Jaume Plensa created the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park eighteen years ago. As the weather warms up, tourists and Chicago families with delighted, drenched children will again form ad hoc communities around the two large towers. In 2014, Plensa returned to the park to celebrate the work’s tenth anniversary with a temporary installation of several monumental heads nearby; he told me then he had not anticipated how the fountain would double as a place for play or for large gatherings. The site’s towers with their thousand giant illuminated faces, and the waters that roll over and gush out of them, make the pond-like plaza unexpectedly fulfill one of Plensa’s long-held dreams: to create a piece that lets viewer-participants walk on water. Nothing delighted him more when he saw it on that visit. Plensa is now one of the world’s foremost creators of public art. His works—especially his monumental heads—dot the globe from Calgary to Tokyo. Plensa says that it was Crown Fountain that changed the course of his work, both in form and function, and launched him in the direction that has made his public sculptures so coveted.
In early April this year, Plensa returned to town. This time it was for the installation of two related indoor works, dramatically presented in the large vaulted, former industrial space that now houses Gray Chicago. I came to the gallery on a quiet midday, hours before the opening. The yawning space has been dimmed. Taken together, the work, the details of which are slightly obscured by selective spotlighting and some placement below knee level, feels like a theater set awaiting its animation by viewers yet to come. This is a hallmark of Plensa’s work, which sets the imagination going at first glance and keeps it running. Gray has been a stalwart exhibitor of Plensa since at least 1996. In one of these two works, Plensa has filled the walls of the gallery with “Forgotten Dreams,” a collection of twenty-one cast aluminum doors, each inscribed with a section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document created early in the life of the United Nations to enshrine civil and material guarantees for all humankind. Despite its formal function and form, Plensa regards the Declaration as one of the greatest poems of all time but which, sadly, he says, has had not so much as “a single comma” applied universally. With the doors, the artist urges us to rekindle in our hopes and memories the sense of possibility the Declaration once reflected.
The companion work, “Where Are You?” features a collection of heads cast in a dark aluminum alloy which Plensa has partially shrouded in veils of bright white paint. When Plensa created the Crown Fountain, he wanted the eyes of all the photographic subjects that scrolled one by one on the towers’ big screens to land in the same place. That demanded the digital manipulation of the many portraits, and resulted, too, in the distortion of their heads according to proportions that worked for the setting. But those proportions appealed to Plensa more broadly. His subsequent work with heads, whether in concrete, stone, fiberglass resin, wood, wire, or whatever, has stuck fast to these distorting dimensions.
As with nearly all his heads, these are of female subjects between the ages of ten and fourteen. Plensa has returned to these same subjects repeatedly throughout the last two decades. Amidst the abundant praise for his work, some critics have raised queasy objections to his frequent invocation of prepubescent girls, for what now are likely glaringly obvious reasons. Plensa, who entertained a lengthy conversation on the site of the current exhibition, rooted his inspiration in a more spiritual realm. He comes, he says, from a Mediterranean tradition in which girls and women are the carriers of memories, a quality he hopes to imbue in his work. That evocative take, nevertheless, must now exist within the more provocative context—and history—that art featuring young female subjects is, and must be, considered. Plensa’s commitment to work that both strengthens community and encourages viewers to unlock their inner selves, their memories and imaginations seems to take the more fraught turn of thinking into account. Perhaps, even, to allow it equal footing with the quieter and more uplifting reads.
In the space at Gray, the large set of the female heads is set on a bed of luminous white stones. At first glance it looks like a graveyard. That may be seeing it backward. Capped by the paint that descends from the top of the heads, they appear to have emerged from the earth like a tribe of Persephones, bringing a spring-like hope, albeit with Plensa as their digital Zeus and fabricant.
