Interview: Jaume Plensa  | Portrait of Jaume Plensa by his work
August 2022 9 Min Read

Interview: Jaume Plensa

By Josh Sims

Jaume Plensa is a Spanish artist renowned for his sculptural works in a variety of materials – alabaster, stone, glass, and steel but also unconventional ones such as water, light, and sound. He is currently based in Barcelona, and has received numerous national and international awards, including the Velasquez Prize for the Arts in 2013.

His work is known for being delicate and intimate, though he is perhaps most recognised for his large-scale, poetic public works. Plensa’s work seeks to translate “the human condition” into physical materials, often featuring unknown faces and bodies. Some of these installations have been featured in New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Dubai, and Tokyo, among many other major cities. He currently has an exhibition of drawings, ‘In Small Places, Close to Home’, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK.

ACM: Sculpture somehow seems to stand apart from other art media and tends to be sidelined accordingly. Why is this?

JP: It’s an interesting question because it always seems that sculpture is perceived as something that’s coming from the past, not a medium of the future, but my opinion is probably completely the opposite. I’m convinced that sculpture is the only medium through which you can express that which is invisible, that which can’t be touched but which is always about us; something more mystic. It’s like religion in its attempt to embrace those big questions that come up generation after generation. I think sculpture has that capacity because it stands apart from the everyday nature of life. I think that’s why every generation comes back to sculpture.

Plensa’s work uses the physicality of sculpture to his advantage, creating large scale projects that inhabit public spaces.

Your work has varied considerably over the decades. What prompts a change of direction for you?

I think that art is always a consequence of your life and my life has evolved like anyone else’s. I think the human personality is like a diamond in that it has plenty of facets and the work depends on which way the light is touching my surface – the geography of my body – and how it’s reflected in different ways as a result. In some way I’m always trying to talk about the same [topics] but from different directions. Or I’m only ever really working on one piece – my life – but doing so through many different fragments.

You’ve said before that art is about beauty.

I think beauty is one of the main subjects in our world. Of course, we can discuss what beauty means and that may be different for you than for me, but it has this tremendous importance, especially in the sense of introducing it to people’s everyday life. I think everyone has some conception of beauty in the back of their brain and when you’re in front of it, you know it. I don’t know why but you do, and it’s exciting. I think that’s probably why I’m still in the studio every day. I’m looking for the answer.

But is beauty important to all art?

I think it’s the soul of art. Of course something that’s grotesque in a way can still be about beauty. I did this project, the Crown Fountain in Chicago, that shows images of more than 1,000 faces, and some are scrunched up and become grotesque. That’s within the tradition of the baroque, like gargoyles. But it’s still a form of beauty, I think. I remember first seeing gargoyles on the cathedral in Barcelona as a child, these strange animals with funny faces but spouting water, which I think is at the same time [a metaphor for] giving life.

The scale of some of Plensa’s sculptures are truly enormous, ranging from 8 feet to 24 feet.

The scale of some of Plensa’s sculptures are truly enormous, ranging from 8 feet to 24 feet.

Why do you think the idea of beauty in art, like sculpture as a medium, is often regarded as being old-fashioned or romantic, and not in a good way?

There’s this idea [in the art world] that to talk about beauty is anachronistic, that it belongs to the past – an idea I completely disagree with. There’s this idea that if something is poetic it’s also pink and fluffy but that’s not true either – poetry can be hard and strong. It’s precisely that beauty in art, or in poetry, is hard to define that I think guarantees its place in the future [of art]. It’s enigmatic, which I think art should be.

Yet we live in times in which any art show has to have plenty of text explaining what each piece is about. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. When I go into a library you can recognise a book as a book without knowing what it’s about or whether you like it. And perhaps the problem is that sometimes today it’s hard to know whether something is meant to be art or not without the context of a museum or gallery and the text to say it is. I prefer to know myself whether something is art or not, and whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes the explanation kills the open-mindedness of a piece. It kills that enigma. And enigma is so important – it’s for that reason that, as an artist, it’s hard to say why you did a piece or why you did it the way you did.

