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Putting a Face to Waves III: A Q&A with Sculptor Jaume Plensa

Waves III
The sculpture Waves III by Jaume Plensa was installed on campus in spring 2013 and is a gift of James G. Pepper ’65.

Jaume Plensa, the world's preeminent sculptor working in the public realm, recently visited Davidson's campus to deliver a lecture on his work preceding the opening of the exhibition, "Jaume Plensa: Sculptures and Drawings" on display in the Van Every/Smith Galleries until Dec. 17.

The exhibition consists of works on paper, in bronze and in stainless steel from the past three years, including several works never before shown in the United States, such as Nuage VI, Rui Rui's Dream and Sanna's Dream. Many of the pieces in the exhibition complement Plensa's Waves III, a sculpture installed on Davidson's campus in the spring of 2013.

We talked to Plensa about his approach to different spaces and media, and his reaction to seeing Waves III on campus.

Q: How did you become interested in visual art?
A: I'm not sure why I became interested in art, because I don't have a tradition of it in my family. The big influences for me were actually writers. I was lucky that my father was a big reader, and I had the possibility to read all of his books and became interested in the personality of the poet, the figure of the poet, and the attitude of the poet towards creation. If I have to say which ones were the most key in the beginning, it would be Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth and the moment when he said, "Sleep no more." He's not talking about literal sleep, he's talking about sculpture – to touch a sculpture – because he realized he didn't kill a man, he killed the possibility to sleep. That kind of contradiction has interested me since the beginning. I was not influenced by one image; I was influenced by the possibility to dream about one image.

Q: How would you describe your work?
A: It's complex because if you would take the most exterior part of my work it seems that it's many lines, but in all of my work I'm trying to talk about the same thing, which is the human condition. It's in myself where I'm experiencing these ideas, because everyday when you look at yourself in the mirror you can verify the evolution of your body in parallel with the evolution of your soul, and my work tries to put a lot of emphasis on this message.

For me, the perfect sculpture is a message in a bottle, because you must take a lot of care that the bottle protects that message to reach as far as possible in a huge ocean, but the importance is not the bottle, it's what the bottle contains. It's in some ways a parallel with the body; the size and shape of the body don't matter, what matters is what the body contains. I take that idea in many different directions, such as the vibration of that material. Ideas are one more of our vibrations as we speak and the words fill space and stand frozen in the air; it's a way that we can transform into something physical. But it's also through remodeling human bodies with text and letters – not exactly with normal materials – to try to keep in position the emptiness, because we have to fill up with something other than physical materials.

Q: What role does self-portraiture play in your work?
A: When I say self-portrait, it's a very poetical approach, because in any case where I'm trying to copy or reproduce my face, it's more the concept in which we can dream about our perfect conditions; that means what could be our home, or our relationship with others, or what could protect me from society. In most of my work I'm trying to explore myself in those ideas and in some of them that is more evident.

Jaume Plensa
Students from Professor of Hispanic Studies Kyra Kietrys class receive a tour of the exhibition “Jaume Plensa: Sculptures and Drawings” from the artist himself.

I also like "self-portrait" as a word, because we are living in a period of time when it seems individuality is just disappearing in the middle of the group, and I guess I disagree with that. I think it's very important that you keep strongly your personality, ideas, and opinions, because if you don't have opinions you have nothing to exchange within the group. If you have opinions you have tools to explain yourself and criticize and agree and exchange energy with others.

Now we are at a point in society when it seems our opinions are less and less important in benefit of something we call society, and that's something I don't really understand because a society is composed of individuals like letters in my work. "A" could never be a "B" or "B" could never be a "C," but they work together so well to create complex bodies, and that is a beautiful metaphor about society – to be integrated into a group you must be very individual, and that might seem like a contradiction, but it's not believe me. As strongly as you try to preserve your own opinions, the more you're benefitting the community.

