Jaume Plensa is the Master of Outdoor Art

Kyle Johnson,

Jaume Plensa is one of the world’s most notable sculpture artists and his oeuvre has found homes across the globe. The Barcelona-born artist is behind more than 30 projects worldwide, being featured in cities like Chicago, Vancouver and London. An affiliate of the people and purveyor of thought, he connects the public through art and drives a narrative that evokes emotion and is expressive of the lasting, yet fragile, human condition.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.

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Born in Barcelona, you attended the Llotja School of Art and Design and the Sant Jordi School of Fine Arts. What is the most important thing you learned from the experience?

Well, actually, I guess the most important part when you are attending school is the friends that you meet. The friends that I have today are the people that I met while attending school. I guess that makes it a fantastic experience.

In 1980, you had your first exhibition in Barcelona. Tell us about how it came about.

It’s always exciting to do your first show. I remember one friend, an artist that I admired, who said, “Your first show is always the easiest one.” The most complicated is the second because you already have a reference of the first. The first show was exciting, but it was also a dream to do the second. I remember the second one was much more difficult. And, as you probably know, for an artist the best piece is the piece you have not done yet. With the next one you are trying to correct on things that you have done and you are always improving. And I love that.

Since starting your career, you’ve received numerous national and international awards, including the “Medaille de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres,” awarded by the French Ministry of Culture, in 1993, “Catalonia’s National Prize for Fine Art” in 1997 and, in 2005, you were given a Doctor Honoris Causa by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, you’ve also been the recipient of the “National Prize for Fine Art” in Spain in 2012 and the prestigious “Velázquez Prize for the Arts” in 2013. What’s the most coveted prize you’ve won and why?

Every time you get an award or prize, it is wonderful! As far as sculpture, it is not only for me, but it is also for the sculpture.
Sculpture is always something that you fight for and defend. The most moving award, though, was receiving the honorary degree form the Art Institute of Chicago because it was a project I did while working with many professors and students of the school. It was a terrific collaboration. It was for a piece that has had a very strong impact on the city. But, also, it was a concept about the importance of an art school. Sometimes, students or professors are talking about a potential project, but they are never really working on the real thing. And when I asked them to join in and collaborate with the project, it was fantastic.

When developing ideas to start a new project, briefly describe your creative process.

Actually, you know, with my work I am trying to balance the work in my private world in the studio and those works that entail the incorporation of the public space. I have a wall with my ideas and my dreams. And I am often working in parallel with the public space. It’s such a different attitude. When you are doing an exhibition in a gallery or a museum, or when you are working in the public space, when people are enjoying your work, then suddenly it’s not the people that ask about it, but one day they suddenly find it in their home, it’s amazing. I guess the relationship with people, no matter the context, is very exciting. I mean, the work should survive by itself. Sharing your dreams with the community is very important.


Awilda & Irma, Jaume Plensa, 2014.

Through using the ideas of juxtaposing dualities in your work (inside/ outside, front/back, light/dark), you seem to connect with your viewers on an intuitive level. What are you trying to say through your work?

It’s true that I am working a lot within this concept of dualities. Everyday, we are in front of a mirror and we are looking at our face which seems to be talking to us in a silent conversation. Everyday, eve ryday, everyday. It’s probably a beautiful metaphor about life. Meaning, in that case, a community: your family, your kid, your friends, your lovers. But when we are alone, it’s also a duality describing a strange relationship between body and soul. You could try to understand what one could mean by body, or what one could mean by soul, but it’s an amazing story. This strange message inside the bottle inside everybody is fantastic. My work has always been about trying to talk about that. This kind of duality that describes the hidden, inner beauty within ourselves. That is probably the reason I am working so much. For example, I remember these portraits of a young woman with her eyes closed appearing in a dream state that represents so much hidden beauty within her and ultimately within ourselves. And, obviously, I believe in a lot of that. Given that, I guess sculpture has a tremendous capacity to pass along information. It’s that little window to the message inside the bottle. You never know who is reading that message in there.