Do you try to avoid offering explanations to galleries and curators?

I have this exhibition now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with [the park’s director] Clare Lilley. She has written texts for works of mine in the past but they’re a result of many conversations between us, as friends, not as from the perspective of some art professor thinking about who knows what. Over a glass of wine you can discover some amazing things. I’m much more into that than having to explain why, for example, I’ve used iron or glass.

Close up with the wire mesh used to create Plensa’s huge, ghostly faces.
Close up with the wire mesh used to create Plensa’s huge, ghostly faces.

Close up with the wire mesh used to create Plensa’s huge, ghostly faces.

You’ve said that art needs to get back to exploring the human shape. Why is that?

Every morning in front of the mirror I watch my body and then you interact with other people and watch their bodies, or through a conversation on Zoom. Bodies are the things we probably know more than most others – not just one’s own body, but the idea of bodies in general too. We are in large part our bodies. Obviously I could tell you some lies about my soul but it’s hard to tell you some about my body.

I’ve always been fascinated with text [typography] too and the idea that a single letter may just be a shape but put some together and you have words. Put those together and you have culture. You move from the smallest to the greatest, with individual words like the cell of the body. I’ve always loved poetry and how poets use their medium of text. Look at other alphabets and they all describe a [typographic] landscape – Chinese is like fireworks, for example, or Hindi, which is linear and reminds me of a horizon. Mix them up and you get an incredible energy, each alphabet keeping its identity, which seems a positive message in this strange moment in global history.

Do you work on instinct or do you think through a piece in a very controlled process beforehand?

The main material of a sculptor is ideas – they’re what connects the sculptor to those things in life that you cannot touch. The most important things in life are invisible and it can sound like a contradiction to believe that as a sculptor [of such physical objects], but I guess a sculptor ideally has the capacity to keep the insect in their tiny drop of resin, or keep the soul in it all. My studio is my head. I hope one day at the end of my life people will be able to look back on what I’ve done and see a sequence of ideas that, put together, more or less defines my way of being [and] any ideas I may have had.

A large sculpture in Yorkshire Sculpture Park constructed out of a myriad of letters from different world languages.

A large sculpture in Yorkshire Sculpture Park constructed out of a myriad of letters from different world languages.

If I give a lecture I find it hard to select works of mine to use as illustrations, and so the lectures tend to get rather long. It’s like, “Jaume, c’mon, get on with it!” But to me each piece is important in order to understand the next.

One of your heroes is Albert Einstein. Why is that?

In life we have many professors, of course, but I’ve always been fascinated by people whose inquiry is scientific – one step after the other – because I’m a very chaotic person. Einstein was a link [between the two positions]; a very brilliant person. When someone is that brilliant you can understand very easily what he’s saying and expressing – and he’s often helped me to understand what my attitude to reality is.

Elias Canetti was another person who’s been very influential on me. He, too, has a way of expressing one’s own intrusions; William Blake as well. Blake said, “One thought fills immensity,” and that’s incredibly powerful to me. But also Dante, William Carlos Williams, [Charles] Baudelaire [and] T.S. Eliot [are heroes of mine].

I consider myself much more influenced by poets than artists. My childhood house was full of books because my father was a big reader so I was surrounded by text, though not necessarily the text I was interested in. But it was through that that I fell into the world of poetry. Poetry allows you to make the invisible concrete. Music has the same capacity. There’s an anarchic sense of freedom to it that maybe I didn’t find in art school.

“I hope one day at the end of my life people will be able to look back on what I’ve done and see a sequence of ideas that, put together, more or less defines my way of being [and] any ideas I may have had.”

How important is technology to your work?

I think I always try to use the technology that my times offer me. Obviously I’m not using a mouse as a hammer, but I’m using the technology in the right way for me. And I try not to allow the technology to be evident in the pieces I make. Technology is just a tool, a means to bring ideas out. We tend to think of technology as being a product of the 20th or 21st century but of course every period has had its technology. A hammer is technology, or a drill that allows holes to be made in marble and so transformed sculpture.

How does working on the large scale you sometimes work on change the nature of the artwork in question?

