His work is shown at museums and galleries across the world, but the large-scale sculptures of the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa are perhaps most widely remembered for the way they transform and become inseparably part of the landscapes in parks or city squares that surround them. His giant head casts, whose dimensions and features he manipulates, stretches or otherwise alters, captivate with a mysterious aura of wonder and quiet beauty. Reminiscent of the spiritual awe that can be felt when looking at busts carved by Olmec sculptors in Mexico, or the artists who created the monolithic heads on Easter Island, Plensa’s “portraits” are not easily forgotten. While the ancient sculptors cannot speak about the impulses that guided them, Plensa is willing to talk about his uplifting approach to making art that he hopes brings people together.
Plensa spoke with BLOUINSHOP on the occasion of several sculpture installations on Djurgarden Island in Stockholm, on view until September 23, plus a show with Galleri Andersson/Sandstrom in the same city, opening August 23. The Djurgarden project includes three, 7-meter-high cast-iron portraits of young girls, made especially for this natural haven in the city center, placed facing each other as if in dialogue across a canal. Another female portrait in a white bronze cast sits in the middle of the water. The artist’s “Heart of Rivers” installation, representative of Plensa’s other “family” of work using letters from several alphabets, was also saved for the island show, and consists of seven self-portraits of the artist’s body embracing living cherry trees. The following has been edited for length.
Can you discuss your thoughts about the Djurgarden project?
When Stefan Andersson (from the Galleri Andersson/Sandstrom) invited me to do the installation at Djurgarden, it was extremely exciting, because it was an opportunity to create a dialogue with my work — which has a certain Mediterranean background — with the concept of a Scandinavian park.
In Djurgarden, it seems like you’re really in the countryside, even if you are in the center of town. The scale of the relationship of my work, with these huge trees, and amazing nature — it was like an opera stage embracing my work. It was spectacular. When I work in nature, I try to disappear in it, to create a link or a kind of dialogue, where pieces and nature can seem as one. At the opening you felt like the pieces had always been there, and to me, it’s wonderful when that happens.
Can you tell us about the upcoming show you have in August with the gallery?
The gallery will have another family of my work, which is more based on text, and the alphabet. I think it will be a beautiful balance, because [including the park] people will have the two main streams of my work.
You’ve talked about making mistakes and intuition as key to the creative process. What mistakes have led you to where you are now?
(Laughs) Life is basically all mistakes. It’s the only way you can learn and move ahead. And actually, I guess creation is basically intuition. And it’s beautiful when intuition becomes reality, and you can share that with people.
My work has always been around the subject of people and community. The work exists to interact with individuals, and to make them better. It’s about dreaming that one day society can be better. And one of the strongest aspects of the human being is the mistake, and that’s the beautiful touch defining who a person is. We are a work in progress. And I think creation is very similar.
How would you describe your creative direction now?
We are in a very special, historical moment in our world. Many people are suffering, and it’s a very strange time in politics. My work is always trying to produce a certain situation of beauty that can be like a balm, to calm all these strange aspects. I’m trying to talk about our interior, something that really links all of us. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what your language is, your religion, the color of your skin. Inside we are dreaming very similar things. And my work becomes like a bridge that connects many people, and ways of understanding reality. Art has this tremendous capacity to regenerate ideas, or become a mirror where people can see themselves, and think about what they can do for society. Every time I open a show, I try to think of that mirror.
Do you feel there’s a notion in the Contemporary art world today, that suggests making beautiful art is old-fashioned? Should this be challenged?
I am continuously insisting. Beauty is a link that can draw people together. I think it’s a completely wrong approach to think beauty is old fashioned. Beauty is not just about producing beautiful objects. Beauty is something deeper. I love to work with portraits. When you see somebody, what kind of beauty are you expecting from them? A beautiful face? Where are you looking? Art has a tremendous responsibility to produce and introduce beauty again in people’s everyday lives. Beauty is incredibly politically strong. We must have the courage to insist on it as a concept that can really link people together.
Your portraits share something similar with the ruins of giant prehistoric, monolithic head sculptures. Do you feel that’s a fair comparison?