In 2004, you created a feature piece at Chicago’s Millennium Park entitled Crown Fountain. Tell us about your inspiration for the piece.

Well, it was a terrific opportunity for me to talk about different levels. For example, the possibility of people to really walk on the water and enjoy the sense of humility and be a part of it. Through the piece, I introduce an element of how the people walk through the streets of Europe or the cathedrals surrounded by gargoyles spitting water from their mouths or these beautiful fountains. I tried to incorporate that into the project taking the real people living in one city… the people that make up the character of one town. In filming all of the 1,000 faces of the people living in Chicago, I tried to use that metaphor where they are like the gargoyles squirting water from their mouths. People are allowed to walk on this reflecting pool in the very same way. It was a terrific experience. When they started walking on the water, you saw the smile on their faces. It was like they had been waiting all of their lives to do it. It was really a place to be.

On Feb. 15th, 2011, a group of seven 10-foot high statues called Tolerance were unveiled at Harmony Walk in Houston as part of the City’s initiative to promote Houston’s diversity. What does this project mean to you? What was the inspiration behind it?

Well, it was a very exciting project. I entitled it Tolerance because we are all individuals, but we are all part of a community. A community is composed by who? Which religion, which culture, which skin color? It doesn’t matter. It is people.
And I did a group of figures made out of different alphabets from different culture from all over the world. An alphabet is a beautiful portrait of a culture. For centuries and centuries we have been trying to perfect the way write down the position of our voice. Which voice? You know, every culture has a way to express that sense of communication. In that, I think the sculptures are really beautiful. I wanted them to feel and look as if they were positioned kneeling on the tops of boulders that I found in the mountains because I like that duality you mentioned before: in something meant, which is our human life, and something found, which is nature. I guess the cooperation between our sense of community, our dreams, or our technology, should always be based upon nature.

One of the largest exhibitions of your works in the United States was entitled Human Landscape, where the 2016 show started in Nashville and travelled to The Tampa Museum of Art and even the Toledo Museum of Art. Give us three of your favorite pieces from the show.

Yes, of course. One of the key sculptures which is entitled Heart of Trees was a group of seven sitting figures embracing trees. And, while the trees continued growing my bronzed cast body is fixed to one side. It is very moving because it is my self portrait embracing the trees. It is like in Tolerance, where we combine our world with technology and nature. In addition, there’s also a very beautiful portrait in iron cast of a young woman I called Paula, which is now installed permanently in the Toledo Museum.
It’s seven meters tall and it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. I also did another portrait of a Chinese woman living in Vancouver, Canada, which was created in mesh. It is installed inside the museum. What is interesting is that the piece is not opaque, you can see through it. While people are walking around it, they can see the head of someone else. It was a terrific experience.

Sho, Jaume Plensa, 2007.

Many of your creations examine the intricate nature surrounding the human condition. For you, as an artist, tell us how this concept influences your work.

Well, you mentioned the title of the show in your last question, and it is Human Landscape. It is the idea that our body, and our self, are like islands with a very precise geography. We have borders, we have valleys, we have oceans, we have boundaries. Our body is like geography in motion. It is always moving. And I guess that is a very beautiful metaphor about nature. The nature in which we grow and live our life.
I think many times we forget that. And that is why sometimes we don’t take care of it. Because we are so near to it, we just forget. In any case, my work as a sculpture artist is about trying to embrace this concept that materials have a memory, as nature has a memory. When you are working with different materials, all of them have a tremendous memory as well. And with that, beautiful pieces of art are born.

Connecting with your viewer’s through a tangible, three-dimensional medium, your constantly evoking emotion and stimulating intellectual engagement. What’s your favorite part of being a sculpture artist?

Well, it is a very interesting question. When you are working as a sculpture artist, you have an unbelievable capacity to describe the life of everyday. That’s my opinion, obviously. I think it’s a tremendous way to explore the idea of abstraction. In the past, you know, people were trying to relate to this concept of divinities. This amazing capacity to incorporate all of this energy into one piece is fantastic. Much like in poetry. With a single word, you can say so much. It’s an amazing bridge to connect with. It says something about us. We have an intuition that exists. Something else exists with sculpture, too, and that’s the permanent relationship it has with our bodies. Being born in the Mediterranean area, I believe the background of my culture can be represented in the saying, “My eyes are in the back of my fingers.” I need to caress the materials… the forms, the shapes. And sculptures allow me to really do that because, sometimes, the eyes are not the best way to see.

