When he was a child, Spanish-born Juame Plensa sometimes furtively hid inside his family’s upright piano. There, when his father would sit down to play, the sound of the music momentarily became something palpable as the physical vibrations of each note passed through Plensa’s body. The experience was to have a profound effect on much of his subsequent public art, through which Plensa has always sought to give tangible shape to the ephemeral and the numinous.
Through November 6, Plensa’s exhibition Human Landscape comes to Ohio’s Toledo Art Museum and offers an engaging mix of outdoor sculptural ensembles tactfully placed throughout the museum’s thirty-six acre campus. These are augmented with an indoor exhibition of his work, and the gallery space where visitors typically find the museum’s Eighteenth-Century French Rococo paintings now plays host to a varied and multimedia assortment of Plensa’s sculptures, drawings, and etchings.
This exhibition is truly immersive. Many of Plensa’s works invite viewer interaction, such as Silent Rain, in which there hangs suspended several curtains of texts by selected poets (Shakespeare, Goethe, and Baudelaire, to name a few). As visitors pass through the texts, they set the metallic letters into motion, which create a chime-like sound. The work was inspired by childhood memories of the bead-curtains in the entrances of small Barcelona grocery shops, which helped keep bugs away. Poetry has a similarly protective function, “keeping the flies away,” Plensa tells an audience during the artist’s talk which launched the show. Spoken words are transient, ceasing to exist the moment they form; Silent Rain gives poetry substance, sound, and permanence.
Language is also the literal substance of most of this exhibition’s outdoor public sculpture arrangements (though some also evoke music, itself a kind of language). Plensa creates large, hollow forms out of letters from selected world alphabets, each chosen mostly for its aesthetic qualities. The mingling of these alphabets which span across place and time (he uses characters from both ancient and modern languages) serves as an eloquent metaphor for cross-cultural dialogue. Some of his forms, such as the crouching bodies in The Soul of Words I and II and Spiegel seem to be engaging in conversation. If we could climb inside these hollow shells and look out (like the meditative seated figure in the center of Plensa’s spherical Self Portrait seems to be doing), we could see through the letters. Plensa’s subtle point is that we experience the world through language.
There’s a democratic appeal in much of Plensa’s art. His monumental Dream, for example, sought to give beauty to an abused patch of earth in a blue-collar coal-mining community in England, and Plensa’s iconic Crown Fountain in Millennium Park gave Chicagoans of all social and economic stripes playful space for relaxation during hot summer days. While the works in Human Landscape are smaller in scale by comparison (with the exception, perhaps, of the commanding, elongated Paula, which stands near the entrance to the TMA, looking very much like a colossal head from Easter Island), they still possess the democratic character of his most significant installations; some ensembles are intentionally placed conspicuously close to Toledo’s Monroe Street sidewalks, literally making them accessible to everyone. So while his art is hardly feisty activist art, it seems to leave in its wake gentle ripples that subtly change society for the better, as good art always will.