Monday, 11 April 2011

Contemplating Jaume Plensa

Normally when I sit down to write up a blog of an event or happening, I like to sit down straight away and relate the experience while the memories are still fresh in my mind.

Due to a hectic four days, I've not been able to this time and, in a way, I'm glad because I've reflected on the Jaume Plensa exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It is also fitting as, in his introduction, Jaume told us "We do not spend enough time in our own space just thinking."

This is demonstrated by a pair of glass brick boxes, just smaller than a telephone booth, that both cut you off from the outside world yet are open and airy. I thought that entering the box would be claustrophobic but far from it. The muffled sounds of the outside world and bright lit space was calming and a place to think, even if its thinking of nothing.

Jaume also said the themes of his work were the self and in the confusion caused by conflicting communication channels that dominate our lives. I personally felt the work was more of the self.

Despite promising to visit for more years than I can remember, this was my first visit to the sculpture park. Jaume Plensa's imposing crouched figures make an impact from the moment you enter the park, with a figure high on a plinth. The figures placed in the park look part of the outstanding scenery across the Valley despite being far from natural.

The silvery bodies view the vistas in calm reflection as if considering themselves and their lives, taking inspiration from their surroundings. Made of letters, these stunning and lifelike sculptures are meant to show how something as simple as a letter turns to a word, sentence, idea and on to being something more like a book.

And this is where my own reflections come in to play. The day after my visited, I was at Twycross Zoo with my family. The zoo specialises in caring for monkeys and I saw how they, like the statues, sat crouched with their arms wrapped around their legs contemplating their surroundings. Monkey's also see a smile as threatening behaviour and they show happiness when relaxed and with a downward turn to the mouth.

Thinking about the pieces in the Yorkshire Scultpure Park, it shows how Jaume Plensa has created something primal and slightly melancholic. But the melancholy isn't something sad, but just a reflective mood that shows a future hope and renewal of spirit.

One of the pieces is made from mesh and have a ghostly quality. You can never quite see them and the they don't impinge on the view but are always there and present. Another sees a series of figures hugging saplings in a quiet area of the gardens.

The exhibition is in two distinct areas. As well as the sculptures in the gardens, there are those in the underground galleries. You move from the brightness of the outside to the dark subterranean world. Had Jaume Plensa not said so, this reserved Englishman would have missed half of the exhibition. The experience is as much about touch and sound as it is about the visual art.

The galleries have a long curtain of verses strung from floor to ceiling separating the outside world from the interior. Running your hand across the letters make them chime, with the tintinnabulations evoking Jaume Plensa's memories of a beaded curtain from his childhood home.

The first gallery has the same crounched figures on the wall in the see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil. The evil here is the stress and anxiety of modern living rather than behaviour. The theme is replicated in the next room with three giant heads looking inwardly at each other.

The third gallery is an experience in itself and photographs do no do it justice. The six foot high elongated heads are lit brightly in a dark room and are so unexpected compared to the other rooms. Similar to the giant head Jaume created near St Helens, these androgynous and beautifully lifelike faces are calm and serene. Although digitally created, they feel ancient and almost living. Their feels to be a presence in the room as if something living inhabits the heads, may be only opening the closed eyes after midnight. A magical set of sculptures.

The final gallery is filled with gongs of varying tones which resound throughout the exhibition space. These red gold gongs are in a circle, filled with the words from the song of songs in the old testament.

The end room shows more detail and information about Jaume Plensa's life and work. It includes a mobile, lit deliberately to make the shadows as much part of the work of art as the figures clinging on to the mobile almost for dear life. This work is constantly changing as the strands of the mobile move round.

Before leaving, I climbed the hill to see the one, major sculpture as tall as a house, looking out across the valley. The work is totally different viewed from the inside than from the outside. With the light fading, it was also fascinating to see how the silver letter sculptures changed from bright silver to red tinged figures to dull grey before being lit up to being almost white beacons shining across the panorama.

My overall impression was this was as good an art exhibition as I remember seeing. This is partly down to the setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having also been to the Compton Verney gallery in Warwickshire a few days after, the vistas of Capability Brown have nothing on the Yorkshire countryside when finding locations for sculptures. No white room in a London gallery could do the sculptures justice either.

The alabaster heads in the third gallery stayed with me, along with the inner contemplation of many of the works and will for a time to come.

The exhibition is on between the 9 April 2011 - 25 September 2011. For more information, visit the YSP website

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