Jaume Plensa’s stainless steel and stone sculpture from 2012 titled Waves III, currently installed on the campus of Davidson College, is not site-specific. While this fact may not seem atypical for a sculpture in general, in the work of Plensa and among contemporary public artists this designation has become blurred. An installation is typically defined either simply as the arrangement of objects in an exhibition or more complexly and contemporaneously as a site-specific artwork. Building on the theory of the relationship between artistic intervention and site put forth by Rosalind Krauss and Robert Irwin, this investigation considers the situation of the site before the artwork in order to reconsider agency in art. Finally, it confronts the preconception that all public art, which by definition necessitates installation or intervention by the artist, is site-specific.
A temporary exhibition of Plensa’s works affiliated with Waves III, “Jaume Plensa: Sculptures and Drawings,” on view through December 17 at the Van Every / Smith Galleries at the college, is a collection that provides a deeper understanding of the methodology and ideation inherent to Plensa’s creative process. Davidson gallery curator Lia Newman has co-located a series of works that explore the methodology for how Plensa approaches the universal and traditional concept of the human condition in his recent oeuvre. In an apparent fusion of his 2011-12 “The Hermit” and 2014 “Private Dreams” exhibitions at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago, Newman showcases his appropriation of the painting term of portraiture to generate abstracted representations of himself and others, particularly young women.
By all accounts, Waves III appears site-specific. Taking into consideration that the public art collection at Davidson College is vastly figural and human-scaled, its situation at the nexus of several prominent paths, and its orientation to the library as the campus repository of knowledge, this work is not acontextual. However, Waves III was conceived of and produced without the site in mind but using an artistic logic that makes it, and so many of his works, generically applicable to institutional settings. Coated with buzzword rhetoric of multiculturalism, communication, openness, and collaboration, these sculptures might exist most anywhere and be contextual if placed intelligently. As such, Plensa’s work seems to echo the sculpture of Henry Moore and fall into Irwin’s “Site Dominant” category of public art, wherein it “embodies the classical tenets of permanence, transcendent and historical content, meaning, purpose; the art-object either rises out of, or is the occasion for, its ‘ordinary’ circumstances.”
However, the “Site Dominant” designation of the sculptures to which Irwin refers differs from Plensa’s works in their approach to contextuality. Like Plensa’s, Moore’s works are abstracted figures, conceived of and fabricated in studio, displayed globally, and maintain consistent explorations of materiality, massing, and scale. Conversely, the ideation involved in his process differs from Plensa’s. While Moore engages universal notions of the family, beauty, and mystery represented in a form as other to its surroundings, Plensa attempts to create presence and interconnectedness of sculpture and site through appropriating experience, oneirism, and comprehensible universalist themes such as dwelling and language.
This notion of general comprehensibility, the ability of a passerby to understand the meaning behind the work with little critical analysis, is symptomatic of many contemporary public artists. This statement does not imply that Plensa’s oeuvre does not contain the same intellectual depth as Moore’s, it conveys the limited attention span of those living in the digital era. Building on the work of Pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, especially their Bottle of Notes (1988-93), and Robert Indiana, of Love sculpture fame, Plensa cultivates ideas that appeal to specific sites of cultural significance, where his textual language registers as apparent meaning. As such, Plensa’s textual forms demand some communication with site even when conceived of and fabricated remotely. At their best, they posit an agency of the site, the ability of the context, the community, to accept or reject a given installation, and since most of his sites are these bastions of culture, they accept his work.
Irwin discusses in Being and Circumstance how art responds to a site, but Plensa’s work begets discussion of the inverse, where the site responds and contextualizes itself to the art. In order to install Waves III, the site had to physically adapt to the sculpture to accommodate the ideas that already co-existed between the work and the campus. However, in his lecture and the surrounding discussion at Davidson on October 23, Plensa presupposed the notion of the work’s site-specificity. In this sense, Plensa appears to relish the lengths to which one might contemplate the fiction of a work being site-specific. He speaks often of dreaming, and one can assume he intends this fabrication of contextuality symptomatic of oneirism itself.
However, if one disagrees with the assertion that contextuality can be preprogrammed into a work from a generic conceptual departure point, then Plensa seems to have developed an adept financial strategy for creating objects that can experience geographic shifts without semiotic alteration. Echo (2011/2014) is most symptomatic of this market-inspired physical mobility. After an initial installation in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, it went into storage until Barney A. Ebsworth purchased it and donated it to the Olympic Sculpture Park of the Seattle Art Museum, where it was installed three years later.
Additionally, his concept of the echo is derived from the myth of Narcissus, where in contemporary culture we cannot discern our voice from that of others, his works repeat a similar language with a variety of figural forms. Plensa often reuses portraits to make separate, but twinned, sculptures, such as Awilda and Chloe from 2011 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel New York and Olhar Nos Meus Sonhos (Awilda) from 2012 on Botafogo Beach in Rio de Janeiro. While these geographic shifts are typical for the traditional concept of art as object, their installations attempting to communicate an environmental synthesis present a separate condition. They may align more closely with Miwon Kwon’s idea of Discursive Site-Specificity, where the works engage in an epistemological or ideative discourse as site, subverting local physicality for abstract interconnectedness. As such, a dangerous condition evolves because everything created by an artist under this discourse is site-specific since the process of creation itself becomes site. This concept could explain why Waves III feels at home in Davidson even before it arrived; its genetic makeup came preprogrammed with liberal arts philosophies.
On its own, the form of Waves III is pensive, passive, and reflective, a fitting self-portrait of an artist who is introverted and self-doubting but undeniably creative, poetic, intelligent, and personable. Hundreds of characters from about eight different languages merge to create the silhouette of a kneeling, faceless figure. In a series of sculptures that includes Nest IX (2014) and Nuage VI (2014) in the Davidson exhibition, Plensa uses language as text to negate difference and promote peace and creative dreaming. In this sense, Plensa refutes the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel and spreads his own gospel of tolerance and understanding globally. However, in speaking of his serial works as families, he provides no clue to their genealogy and only emphasizes their dislocation as silent but epistemologically rich emissaries.
Plensa’s most compelling works are those in which you can dwell, engulfed by the notions of language as a communicative tool rather than by a barrier. Albeit subject to Michael Fried’s derisive notion of theatricality, these installations are architectural in nature; they frame views, occupy space, allow for dwelling and direct physical experience. They adhere to Plensa’s prime dictum about public art: “do not touch, caress.” His more recent works, Moai-esque heads of children that are manipulated to a minimal thinness without compromising the portrait. Newman juxtaposes pairs of these across the main gallery: thin Rui Rui in Shanghai and Sanna in Umea converse with carved Rui Rui’s Dream and Sanna’s Dream.
This idea of conversation, examined most succinctly in Plensa’s watershed work, the Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park (2004), echoes again in works like Mirror (2012) at Rice University and in miniature with Yorkshire Moss II (2013) in the exhibition. They also appear in Plensa’s drawings, where a digital print of a typical Plensa figure on vellum is overlaid with letters and drippings of enamel spray, creating a palimpsest effect. Plensa admits that these function as preparatory investigations of the concept he seeks to employ in sculpture but also function on their own as indications of Kwon’s process as site-specificity. Ultimately, Plensa’s works and Newman’s curation shine again, the former due to a preprogrammed notion of creating presence in a location and the latter due to the ability to illuminate the echoes of conversation through contextual genericism inherent in his work.
Nick Kahler is an intern architect at Lord Aeck Sargent, an independent artist, and a writer based in Atlanta.