As we talk, we walk around the exhibition. In addition to the garden of smaller aluminum heads close to the floor, it features two much larger heads, one very white limestone-like head cast in rock-encrusted fiberglass and another copy made from Indian blue limestone. They bookend the show, with the white one sunlit at the gallery’s entrance and the dark blue one dimly lit at the very back, in a hidden nook. Our conversation is discursive, ranging over Plensa’s personal art and course as an artist to the state of society to the effects his works have had on the places where they inevitably draw crowds. Wandering around an exhibition lends itself to meandering conversation, but less so to print. Plensa, whose voice is deep and calming, talks enthusiastically about his work and about the good fortune of having his art bring him into community with people all around the world. He has lived, and conversed in local languages, in several countries, in both Europe and South America. His expressive English can display a serpentine, polyglot grammar, but all is clear when taking it in on a walk amid his work. Here is an edited recap of our conversation, liberally reconstructed to be coherent on the page and to be true to what was discussed.
Please tell me about the doors.
I was at the Henry Moore Foundation in the 1990s and for my thirty-eighth birthday I planned to make thirty-eight doors. I was also thinking about the scale of things. And there I started to think about Alice [of “Alice in Wonderland”]. She tries to pass through doors, but has to keep changing the size of her body, because the doors are different sizes. But I was also thinking about doors as the most important part of a house. It probably has to do with the element of thinness [as opposed to a wall]. The important thing is that when you are in front of the door, everything that can happen to you is in your head. You probably don’t need to pass through it, because if you do, everything is gone. The doors here are narrower than usual doors; they are scaled to me.
These twenty-one doors are not the doors from the 1990s?
A few years ago I was invited by the city of Herning, in Denmark, to create an installation for a kind of biennial. And I decided to do this piece with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the doors. I have been using that text a lot over the last twenty years. It, together with the “Song of Songs,” are the two most beautiful poems I know. The reason they are so amazing is that we cannot say who the poets are but they are full of humanity. I did the doors for Herning and installed them at the bus station and at the police station and other important places all around the city. It’s a permanent installation in Herning, but I made two sets of doors. One for the city and one for me. These are the ones I made for me.
The Universal Declaration is one of the most aspirational documents of the twentieth century, but you placed the doors with its text in places that can be seen as threats to those aspirations, such as the police station or [when thinking about the movement of people] in the bus station.
No, I put them in the places that were important to the administration the city has to deal with. I was just using the main places in Herning. It is a very beautiful town with plenty of small corridors connecting different streets. I installed several of the doors in the corridors which are darker and more intimate. Every city has a different personality and Herning has a very human scale. Don’t ask me why I feel that way, it’s my feeling. Your country is much bigger. So many times in Chicago I feel like David in front of Goliath, surrounded by giants. Many times I make much bigger doors, but because Denmark is a more human scale, these are more normal-sized doors.
Here at the Gray Gallery, you’ve placed the cast heads, all with their eyes closed, on the floor between two walls lined with the twenty-one doors. They are surrounded. It feels as if the doors inspire a vision of what might be external to us and the heads coax us to look within, for what’s internal. Can you describe the relationship between your doors and your heads?
You probably agree that symbolically the face is often seen as a door to our soul. It’s said that the face is the portrait of the soul. But if you think about it, the face is the part of your body that you cannot see yourself. It is a gift that you give to others. I’ll give you my face and it is a door that you are knocking on. Inside is the brain. The brain is wide and completely out of our control. [Any] two ideas can meet [in the brain]. Even if we don’t like it, they will meet. This is one of the beauties of life. If you are thinking of something, it can be better than what you do in practice or what you can verify. Everything happens before [you act]. With doors it is the same. You imagine everything on the other side. I think there is incredible parallelism between the two. Many times it is less important to open the door because everything is done in your brain where you put a question, and a question is wonderful. Getting an answer is less important. When you really put up the question, I think it is gorgeous. And a door is a question; a face is a question.
Many of your works are very large and they can change the way we think about human scale. What happens to those questions, which come up in one way at the scale of the installation in Herning or here in the gallery, but perhaps in another when you work at a very large scale?
When you’re working in the public field, the idea of scale is key. I have created many [large] human figures made out of alphabets and letters. This kind of work becomes a kind of poetical shelter where people can enter into and get raised up by the piece. If I were sculpting a hat, it would be different, people could not go into it [the same way]. But [inside of a face] you’re in a kind of dream state. The message is, “Hey guys, close your eyes and try to find the beauties that you are hiding inside yourself.” I think the pieces start a kind of invisible dialogue with the visitors, a kind of silent conversation.
