Jaume Plensa: Talking Continents

Teaching Page

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(ABOVE): Jaume Plensa, Talking Continents, 2013 (installed at MMoCA). Stainless steel, 19 components, dimensions variable. © Jaume Plensa. Photos: David Nevala.
Photo of Jaume Plensa at MMoCA courtesy David Nevala (2017).

This teaching page provides analysis of the installation, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. A PDF of this teaching page and a large image of Talking Continents is available for downloading. Jaume Plensa: Talking Continents is on view from December 2, 2017 through April 15, 2018. 

THE ART

Weightless and substantial; busy and calm; transparent, yet opaque. The nineteen stainless steel sculptures that comprise Talking Continents seem to embody these impossible dualities as they float above the gallery floor. Each form is visibly hollow and consists of an intricate, mesh-like design of die-cut steel letters drawn from eight international alphabets: Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Latin. Rather than form words or sentences, however, the characters merge and curve into an abstract pictorial surface. Light from above filters down through the sculptures to the floor, casting delicate shadows that add an ethereal quality to the hovering shapes. Organic in form and variously sized, their smooth outlines resemble undulating landscapes, voluminous clouds, or softly eroded boulders. 

Human figures emerge from five of the largest forms, representing the “continents” of the installation’s title. These figures—one of Plensa’s recurring motifs—appear to sprout like trees into positions of seated repose. A quiet stillness permeates the installation, as if depicting a moment frozen in time. And yet, this “herd” seems to be on the move; the figures face in one direction, suggesting a synchronous, migratory drift towards a mutually determined destination. One figure rests in a kneeling pose, reminiscent of yogic asana (a firm but relaxed seated position) and the postured units of salah (Muslim prayer). The remaining four figures look similarly meditative, but are drawn inward, their legs tucked up and held close to the chest. A closer look reveals that Plensa has left a void where facial features would be, perhaps symbolizing notions of universal identity, open-mindedness, or tolerance, themes all central to the artist’s creative practice.

Plensa wishes for the viewer to contemplate the global identity that we all share as inhabitants of this earth—as people co-existing within natural and human-made environments across the “talking continents.” In an interview, Plensa spoke about the influence of poetry on his work, citing the English poet and printmaker William Blake who famously wrote, “One thought fills immensity.” Reflecting on this idea, Plensa said, “You don’t need to fill the space with objects, but with energy. All objects, people, and elements moving in space have an aura and energy that just goes on and on, which could completely fill a space.”

THE ARTIST

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa has long been interested in human language and figuration in his work. One of the world’s foremost living sculptors, Plensa is widely known for both his large-scale public artworks, and his intimate and meditative installations that aim to unify individuals through connections of spirituality, the body, and collective memory. Driven by an internal vision of cross-cultural understanding, the artist deploys a range of materials and technologies in his practice, often incorporating text, light, abstraction, sound, and representations of the human body to convey his ideas.

While Talking Continents is an exhibition of work made for galleries and museums, a majority of Jaume Plensa’s work is created to inspire public audiences, such as massive human heads variously composed of concrete, dolomite, and resin, or the LED-powered video portraits of Crown Fountain in Chicago, his first major commission in the United States. His thought-provoking and playful sculptural installations can be found throughout the world at parks, plazas, piers, and other open, public spaces where people can gather.

Born in Barcelona in 1955, Plensa studied at the Llotja School of Art and Design and at the Sant Jordi School of Fine Art. He has been a teacher at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and regularly cooperates with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a guest professor. In Spain, he received the National Prize for Fine Art in 2012 and the prestigious Velázquez Prize for the Arts in 2013.

KEY IDEAS

  • Embracing language as a formal device to express themes of culture, plurality, and communication

  • Use of abstract human figuration to symbolize collective identity or humanity

  • Unconventional or contradictory use of materials to highlight conceptual or visual tensions in a work of art

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. This work of art has many parts. What do you notice first? What else stands out? What materials and shapes do you see, and how would you describe them?

  2. Notice each sculpture and the installation as a whole. What words would you use to describe the overall mood of this work? What emotions does the work inspire in you?

  3. What do you notice about how the artist used scale? What are some effects of scale on you, the observer?

  4. Notice the opposing features of the sculptures, such as their apparent volume and emptiness. What are other contrasting features you notice? How does noting these dualities contribute to your viewing experience?

  5. Plensa is interested in highlighting both our individuality and our shared humanity. What do you think is lost when we only focus on our similarities? On our differences? Why is striking this balance so important?

  6. Plensa has said that language produces culture at the same time that culture produces language. Do you agree? Why? What is the importance of language to culture, and vice versa? Do you know of any communities that identify strongly with their language? If so, why?

  7. Do you think the continents are currently “talking”? Why or why not? What is a recent example of successful communication between distant nations? Ineffective communication? What role did language play in these situations?

RESOURCES

On the Artist

Official website of the artist
Brilliant Ideas video: Jaume Plensa’s Iconic Public Sculptures
TEDx Talk, Jaume Plensa: Art & Form
Lecture Video: Jaume Plensa at the Max Ernst Museum, Bruhl, Germany
Lecture Video: Jaume Plensa at the Toledo Art Museum (Plensa’s comments begin at 18:00)

Art Methods

Tate page on installation art
Irish Museum of Modern Art guide to installation art