Saturday, 9 April 2011

Jaume Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park 6th April 2011

I felt tremendously excited by the opportunity to attend this special bloggers' preview evening at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, showcasing the work of internationally-renowned, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. And I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. YSP looked sublime on a gloriously sunny April day and as the evening progressed and the sun went down, Jaume’s external sculptures really came into their own, polished steel surfaces reflecting the sunset and then white lights inside seated figures mirrored by the glittering lights of a distant town.

The preview began with a chance to hear the artist himself talk modestly about his work in the Underground Gallery, framed by three of his extraordinary illuminated human figures crouched protruding from the walls of the room. Sadly the room’s acoustics were such that I didn’t hear much of what was said other than his concept that as humans we have auras that surround us and fill space and a quotation from Blake, “one thought fills immensity”. The words were immediately resonant as we stood with the three glowing figures looming over our heads carrying on their faces the first of the many words we were to discover.

YSP curator Sarah Coulson then took over and as we walked on from room to room, she attempted to explain more of the ideas that drive the artist, these include a deep love of humanity and a desire to create connections between people, both in a social sense but also between people and his work. It was interesting to approach the work with these explanations in mind. I have to say that I came away with some quite different impressions but that of course is the beauty of good interpretation, it allows you to make up your own mind!

Jaume’s work is mostly concentrated in the Underground Gallery with in addition, one piece hanging from the roof of the YSP Centre corridor and several large sculptures in the surrounding outdoor spaces. What follows here are just my first impressions after a necessarily short look round concentrating mostly on the indoor spaces, but I will definitely be returning for a longer visit very soon.

The four large rooms in the Underground Gallery might have been built to house the four incredibly diverse works on show in them. Jaume’s signature use of a wide range of materials in his sculptures was well-illustrated, demonstrating his words, “the material is never a direction, but only a vehicle.” The first room I have already described, the three hollow glowing plastic figures crouching on opposite walls like evil incubi. Stare at one and disturbingly you catch another out of the corner of your eye hovering in the dark space. Each is portrayed trying to cut themselves off from the world with their white waxy hands covering their ears or eyes or mouth, each an absolute expression of isolated anxiety. I was left wondering what terrible thing they were trying to block out.

In the next room, hollow illuminated plastic is replaced with the heavy timelessness of alabaster in a completely stunning array of giant, elongated Benin/Easter Island-looking heads hacked out of the raw stone. Some are like Michelangelo’s unfinished Captives, still emerging out of their roughly hewn blocks of stone, others are much more complete and float free. For an instant as my eyes adjusted to the gloom they shimmered like an optical illusion, glowing weirdly in their individual bright white spotlights as if they were holographs or projections flickering into life as some unseen switch is tripped. The alabaster is cracked and flawed while each face is polished smooth and the surfaces glitter in the harsh white light as you move around them. I thought the faces were all the same but Sarah explained that they are actually based on the digitally manipulated photographs of a series of girls. Jaume believes that women may be the future of the world and these quiet contemplative heads are displayed like fragments of a future civilization’s art laid out in a museum store, hence the wooden crates they stand on. For me they seemed more like a set from a film, a temple from a lost alien culture, eerie and other-worldly or perhaps powerful objects being readied to be packed away in a vast Raiders of the Lost Ark-type government storage facility.

The following room juxtaposes stone and plastic. Three giant white illuminated children’s heads are placed on a square carpet of tumbled marble rocks which have a floury white texture quite at odds with the smooth white plastic of the heads which face across their stone carpet towards each other but entirely unknowingly since they have their eyes shut. Across their smooth young features are ‘tattooed’ in raised letters words such as Hysteria, Insomnia, Disease and Hunger, all the ills that man is heir to along with all his sins, Desire, Wrath and Ignorance among them. Sarah described Jaume’s work as essentially hopeful, the words used here are from an Oscar Wilde letter describing the experience of prisoners in Reading Gaol in an effort to ameliorate the conditions. I saw no hope however. These children weren’t communicating with each other, they were withdrawn and silent, passively waiting to be scarred and damaged by the things we see written on their faces. Like all humans, they exist side by side but ultimately they will be isolated from each other by their individual experiences.

The silence and sadness of that room was shattered by the next and final room where a dimly-lit circle of brass gongs hangs ready to be brought to ear-shattering life. The noise when people really got going was powerful in the most primitive and visceral way, I managed to record a short clip on my phone although it was so loud it nearly blew out the speakers! Listen!
I was immediately transported to the world of film again, this time to the temples and seductresses of Hollywood epics, like Samson and Delilah or Cecil B DeMille's Cleopatra. The quotes from the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’ cast in clear resin on each gong underlined this feeling with its erotically charged story of the woman who searches for her lover.

In complete contrast to this powerful assault on the senses is the curtain of cut-out steel letters which sways and quietly tinkles along the whole length of the corridor which fronts the Underground Gallery. It is titled ‘Twenty-Nine Palms’ and contains sentences from a selection of the artist’s favourite authors.

Jaume Plensa 'Twenty-Nine Palms' YSP April 2011 from Karen Griffiths on Vimeo.
I liked Sarah’s description of Jaume’s concept of words lined up on the page as if in front of a firing line, which he then frees with a new life of movement, light and sound in his sculptures.

Verses from the ‘Song of Songs’ are also engraved on the steel doors of two glass brick built 'cells' illuminated with soft coloured LED lights which are located in the entrance lobby of the gallery. Step inside and you are completely isolated from the outside world, a soothing gift from the artist perhaps better experienced on your way out after all the visual and aural excitement of the rest of the gallery.

Escaping into the open air, words from many different languages appear on the skins of metal men solemnly kneeling and embracing a collection of trees. Or they form the actual skin of a number of steel sculptures, delicate kneeling forms with no faces, bleeding letters over their stone plinths. Each one like a shining Tower of Babel, chattering silently as the sun went down. As the artist says “I invite you to listen to these noises. I invite you to imagine silence”.

Jaume Plensa continues at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 25 September. Opening times and other details from their website

A big thank you to YSP for the opportunity to view and photograph the work and meet the artist and to Emma for organising it all.

Find a full set of the photos I took at the preview in my Flickr photostream

1 comment:

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