I’m very pleased about that comparison, because those people and I were, and are probably trying to talk about something similar: which is that the head is the most important part of our body. Everything happens in our head. The brain is probably the wildest part of our body, that is sometimes out of our control. When looking at a person’s face, you can read about the soul. The head has the powers of knowledge, of wisdom, of dreams. When you dream about something, it already exists, because it’s in your ideas.
While working on my project in Chicago, the Crown Fountain [a fountain made of two giant towers facing each other, displaying the faces of Chicago residents spouting water from their mouths like gargoyles, installed in 2004], I’d been filming 1,000 faces of people living in town, and that experience was terrific, because it made me understand the power of one face. But I wanted to go a little bit further, and work with classic materials, such as stone, wood, bronze, etc. … while keeping that concept of portraits.
I always do my portraits, with the eyes closed, and always of a young woman, who is for me, an incredibly strong metaphor about memory and future. Having the eyes closed in a dream state makes it a place where people can ask: What do I hear inside myself? This amazing beauty that I have to communicate with others? Our cultures and education sometimes block us from expressing our feelings and ideas. We are simply repeating the messages that arrive to us, like a certain echo.
I’m probably making a link with these heads you are mentioning. There are plenty through history. The Olmec heads, the Eastern cultures ... I’ve dreamed since I was a child about the faces they said you could see on Mars. For some reason, it was a tradition that was cut at some moment of art history, and I want it to come back with my work.
You feel that representing the head is a broken tradition?
Yes, absolutely. And the Crown Fountain in Chicago has something which is also completely broken as a tradition: the gargoyle. That beautiful idea that faces spit water from their mouths. I reintroduced something that I enjoyed so much when I was a kid: seeing the cathedrals or the fountains with grotesque faces spurting water from their mouths.
Many of those concepts have an amazingly strong spirituality, and I believe we also have to introduce spirituality in art today. I’m mentioning beauty, but spirituality as well. I’m aiming to introduce silence in the public fields, but also in my shows. I think silence is a thing that we are losing, because we are in a very noisy moment in terms of ideas and communication. Silence is a perfect space where people can be alone with themselves, and touch what they have inside, and listen to themselves and their souls talking.
How do you find silence?
It’s a very poetic idea, in the way that it’s hard, because silence is an attitude. It’s not exactly the absence of sound. It’s a place to be. I remember many years ago I was in front of a lake on a very stormy day, and there were very big waves on the lake. And there was a wooden pole in the water, and two birds suddenly stopped on top of this pole in the middle of this crazy storm. And I said wow, that is probably my idea of a sculpture: a place you can always go back to. It’s a space where you can feel comfortable thinking about yourself. A sculptor has this tremendous capacity to create a space, and silence is very similar. It’s that space in which you can grow and dream.
Why are all your head portraits of young women, versus the faceless, more masculine bodies you often create?
I decided only to do young women [for the head sculptures, which are rendered and altered from photographs of a model] … I’ve always thought memory is male, and the future is female. Boys are a beautiful accident, but just an accident. I work a lot with women who are between eight and 14 years old, roughly, and they have a very strange kind of beauty that is in motion. I’m trying to catch a very ephemeral moment in their life, that represents all of us pretty well. My work in portraits tries to merge photography and sculpture. They seem like opposites, because photography catches the instant, the flashing of the light, but sculptures seem to catch eternity, something that is above us, something about the deities. In their mixture of both photography and sculpture, the pieces look like something strange, something unreal. It looks like photoshop in the middle of a landscape, and I love that idea, because it’s hard to place the piece in terms of time. I love that strange position that is a friction between two opposites.
How does the work process typically unfold for you?
A sculptor produces little, if you compare with photography or painters, because sculpture is pretty similar to farming. You must prepare the site. Working in the field of ideas takes so long. There’s a beautiful poem by William Blake that defines your question: in springtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. That’s a perfect definition for a sculptor, in the sense that you cannot go faster than the process.
When I’m working I’m always dreaming about the next piece, and the next piece is always the best piece, and that’s so exciting.
What are you working on now?
In November we have a pretty large exhibition at the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona, and in the museum in Madrid, Palacio de Cristal-Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia the same month. It’s very emotionally exciting for me, because I’ve never done a show in my country.
This interview appears in the July edition of BLOUINSHOP.
Founder Louise Blouin