The artist Jaume Plensa (Barcelona, 1955) wanted to be a doctor as a child because he liked the human body a lot and the coronavirus has reawakened that ‘enormous respect’ for the medical class. It is precisely the human figure that has inspired his work since he triumphed with his cast iron sculptures in the 1980s. Today, his monumental heads that occupy public spaces around the world have made him the most valued Spanish artist internationally. First it was Chicago and later New York, two of the cities that have catapulted his rise to the artistic Olympus.
The pandemic has slowed the art world but the Catalan artist has taken advantage of these months “very fruitful at the creative level and terrible at the personal level” to turn to drawing, another aspect of his work. On the top floor of his workshop, on the outskirts of Barcelona, in Sant Feliu de Llobregat, he drew the delicate paper that stars on the cover of this Sunday’s special issue of ‘XLSemanal’. There he welcomes us while he continues to draw and finish projects.
The conversation with him returns again and again to the coronavirus crisis and his disappointment at “the shameful political battle.” Humbly, through his work, he wants to help generate silence, to “not shout if someone does it” and, therefore, he thinks that it is time to insist on their heads with the sign of silence. One of them, in bronze, almost two meters tall, waits patiently at the entrance of her studio to move to a gallery in Barcelona where she will participate in an exhibition next December. Other marble or stainless steel mesh heads stoically hold the pandemic allowing them to travel to their destination.
– How do you combat the frustration of not being able to travel?
– It has been an interesting lesson at the work level. I live the life of the sculptures in parallel to me, seeing how they begin their own life; almost like a son. I have missed one of the most beautiful moments of my work which is the installation of the pieces. Right now I would give it my all to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and see ‘Utopia’, the sculpture that has just been mounted. He had been sculpting it for two years. Twenty-one 400-ton containers left for the United States.
– I had a year full of works about to open.
– It was an extraordinary year in projects. I suspended the flight I had to go to the installation of the sculpture in front of the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg, I missed another one in Toronto, in Los Angeles; at the Parrish Museum in the Hamptons in New York …. Some exhibitions have been postponed. I had never experienced this impossibility of displacement.
– Drawing has been a lifesaver during this time of impossibilities.
– Yes. Very beautiful drawings have come out. I even did online exhibits with papers made during the pandemic. Drawings that began with faces and became more complicated, blackening with spheres. But I find it difficult to talk about them because we are experiencing very strong things and I still have no distance to analyze them clearly.
– How have online sales been?
– Well, thanks to the fact that I have a name already established. The problem is happening now a young artist. It would be terrible if I complained.
– How do you analyze the moment we are living in?
– It is not only a medical issue, it is also psychological. It is a moment in which above all you cannot think that the enemy is the other. It is a problem that all humanity suffers. Shakespeare, who I like so much, wrote Macbeth at a time of pandemic. This is not new in the world; it is for our generation. I think that people’s height is measured in terms of how they respond to the unknown.
“I think that at this moment we have also lost ourselves in the culture; there are not even debates around it »
– How are we responding?
– Civil society has given an extraordinary response. But I think that in Spain we have been distracted; we have lost the fundamental direction and it should be recovered as quickly as possible. Listening to the debate in Congress yesterday, I couldn’t believe it. I’m even afraid that they will end up hitting each other! At some point the bridge that united us has been lost. I am puzzled.
Politicians, role models
– One ends up wondering what kind of country the next generations will inherit.
– Politicians should be the beacons that guide us, the examples to follow. It is a shame. It is said that when you vote, you correct, but there is a long way to go! I really want, all of them, to do something with my work. Generate silence.
– However, it is rare that politicians in Spain value culture.
– The politician has forgotten the culture. It is the great balm of many things. They are poorly advised. Culture is essential. Please get back to culture! I think that at this moment we have also lost ourselves in the culture; there are not even debates around it.
– Neither are figures that represent them.
– The museum directors are missing, the Minister of Culture I’m not sure if he exists or not; there is a disturbing cultural void, very disturbing.
“The museum directors are missing, the Minister of Culture I’m not sure if he exists or not; there is a disturbing cultural void »
– On the other hand, the reaction that the city of Madrid has had to its sculpture ‘Julia’ in the Plaza de Colón, shows the opposite. That society does appreciate culture. I have heard people say that ‘Julia’ is ‘anti-Covid medicine’.
