1998,
nylon and light create a snow landscape of strong luminescence,
reinforcing the scare of darkness that lends its title to the piece.
At the same time, the plastic doll is the figure of protection, the
childhood archetype that remains in memory. Despite the cold,
despite the affective and moral "winter", we stay warm,
just as the Elliot verse suggests, the same verse that is used as a
title for a piece made of crystal, iron and neon "bricks",
shown here in its third version. Winter kept us warm, 1999, is
again a game between the inside and the outside, in an
introspective, individual sense.
The second question: the search for silence in its
full depth has turned into a central axis of Plensas latest
proposals. For instance, in Full Contact, 1999, the maze,
sum and synthesis of all questions that come alive in sculpture,
shown for the First time in this exhibition, the panting
sounds of desire and the labyrinthic interrogation awaken the
synesthesic experience of the enigmatic.
Enigma? What kind of enigma? The search of
opposites as a place where energy, the spiritual and vital force, is
born. The contrast of sleep, once again, as stillness, and desire as
agitation. But also the will to allude to the unattainable silence
through sound, through noise.
The enigma is poetic and plastic, but has nothing
to do with esoteric intentions. "I have always awarded a great
importance to silence as the spine of my work. I dont like the
word hermeticism. I would rather talk about a fluid relationship
between time and space, and about the constant energy generated by
the vibrations that are inherent to matter"15.
Silence is alive only in dreams, and the
meditation cabins are at the same time places where whoever enters
is devoured: "l always thought that silence is only a dream.
Our body is heavy and noisy, full of life, finite life. The cabins
are meditation cells. And at the same time there is something
cannibalistic about them
Silence and meditation are the two essential
pillars of wisdom, of the great ritual, religious and philosophical
systems. The important thing is that they are also the touchstones
of the word, its nutritious and primary space. Only the word can
unveil the reverse side of language, its void, where language itself
However, in Plensa, this experience, located
beyond human nature, emerges from the most intimate interiority. The
impossibility of silence is the reverse side of the inescapable
noise of our unrelenting flow of language and of our body, which
insofar as it possesses the force of life, cannot silence the noise
it produces: "The recording of the sound produced by blood in
several points of my body is a clear invitation to the spectator to
share the impossibility of silence with me."17
In a converging sense, although referring
specifically to his "Credo" in "The Future of Music",
John Cage wrote: "Wherever we are, what we mostly hear is
noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we
Find it fascinating."18
We arrive at the end of our journey: the search
for the plastic and poetic representation of the opposites, the
nervous system of Jaume Plensa takes us to the reverse side, to what
internally constitutes reality. Matter is not inert, it is full of
life. Time revolves around itself: we must abandon the pretense of a
linear development and perceive its transitory and fleeting
dimension in the sediment of years and ages. Silence is
Silence is unattainable. Only by conjuring the
innocent sleep, the balmy sleep may we enter its territory. It is
there that we reach: questions, questions, sculpture as a radical
questioning, with the work of Jaume Plensa, the abolition of time,
of causality, of space. Where we have completed the kings
death. The killing of sleep.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Jaume Plensa (1999): "A
Conversation with Jaume Plensa" by Javier Aiguabella in the
Jaume Plensa catalogue; Tamada Projects Corporation, Tokyo.
6, 11, 16. Jaume Plensa (1989): "Conversación
de Gloria Moure con Jaume Plensa", Jaume Plensa catalogue,
Carlos Taché Gallery, Barcelona.
7, 8, 9, 12, 14. Jaume Plensa (1999): "Die
Entfaltung einer Art von kollektivem Gedächtnis" Jaume
Plensa in Gespräch mit Michael Stoeber, in the Jaume
Plensa. Love Sounds catalogue; Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover,
10. José Lezama Lima (1949): La
Fijeza, in Poesía Completa, César López
edition, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1999, pp 113-192
15, 17. Jaume Plensa (1999): "Fragen
an Jaume Plensa', Danièle Perrier in the Wanderer
Nachtlied. Jaume Plensa catalogue; Museum Moderner Kunst, Wien,
18. John Cage (1968): Silence;
Calder and Boyars, London. Republished by Marion Boyars
Publishers, London, 1978.