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Whisper: Jaume Plensa

at Richard Gray, through May 28

By Jill Elaine Hughes

Like most sculptors of international reputation, Jaume Plensa primarily creates public sculpture--a genre all too often conceived with a certain detachment and sterility to satisfy public (or corporate) tastes. But Plensa's work, now being shown at Richard Gray Gallery, suits both the community and the individual without compromising either. Although the work of this extraordinary sculptor, born in Barcelona, is on permanent display in Korea, France, and Japan, he's little known in the United States, which doesn't offer as much support for public sculpture as other nations, especially those in Europe. So it's appropriate that Whisper--an installation in three rooms that's a smaller version of Love Sounds, exhibited in a German museum--melds elements of monumental public art with the intimate appeal of a private American gallery.

The first piece in the show is a white, framed wall sculpture of textured cloth and paper. Scattered throughout are screened images of the artist's face--straight on, in profile, looking up, down, or around--as if confronting you directly in the hope of making you uncomfortable. Though this self-reflexive work is not representative of the rest of the installation, it still conveys Plensa's intention--to force the viewer to confront his own existence in the context of a common space. Plensa's two primary tools are sound--or the absence of it--and light as a means of referring to sound. However, he shied away from discussing the role of sound in his work during a gallery talk ("I prefer to talk about digression rather than sound"). Indeed, Plensa's sculpture is often allusive, offering simple yet suggestive observations about the space surrounding the art--including the viewer. "When we think we have achieved silence," he's quoted as saying in exhibition materials, "we discover that something interrupts, something as close and familiar as our own body. Our noisy body."

What's easily forgotten about sculpture, whether it's a Rodin nude or an ultraminimalist piece from the 60s, is that it's always about the body--it makes no difference if the work depicts the human form or not--because we always see sculpture in relation to ourselves in physical space. No artist makes this more plain than Plensa. Moving through the exhibit, we begin to feel engulfed and caressed by the intimacy of the work yet firmly, even sharply separated from it by a sense of our vulnerability. A little shaken by the artist's initial piercing stare, our eyes pass to the next pieces, hanging on the adjacent wall. Babies of clear molded glass are mounted there, gazing down at small glass ledges inscribed with such words as "rain," "sigh," and "heat." Simple and familiar as these are, it's a little unsettling to see them so close to innocent babies, whom we usually struggle to protect. We're reminded not only of how fragile our own bodies are but of how transparent and unprotected we can be when exposed to the ravages of our emotions.

Glass babies over rain and sighs may sound small and intimate, but as we move through the exhibit Plensa's work becomes more and more like the massive public art for which he's famous. Yet it never loses that sense of intimacy. The next section is made up of four transparent blocks illuminated by an unseen source that highlights their woefully complicated surfaces, covered with questions in relief type: "Which is the west side?" "Why are the rills often muddy?" "What is frost?" "Of what use are the gills of fishes?" (Each block offers variations on a theme: "What makes waves?" "Why is the evening cool?" "What is wind?") These questions--so like the endless maddening things we used to ask our parents--have no answers. Reminding us of childhood, they also have an element of grandeur that makes them just as suitable to a pediment in Central Park as to a child's playroom.

The next piece, Whisper (for which the installation is named), moves even closer to a more public kind of art. In a semidark room several cymbals are suspended over small copper kettles, almost touching their rims. As we watch the cymbals swaying slightly on their strings, we hear muted cymbal "crashes"--actually more like the sound of soft raindrops on a tin roof. Each cymbal is etched with startling questions and statements--"Exuberance is beauty" and "Enough or too much?" and "Expect poison from standing water"--that also break the silence. Wondering where the sound of dripping water is coming from, we notice droplets forming on top of the cymbals; glancing up, we discover a strange answer to one of the questions the clear blocks asked: "What makes [the dew] form?" Here the "dew" drips slowly and regularly from hanging IV bottles--modern inventions whose tubing pierces and violates as well as nourishes the body. Whisper makes us aware of two things: the not-so-silent silence outside our bodies, and the ways in which the noisy silence inside our bodies can be so easily invaded: what has been private can quickly become public.

The last room is dominated by what I call Plensa's "installation of noisy oppositions." Huge gongs of his design hang in two rows facing one another; huge mallets hang alongside--and viewers are encouraged to use them. Each gong has a single word etched in its center, which corresponds with the word on the gong hanging opposite: "sweet" and "sour," "die" and "born," "tears" and "sweat." Each gong has its own distinct tone, which seems to reflect the meaning of the word etched on it; the "sweet" gong's sound is higher and finer, for example, than that of the "die" gong, which is dark and ominous. The rows of gongs seem like fortified walls as waves of mighty sound roll over us. The work's monumentality evokes the same kind of awe as many public works of art, like the Picasso in Daley Plaza and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. But however impressed we may be by these massive works, they rarely become an integral part of our being. Plensa's work does. While we're overwhelmed by the size and power of the gongs, their song caresses us, soothing our fear of death and toil and reminding us that some things are sweet. Going beyond most public art, Plensa's work awes but also makes us whole.

The final room in the exhibit is a kind of epilogue--a small sitting room containing photographs of several of Plensa's public sculptures. Though these tiny representations of Plensa's work come across as something of an afterthought, the awe-inspiring yet tender power of Whisper gives us a new appreciation of what Plensa is trying to accomplish in public. These works are big and bold: The Star of David (1998) in Stockholm and Blake in Gateshead (1996) in Gateshead, England, use fortified steel and beams of light visible for miles; Twins II in Seoul pairs highway lamps to represent the division between the Koreas; Golden House of Bird, currently in progress on the Champs-Elysée in Paris, is a large, filigreed birdhouse on impossibly thin legs. But these huge works are never sterile or impersonal. As the artist put it in his gallery talk, "The world doesn't need monuments. It's a beautiful thing just to put art in the middle of the street."

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