Q: Now that you've seen Waves III installed on campus, how do you think the piece has transformed and how does it complement the space?
A: When I visited the site, I was very impressed by how they installed the piece, because they used it as the heart of campus. The way that it is installed has a strange centrality because all pathways seem to lead there. My piece embraces many ideas that could be very useful in the academic setting, one which is language – the biological approach to language which is the single cell – and that is very interesting not only for people who like art but also physicians and biologists because it's a very general way to approach culture.

The shape of a human being also makes the link very strong, because a college is a group of people trying to learn or a house of knowledge, and my piece is inviting viewers to understand better who we are, where we are going, how are we together, and if we can make a better world. They seem naïve questions, but they are important. The piece in itself asks for that centrality because of the content and the message that it has.

Q: Do you more often receive commissions for specific sites or requests for pieces that you have already completed? How do you approach each situation?
A: Many times I have commissions for a specific site, and it's something special because you have to take into a lot of consideration where the piece will go. It's not just one more of your pieces, it's meant to finish a landscape that has already been started – as if a painter already started a painting, and you're completing the last touch. It's pretty different how I approach the two situations, but in both cases I have to be myself all the time.

Jaume Plensa
Sculptor Jaume Plensa delivered a public lecture about his work in the Lilly Family Gallery on Oct. 23.

When I'm doing an exhibition it's my own work and my own show so I'm taking into less consideration the reaction of people in front of my work because it's me in dialogue with who knows whom. But when I'm working in a public space I have to take into consideration the everyday use of the space, because a public space is not a museum and has completely different rules because you are interfering in the everyday life of people. It's part of a home. It's like installing a piece of sculpture in somebody's house that they didn't ask for.

The most successful or most beautiful thing happens if in the end people embrace your work and it turns everyday life into something much better because you have breathed a new life into the site, a new soul. Or they consider your piece a certain icon that makes them feel proud of the space, because one of my goals is to introduce beauty, which is something hard to explain but that anyone can recognize.

Q: What are the most prominent ways in which your work has evolved?
A: I have to say scale. I remember Anthony Caro, a British sculptor and friend who died recently one day said, "Jaume, there are three main things in sculpture: scale, scale, scale." And I completely agree. When he was saying that he was probably thinking about a different attitude towards scale than mine, because he was thinking about a mathematical scale in terms of size and volume. In my work I'm thinking more about the right proportion between idea and container. The container means it's something where you put things. And many times I'm afraid that both don't have the same scale, same relationship, same proportion. When I'm working, I'm really trying to be sure that the scale of the shapes and the space are in the right correspondence and proportions, but more in terms of content than size.

Q: Because your pieces tend to be created on a large scale, how much do you take logistics into consideration when designing them and how does that affect the original idea?
A: Obviously I have to think about it, but that is not the main problem. Sculpture is always associated with weight, volume, installation, and complications, but I love that complexity because it seems to make it difficult to succeed in not straying far from your original idea.

The biggest challenge is to have the idea, but ideas must be like a way to breathe. They must evolve and exist as you are breathing, because if you force the idea something is wrong, but at the moment you form that idea, it seems that you must do it and you must use materials as a vehicle to bring that idea to reality. That is the moment when everything gets complex, because it means materials, it means technicians, it means logistics, but it's part of the game.

The Crown fountain took me almost four years to resolve the technical aspects, but the idea was clear. We are installing a sculpture in Tokyo next month that took me such a long time to resolve the shape in relation to the materials, because an idea doesn't have size and weight; it's floating anywhere but has to become something that will remain, and I think that's very interesting. But you must concentrate on yourself and not lose the original idea.

Q: The exhibition at Davidson of your work contains both drawings and sculptures. How do you approach two-dimensional and three-dimensional work differently?
A: Every idea needs a specific support. I've been working always with sculptures and drawings in parallel. Many times I need to draw to clarify my idea for a sculpture and what I'm intending to do. It makes both of them a very nice balance in my work. In 3D there's something very strongly related to my body with experience to walk around, touch, and caress. Drawings are more like writing that you are trying to clarify mentally.