By Rachel Reese, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Internationally-celebrated artist Jaume Plensa is known for his poetic approach to sculpture. Recently opened in Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center, Jaume Plensa: Talking Continents is a meditative installation that embodies the Spanish artist’s approach and philosophy.
Plensa identifies as a 21st-century conceptual artist who relies heavily on personal intuition. Working “conceptually” means that he adapts to and is technically proficient in working with a variety of materials and processes (stainless steel, alabaster stone, graphite, 3-D photography and computer software programs) in order to realize his ideas in material form–ideas like examining the complexities of the human condition, the physical manifestation of spiritual energy, the importance of silence and inward reflection in our busy global society, and creating public spaces for dialogue and contemplation.
“Techniques are never a direction, but rather a vehicle,” Plensa says. “Ideas instead can be contemporary or classical while techniques can only accompany them.”
Talking Continents, made by the artist in 2013, appears to transcend its own physical weight and volume, and instead conveys lightness, translucence, and fluidity. The floating collection of 19 cloud-like, stainless steel sculptures collectively considered one work of art is made up of die-cut letters derived from eight different alphabets–Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Latin–that are cut from stainless steel and then welded together by bending and following the shape of a cast human form to create a resulting skin of poetry.
How does heavily-technical work visually convey these concepts of poetry, empathy, and even shared humanity? And importantly, what kind of technical, material support–in terms of assistants, fabricators, and museum preparators–does Plensa need in order to achieve his artistic visions and concepts? Talking Continents is a body of work that has been shown in multiple venues, and, due to its suspended nature, each installation requires a negotiation with the specific gallery architecture. Telfair’s Jepson Center was no exception. Our exhibition team worked on installation plans for this exhibition for over a year, which involved everything from decisions over the smallest bits of hardware to larger structural discussions about the weight limits of our sloped ceilings.
Talking Continents is a traveling exhibition (organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Wisconsin), which means that components of the installation and exhibition are provided to us for the work’s “tour” by the organizing museum. An important traveling component was the installation floor template (sort of a sculptural “cartoon”-like guide), that provided the layout and orientation of the individual forms as they were to be arranged in space. Once the works were uncrated, their conditions checked and recorded by our registrar, they were transferred to the floor template for placement. From there, they were delicately hoisted by our team of museum preparators and assistants, one by one, in order to maintain correct orientation and balance of the work utilizing the angled cabling system that is suspended and anchored to a newly-created ceiling frame. The process of raising the 19 forms took about three days, which included lighting them as well.
The lighting is specific to each individual form so that elements are highlighted and heightened, but also importantly to create projected shadows onto the gallery floor. This play with shadows is both a literal way to mirror the work from the air onto the floor and conceptually an opportunity to speak about Plensa’s interest in water and reflections, water as “a metaphor of human life … our natural state.”
The result is a deeply poetic and immersive installation that speaks to Plensa’s sensitivity to medium and how his use of materials evolves to inform his ongoing search for a universal depiction of a reflective inner world. Talking Continents transcends its material technicality in order to emote introspection–an opportunity to consider your individual identity in relationship to the global human condition; to engage in a dialogue about shared commonalities, as opposed to focusing on differences; and to consider the mingling of these eight alphabets which span across place and time to serve as an eloquent metaphor for cross-cultural dialogue.
On an artistic journey to give physical shape to the ephemeral and intangible, “there is a huge landscape inside ourselves,” Plensa says.