White Twins, Jaume Plensa, 2004.

You’ve exhibited at several wonderful places across the globe working and living in Berlin, Brussels, England, France and the United States and Barcelona. What’s your favorite art city and what’s your favorite thing about getting to go to all of these exciting places?

For me, it’s impossible to separate cities and countries from the people I have met there. And every time I am thinking about Tokyo, I am thinking about my friends there. I love Tokyo very much. I’ve spent a lot of time in the States as well and it is a country that has an amazing capacity for welcoming people. I felt I was at home there, in Chicago especially. I feel very comfortable in Barcelona, too, because I love to see the Mediterranean Sea. But, you know, it is almost impossible to be everywhere. It would be nice to have coffee in Berlin with my friends and then to have dinner in Tokyo and breakfast in New York and then back to Barcelona. That, I know, is impossible, but I love this dream.

From 1996 to 2008, you collaborated on many projects for both theatre and opera, especially with the company La Fura dels Baus, working on the concept and designing sets and costumes. Tell us how this experience of creating for a live performance differs from that of your work as a sculpture artist. How are they similar?

Working with theatre and opera was, for me, an opportunity to really work in and with a space where things happen. I guess sculpture provided me with a tremendous capacity for me to think about that. In a way that you are not moving, but you can create a site where everything happens. Again, it is this thing about the body. Creating in this medium allows me to think about it and build upon its skeleton while thinking about the masses of people that surrounding it.
I think of the aesthetics that you can create within a stage: the costumes, the dancers, the singers… it is fantastic.
I mean, we created some beautiful projects. But, one day, I decided to stop and focus more intensely on sculpture. You see, work in the theatre takes so much energy, but I am dreaming to go back again.

A defender of the graphic arts, you received the “National Graphic Arts Award” in 2013 granted by the Calcografía Nacional in Madrid. Give us the name of one of your favorite graphic artists or styles and tell us how graphic arts influences your work.

Since I was a child I’ve loved Goya and Rembrandt in graphics. I guess they were probably the most extraordinary print makers in the way they made etchings and things like that. Recently, I don’t know, though. But I had the chance to visit a show of Rembrandt and, believe me, you could cry with those etchings. It was incredible. It was extraordinary. I guess the best part about it was that I bought two prints by Goya.

Bluebeard’s castle, Jaume Plensa, 2007. Photograph : Béla Bartók.

Over the last few months, you’re preparing for two exhibitions in the fall of this year. One at the Palacio de Cristal-Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the other at the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona. Can you tell us anything about them?

Well, yes. I had never done a large exhibition in my country before and you can imagine that it is very exciting thing.
The shows, both at the same time, one starting at the beginning of November and the other in the middle, are both this year. One in Barcelona and one in Madrid. It was crazy for me in preparing for the show, but it’s incredibly exciting. In Barcelona, the show looks back more upon my work, it’s a bit of a retrospective.

This issue we are focusing on the concept of “Looking Forward.” In three words, how would you sum up the future?

Ooof. If I knew the future, I would probably cease to work. I guess there was a beautiful sentence about Einstein about that idea that said, “Why do you think about the future, it’s coming so soon.” It’s gorgeous.

*And, before we go, may I add something? I think we are at a special moment in the world where we are confused with ideas about the world and where we have to go as a community altogether. And I guess Art had a tremendous way of helping people create a new sense of understanding that. And I would just like to invite the politicians to think a bit more about that because I believe Art has a fantastic way of opening doors and putting people in touch. Thank you!

As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has
developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of
businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab
A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his
clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and
cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand
strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient
of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom,
Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards
competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful,
quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design
advice to his peers.

the writer

Kyle Johnson

As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.

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