– How nice! The people of Madrid have adopted Julia as one more icon of the city. They have overturned. People from all walks of life have called me to ask that the sculpture stay longer in Madrid and the Masaveu Foundation has given it another year. I think that sculpture is already part of the landscape of the Plaza de Colón.
“The figure of the patron is needed”
– Are there patrons in Spain, such as the Masaveu Foundation, owners of ‘Julia’?
– The figure of a patron does not exist and it is much needed. In the US it is something natural and here it seems impossible for a patronage law to arrive. The Spanish politician is afraid of the private and is fundamental in the culture.
– You made a donation to the Hospital Clinic de Barcelona. One way to contribute to the pandemic.
– I play Gaudí and Conde Güell at the same time as there is no patron figure. I have made many other donations although of course I need to sell. But now is a time of resistance, rather than profit.
“In the US it is something natural and here it seems impossible for a patronage law to arrive”
– His sculpture project in the Plaza de Colón was born in the time of Ana Botella and was inaugurated with Manuela Carmena. The opposite happened in Barcelona, that when the government of Mayor Xavier Trías, Ada Colau, changed,
– It was a missed opportunity. Culture can be a catalyst for extraordinary energy, and sometimes the politician thinks it is unnecessary. Art has an incredible ability to make a city feel proud.
– That lack of understanding of politicians in Spain with culture, has it caused you to feel more comfortable in other countries where perhaps you have been appreciated more?
– I work where they want me. In my house there are fewer commissions in public spaces and museums are interested in other types of artists.
– Do you feel more loved outside? His gallery owners are in New York and Chicago.
– Much more. And this has happened without living in any of the cities where I have been commissioned to do a work. I’ve been with my New York gallery owner for almost 30 years. In the first three exhibitions I did not sell anything. It has more than merit that he believed in me.
I wish every day was extraordinary. Routine in creative activity, of any kind, destroys people »
– A week ago he opened an exhibition in his gallery in Chicago and, in December, he will do so in Barcelona, his city, and where, paradoxically, he exhibits his work less. But every time it does, it is a resounding success. The last one, at the Macba, two years ago, was the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history.
– Maybe it’s fine like this because otherwise they might get bored of me …
– International recognition came to him in the 80s with his cast iron works that were a boom.
– Yes, no one made cast iron back then. Whenever I seem to be very successful, I disappear and be reborn. It is my character. I get bored and go looking for the next thing. I love Elias Canetti very much, the writer who said: ‘the second encounters are always worse than the first’.
– Hence, he is a nomadic person, always looking for new encounters.
– It is that I believe that the everyday destroys life. I would like every day to be extraordinary. Routine in creative activity, of any kind, destroys people. This has made my life very interesting but also of great peaks and great valleys.
– Wouldn’t you rule out going to live in another country? Germany, for example, where he already lived as a young man.
– The place where I want to live is the place where Laura, my wife, lives. And if she wants to live in Barcelona, I will stay here. I am increasingly obsessed with the fact that the most important thing in life is always invisible. Love is invisible
– His sculptures of heads with closed eyes invite us to introspection, to look inward. Perhaps the pandemic has helped that exercise.
– I think that one of the great failures of today’s society is that they don’t let people be alone. I am not talking about the insulting loneliness of the elderly in the residences. It may seem almost like a grandfather to say that I think it is an essential moment of calm and tranquility. Of an attitude with life. Before criticizing, take a look at yourself. I would like to convey tenderness, introspection.
Sculpture on the Hudson River
– If you had to make a sculpture right now, what would it be like?
– Right now I’m doing a piece in the silent position that will go into the water of the Hudson River, in front of Manhattan. 22 meters high with the gesture of the finger indicating silence. I still have to insist on that position because it seems that now the ‘if you scream, I scream more’ commands, the result of the insult on television. It is disturbing. Nobody reads or plays an instrument.
– Like ‘Julia’ in the Plaza de Colón, most of their heads are the faces of girls who have met by chance.
– I admire the feminine. I wish we had more female politicians and rulers, like in New Zealand. What envy it is! We would really miss the feminine side of reality.
-There is a certain humility in you that draws attention, considering that you are the most represented Spanish artist abroad.
– It seems to me that I have not done anything in my life yet, that I am still trying to make my final sculpture. I’m on the road and you have to always be competitive. Behind come people of 20 years pushing. They will be the ones who will finish defining what this pandemic has meant and will do wonderful things