The internallationlly-celebrated Jaume Plensa is possibly best known in the Midwest for Crown Fountain (2004), his contribution to Chicago’s Millennium Park and his first major commission in the United States. A highly-ambitious and playful multi-media installation, Crown Fountain features two 50-foot-high glass brick towers facing each other at opposite ends of a shallow pool of water. The LED-powered monoliths function as video screens showing moving-image portraits of 1,000 Chicago residents, each of whom purses his or her lips and spouts a stream of water onto the plaza. Rotating every few minutes, the portraits speak to the diversity of the city. Plensa views his approach to figuration as a way to break through cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers that separate and divide. The artist has stated that his vision for Crown Fountain was to “create a place where people could meet and share dreams. And I probably could not find a better landscape for that to happen than the human body."
In addition to his interest in the human figure, Plensa also finds inspiration in language, and often includes words, or simply letters, in his works of art. For the artist, text is a metaphor for society: individual letters come together to form words, which themselves combine into sentences that express ideas and, by extension, specific cultures. Like generations of artists before him, Plensa’s use of text in his work calls attention to language as a system of symbols that has the power to mediate our understanding of the world. As one of our primary methods for communicating ideas and narratives, text is also inherently complex, with meanings and interpretations differing from context to context and language to language.
Installed in MMoCA’s State Street Gallery, Talking Continents is comprised of objects made entirely from die-cut steel letters derived from nine different languages. Letters from the various alphabets refuse to come together as words, existing instead as abstract forms, as signs and shapes. As such, each element embodies a dissolution of meaning or breakdown in communication. At the same time, the letters comprising the works are also the components needed to reconstruct words and create meaning—the building blocks for cultural understanding. A firm believer that art has the capacity to transform our lives, Plensa has stated that Talking Continents represents the concept of globalism without judgment.
Suspended in the gallery to create a floating archipelago of cloud-like shapes, the stainless-steel elements appear to transcend their own physical weight and volume, conveying lightness, translucence, and fluidity. Metaphorically imagined as islands, countries, or continents, the multi-lingual sculptures speak to the diversity of language and culture, while simultaneously suggesting that global interconnectedness can be a path to tolerance and acceptance.
This notion of universal understanding through communication is reinforced by representations of human figures seated atop five of the largest floating spheres—a poetic vision of the world’s five most populated continents in conversation with each other. Similarly assembled from a steel motif of alphabetic characters, the gathering of figures encourages us to think about the ways in which we are linked together as a collective humanity. Through his installation, Plensa offers us a space to meet, observe, and contemplate while engaging in a dialogue that inspires inward reflection and outward generosity.
Jaume Plensa: Talking Continents will travel to additionalmuseums in the United States before returning to the artist in Spain. A fully-illustrated exhibition catalogue will also accompany the exhibition.
Jaume Plensa’s large-scale works are installed in public spaces and sculpture gardens worldwide, from Chicago’s Millennium Park to Japan’s Ogijima Island. The artist has presented solo exhibitions at institutions around the globe including the Institut Valencia d’Art Moderne, Spain; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas; Musée Picasso, France; Max Ernst Museum, Germany, among many others. Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape, the most compressive exhibition of Plensa’s work in the United States, was jointly organized in 2015 by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Plensa is represented by Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris; and the Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago. The artist was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1955, where he currently lives and works.