Interview: Sculptor Jaume Plensa

The figurative innovator on inspiration, process, the speed of the industry and his collaboration with Ruinart champagne

Among the roster of international contemporary artists frequently positioning their art in public (and outdoor) settings, few bend the mind as much as Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. If his name isn’t immediately familiar, his work most certainly will be—from Chicago’s Crown Fountain to a pop-up installation in NYC’s Madison Square Park, his placement everywhere from a “Mission Impossible” film and hotel lobbies around the world. For decades Plensa has toyed with the concepts of figurative sculpture—warping scale and proportion, or building hollow vessels from curling metal. For the unveiling of Plensa’s latest piece, a commission from champagne house Ruinart, we traveled to Paris to speak with the artist about his unique vision and process, as well as the state of the art world today.

Plensa’s work has varied substantially over the last few decades, but his figurative sculptures make up a fair amount of his output. “In the beginning of my career,” he explains to CH, “I had been working with figures and the human body mainly, and then suddenly I stopped. I spent almost 10 years without a human body in my work. I was working more with the absence of the figure—working with cells, with doors, with handles that were the size of hands or the body. I came back to the body because it is the most general canvas where I could do my art. I feel that we have to get back the human shape, in the art world, again.” For the Crown Fountain, Plensa filmed 1000 faces, which he then elongated and stretched to the proportion that he desired. This has factored into his work since.

We all swim in a black pool and never know when our head will lift out of the water—you have to follow your instincts

The nuance to the artworks comes through exploration as opposed to advanced planning. “I have an intuition,” he explains. “I work a lot by intuition. I think intuition is so important. Einstein, a great thinker, said intuition was more important than knowledge. I agree. We all swim in a black pool and never know when our head will lift out of the water—you have to follow your instincts.” That said, there is a loose form in mind, as he explains, “It is true that normally a piece is born with a shape and an idea. But sometimes this is moving and moving and moving and you must follow it.”

The same could be said for scale. Most know the sculptor for his larger works, but has numerous smaller pieces, that offer a curious intimacy with his art. “Scale is key in sculpture,” he says. As for his more massive pieces, he explains, “I work a lot in the public fields with public commissions. I love my work to be in a relationship with communities and cities and areas where people meet.”

When working on commissions, he often takes placement of the piece into account—and the audience. “Many times when I am working on a public commission or working in the public space, the piece is just an excuse I am using to take the people to view the area in a different way. It is not my work that’s only beautiful. Thanks to the work, the elements surrounding the piece become more beautiful. That is the direction.” He continues, “The public space is not a museum. It is something with specific rules, with the community living within but sometimes lacking a final touch. That last touch is where the artist blows some soul into the space. It seems a contradiction that I am working in the public space but trying to pass an intimate message—but silence can be a result of the work.”

The piece unveiled in Paris was many years in the making—and the result of the champagne brand’s outreach. From 30 art fair sponsorships a year to over 100 years’ worth of art commissions, Ruinart has long been active in the art world. “They came to me two years ago when I was showing at the Venice biennial,” Plensa says. “They came to visit me at my installation and invited me to do a collaboration. I love champagne and I love wine. I knew Ruinart as a fantastic company for champagne, but I never thought there was a way we could do a collaboration as we are so different. I began to think. Champagne is based on tradition. Art is based on tradition, even if it is the most avant-garde you have the roots somewhere.” He further considered the idea of regional specificity and even the greater message of humanity.

While the sculpture may allude to the character of Dom Thierry Ruinart, Plensa says it is not an illustration or a portrait. The essence of the steel sculpture, however, is that it has been pieced together out of eight different alphabets. “I used the alphabet portion of my work because it represents my wishes around society—much like with champagne—where you create a bridge with someone else. I could not use all alphabets around the world but I like these eight alphabets because they represent in general, the world for me—though obviously I could add so many more.” Plensa employs laser-cut letters from Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hindi and Latin. The allure, he explains, is that “I always thought an alphabet is the most precise portrait of one culture. For years and years and centuries and centuries, they are corrected and corrected until the picture is exactly representing the behaviors and spirit and traditions and backgrounds of a culture.”

For this piece, and all his alphabet figurative works, his process is refined. “I cut by laser the shape of the alphabet. Then I make a model, sometimes with wood or fiberglass, then I bend and wrap the alphabet around—making a new skin like a tailor making a new suit. When it is completely done, I separate it into big segments and remove the model inside and weld it together again. It’s a very magical moment where the piece suddenly appears.”

Beyond the Ruinart piece, there’s much on the horizon for Plensa, in an art world that moves ever-quicker. He maintains his own pace, however. “I am always following my rhythm. I could not follow the hymn of anything else. I’m showing in New York, but I am opening in France a very big show. I’m also preparing a show for Chicago in the beginning of September. It is not to be looked at as a show in New York and a show in France and a show in Chicago. It’s everything but. I live by my work—permanently. Every piece that you make is a little correction to the present and it’s the beginning of the next. The beauty in art is that is never finished. When you decide to do a show, it’s because you’ve decided to abandon your pieces with your head already thinking about the next.”

Plensa’s untitled work for Ruinart will be at all three Art Basel fairs around the world this year, as well as Frieze New York and Frieze London. His show in NYC, “Silence” is running through 11 March at Galerie Lelong.

Second image by David Graver, all other images courtesy of Ruinart