One of your latest large pieces is the giant white head on the New Jersey waterfront that depicts one of your young subjects looking toward New York City and holding a finger to her lips as if to ask for quiet. Is that tied to the silent conversation you hope for? And, like a lot of your work, water is part of it or nearby. Are we in conversation with that, too?
People said to me “Jaume, you’re asking Manhattan to keep silent.” No, no, no, no. Manhattan is fine. I am just trying to keep people silent in front of the water. Today, water is key and is so important. Listening to the sound of water again is a key to nature. We forget that between Manhattan and us, or between us and all modernity, is water, which is nature and our roots. I’ve been defending water as probably the most important public space in the world. It doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to all of us. The water that moves in front of us today, moves in front of New York tomorrow and in front of Shanghai and Barcelona in the tomorrows after that. I often try to install my works at the waterfront.
Your work itself is like water. It both travels the world and people travel to it. Because I am from Chicago and have known your work, when I travel and encounter another one of your pieces, it feels like meeting a friend. When I was in Calgary recently, I saw the beautiful head called “Wonderland” that you made for the downtown plaza outside the huge office tower called the Bow. Because your piece is made from a steel armature, it was fun to see how people move in and out of the work. It seems to be a great example of the kind of piece you hope creates community.
You know the Crown Fountain was a dream for me. I cannot float, I cannot swim, but there it’s possible to walk on water. Another dream of mine was to let people really walk inside of a head. In Calgary, I decided to open two little doors so that you can really walk inside. From there you see the landscape of the city and its skyline. That’s wonderful. I think it’s really a great piece. I’m very proud of it.
Often your pieces are made of these classic materials—or what look like classic materials, such as stone and metal. And that work seems so much about the materials. But in the more see-through pieces, like the big head in Calgary, the material, so to speak, changes with the angle. From one side it fills with the big beams of the Norman Foster-designed highrise, and from another angle the material is the sky.
I remember when I was just starting working on that project. I went to London several times [where Foster has his office]. The architects told me, “Jaume, be careful with your piece. Our beams are huge. The building is huge.” I told them not to worry about the relationship of scale of my piece. The scale isn’t meant to be with the building, it is with the people. They were completely astonished with the piece because it was not related to the building. But for the people, it was a poetical shelter to protect them from these giants. The building is so huge, that it is only a screen behind the piece and there’s nothing else. And the relationship between people and the piece is a dialogue. And people love it. I believe art has a lot to say about public space. Art is a fantastic subject for dialogue with architecture. Cities are also about the communities that use them, and they are not just about the buildings, but about people. People are the main thing.
Sometimes critics are hard on public art, saying that there are so many pressures on it, that it’s funded by governments, approved by committees and so on. And that as a result it ends up being free of much content and mediocre. But you have found a way to make public art have more meaning because of its public quality. You’ve traveled the world and seen a lot of public art. Can you reflect on that?
Yes, unfortunately a lot of public art isn’t so good. Even just saying it’s public is often to say it isn’t so good. It seems second-rate in some ways. They are using roundabouts, or corners or places in cities just to introduce not-so-good art. I’ve said many times that my art is a message in a bottle. Of course, the bottle should be perfect and attractive. But wherever the bottle arrives, people should be interested enough to take it. And out in public spaces, you drop a bottle into a big portion of humanity. I love it because in the public space, you don’t have a context that protects you. We are here [in the Gray Gallery], and we can more or less agree that the things in front of us are art. But that’s not true in a public space. The piece has to survive by itself, the piece should create the spirit of art, and should pass that beauty to the community. And for me that’s very exciting. Mediocre public art makes me feel very sad because it is a tremendous place to develop fantastic kinds of art. This is one of the most democratic ways to introduce beauty into the everyday lives of people—using public spaces.
Jaume Plensa’s “Forgotten Dreams” is at GRAY Chicago, 2044 West Carroll, through June 23.