Tactile & Sensory Exploration, Jaume Plensa, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

Text by Daniel Potts

Jaume Plensa has had a good year; Echo, his first public art project in New York City was extended for an extra month by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, in the UK, Chichester Cathedral announced Plensa’s winning proposal for the Hussey Memorial Commission, Together, expected to be unveiled in the Cathedral in 2012. All the more reason to take the time to visit Plensa’s open-air exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park which is on show until 22 January 2012.

Jaume Plensa (b.1955) describes his current exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park as the most complete exhibition to date. His work deals with the subject of humanity, using the human body – either stating it explicitly or implying it by its absence – in a figurative way. The setting of Yorkshire Sculpture Park creates a sanctuary for the urban visitor from the harsher realities of a post-industrial milieu, with a tweaked and manicured rusticity, on the rural outskirts of Wakefield. On entering, visitors first encounter Plensa’s La Llarga Nit (Blind) (2010) – an illuminated figure seated atop a tall pole, the hands covering the eyes. One of the ideas behind this large-scale, outdoor exhibit draws on the early Byzantine phenomenon of the Pillar Saints – Christian ascetics who resided on platforms in pursuit of spiritual fulfilment. Another idea drawn on by this work is that of the artist-guardian, interpreting a society’s problems and character and acting as a guiding beacon – literally, in the case of this work. That the eyes of the figure are covered by the hands endows it with a certain sort of anonymity (or rather robs it of identity) which, because it can then be read to be a sort of universal representative of humanity, heightens the sense of spirituality intended in the work. This sense is compounded by the seated pose of the figure, which invokes the idea of meditation. In the daylight, when the figure is not illuminated, the matt finish to the skin – reminiscent of carved stone – further conveys the spiritual with a glimpse at eternity in the sense of permanence.

Near to the entrance of the park, not far from La Llarga Nit (Blind), stands Spiegel (2010). In German, the title means ‘mirror’. The work consists of two large-scale sculptures in the form of two seated figures facing one another. The figures are, again, anonymous and therefore speak of universality: no individual identity is discernible in the physiognomies. The sculptures are hollow, thus allowing the visitor to enter them physically. They are constructed from a highly intricate interlacing of metal letters, taken from eight different alphabets. Thus the idea of human communication is introduced and we realise that the figures facing one another are in dialogue. By walking into the hollow sculptures there is a sense, perhaps, of a bridging of the gap: that the visitor animates a silent, universal dialogue, divesting the figures of their separateness. However, what is most striking is the precision and intricacy of the small-scale construction of the letters translated into the large-scale contours of the figures. In this way, it is possible for the visitor to be moved by gaining the sense that the aggregation of all human communication is a universal dialogue. This method, in which letters are used to form the small-scale structure of the contours of a large-scale anonymous, universal figure is used again in House of Knowledge (2008) and Yorkshire Souls I, II & III (2009). These outdoor sculptures allow the surrounding environment to pierce, play and interact with them. It is most effective when bright sunlight is reflected from the metallic letters, creating moments of dazzling beauty.

The indoor exhibits continue these themes of human communication and universality conveyed through anonymity. In the latter case,Alabaster Heads (2008-2010) is, perhaps, most successful in its execution. Here, we find eleven large-scale heads of young females carved from alabaster, arranged and though not regularly placed, facing in the same direction. The universality, again, comes from anonymity: although they are portraits, they have been robbed of individual, physical identity by being elongated. In being so, the universality is heightened by the sense of spiritual dignity this brings – a bridging of the gap between heaven and earth seems to be imparted by it – and this is further reinforced by the eyes being closed, apparently in meditative contemplation. The size and weight of the heads lends extra charisma to the sense of permanence created in the use of material. It feels like entering a temple when they are first encountered. Plensa makes a clear distinction between male and female characteristics. His belief that male traits have caused many of society’s problems, and that the future ought to have a more female emphasis, makes this serene, contemplative work one of great optimism.

In a documentary about Plensa shown on a loop in the main building at YSP, we find that one of his concerns is the time of his birth – the middle of a century – and how, because of this, he has to bridge the gap between entirely different ranges of discourses of ideas and trends. With this in mind, it is possible read the universal, spirituality of the human body evident in his work as testimony to the influence of the nineteenth century idea of art-as-religion, or kunstreligion; and the use of text in his work as testimony to the influence of Western logocentrism. Perhaps, their marriage, in Plensa’s work is a solution to the problems inherent in both trends. Whatever the case, for the scale of the works and the charisma exuded by them owing to the technical execution, it is possible to engage with them in a very moving, spiritual way.

Jaume Plensa continues at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 22 January 2012.


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Jaume Plensa, Song of Songs III, IV (2004)
Photo: José Luis Gutierrez