Jaume Plensa. CHAOS-SALIVA, Exhibition's catalogue. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Palacio de Velázquez, Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid. February 3 - April 30, 2000. Pp. 234-237.


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 Plensa’s 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 format’s 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 form.

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 surrealists.

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 idea.

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 Plensa’s 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 Swedenborg’s (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 Plensa’s work.

Islas, a 1995 installation, has 73 boxes of light with the names of artists that live in Plensa’s 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 of matter".

Poetic word expands in space, acquires a form and with its materialization it also generates sound. In Wispern’s 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 Plensa’s 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 of communication.

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 Plensa’s 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 them." 12

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 silence.

Please touch. Plensa’s 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 Plensa’s pieces demand.

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 Plensa’s 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 Plensa’s 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 don’t 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…"16

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 originates.

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 unattainable.

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 king’s 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, pp. 57-60.

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, pp 39-46.

18. John Cage (1968): Silence; Calder and Boyars, London. Republished by Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 1978.


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