Scale is a key issue in sculpture. I work a lot in the public sphere, in the natural context of the environment – you don’t have the context of the gallery or museum to protect the work. But I think that makes the scale even more important. Last October I unveiled a piece [‘Water Soul’] right in front of Manhattan on the Hudson River that’s 22m tall, but in Manhattan that’s not big. I did a piece of a similar size outside Liverpool and it seems OK in its setting high up on a hill, near the motorway. That’s more important than whether the piece is big or small. I think a piece can have a spiritual as well as a physical scale.

You’re not keen on these outdoor works being called ‘public art’ so much as ‘art in public spaces’. What do you think ‘public art’ suggests?

When city councils and critics and the like speak of ‘public art’ to me it sounds like they’re suggesting it’s in some way second league, or not strong intellectually, because ‘public art’ is strongly related [to] the kind of works you find on roundabouts. I prefer ‘art in public spaces’ because when you place a piece in that context you’re kind of opening your heart to everyone who may see it. You have to have a dialogue with the space [and] with the community, and public areas are incredible places to develop art in a more democratic way.

Does ‘art in public spaces’ have to function differently to art placed in a gallery?

Absolutely, because a public space doesn’t belong to anyone and yet belongs to everyone too. Art in that public space is the same. Nobody owns the piece, and we all do. It’s not part of a private collection, which may still be great because that collector wants to share your dreams with you. But art in public spaces requires a completely different approach – it has to relate to society. Think of ancient Egyptian [figurative] art [such as the Sphinx] with, 2,000 years later, the nose gone and the ear broken. Nobody could believe that it was once privately owned – which it was – because it’s so public. Over time it’s become absorbed by the community.

Plensa believes that the idea of public ownership and appreciation over an art piece can change how we see landscapes.

It’s wonderful when people who wouldn’t normally go into an art gallery discover a piece of art in a public space because it often hits them like a shock; it’s so unexpected. They may not have any art knowledge but there is it and it can transform the way they look at the landscape. Suddenly this little touch transforms what you thought you knew already, and that’s incredibly important to me.

Does it bother you that artists are hired to give cities some kind of identity, in the way architects have been, as with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, for example?

I think in some way the building in those instances becomes a piece of sculpture. In the 19th century they would have used a sculpture but now they use a building. I think architecture is just a beautiful body, whereas a sculpture brings soul.

How important is tactility to you? Galleries and museums are typically very determined that nobody touch sculpture, even though it seems to invite it in the way that, say, painting doesn’t.

It’s funny because many years ago I gave this lecture in Des Moines, Iowa, because a collector had bought a piece from me and given it to the city. At the end of my lecture a lady asked me about why I was talking all the time about interacting with my work when beside the piece is a sign saying, “Please do not touch” – and how could I justify that? I asked her to read the sign more carefully, because it says, “Please do not touch, caress.” And that’s what I’d like people to do with my work.

“A public space doesn’t belong to anyone and yet belongs to everyone too. Art in that public space is the same. Nobody owns the piece, and we all do.”

Should cities be prioritising public art more than they do, even in straitened times?

I think politicians should trust more in art and artists, though I know it’s sometimes hard to believe that there can be a return on art, in terms of income, because that takes time to come. But there is also an incredibly important return into society, because I think people have a hunger for beauty where they live. It’s the people who have to decide what reaction to have to a work of art and, you know, the only reaction a lot of people want to feel in front of art is to cry.

Certainly a lot of people were against the making of the Crown Fountain, for example, because some thought it would create car accidents, and others said it was the most horrible art project they’d ever seen and it would be a shame for Chicago. But the day before the opening we decided to remove the fences to do some last-minute corrections and suddenly kids and kids and more kids came to play in the water. And the next day the mayor, the Crown family [and] all the dignitaries in their dark suits stood in the water too. There was a real joy to it.

Seriously, when I go back I check that the fountain is still there because it seemed like such a dream to me. But it’s still there.

Our thanks to Jaume Plensa for giving us a glimpse into his creative process and philosophy.
Photography by India Hobson.