Widely celebrated for public sculpture that engages the human form, architecture, poetry, and language, Jaume Plensa presents recent work in the exhibition Forgotten Dreams at GRAY Chicago. The exhibition opens to the public at GRAY Chicago (2044 West Carroll Avenue) on April 7, and will be on view through June 23, 2023.
For his 10th exhibition at GRAY, the exhibition includes two large-scale works in cast aluminum: a series of twenty-one doors, titled Forgotten Dreams, 2020; and Where Are You?, 2022, a body of freestanding sculptural portraits. Additionally, Plensa displays a series of drawings and two sculptures in granite and marble.
On Dreams and Forgetting, an essay by Sarah Coulson, Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was commissioned to accompany the works on view in this exhibition. Read the full essay here.
Dreams have always resided at the heart of Jaume Plensa’s practice. Dreams of being more perfect than we are—collective and utopian dreams of paths into a different future. By their nature, these dreams are intangible and illusive, conceived within the dark interior space of our brains that the artist describes as “the wildest and least controlled place in our body.” Limitless in potential and possibility, our ideas and desires allow us to travel unrestricted by the boundaries of our physical form.
Yet despite our best intentions, human beings are fallible; over time we struggle to bear the weight of our own aspirations, and our dreams diminish as we drift further from the perfection we once sought. Like waves, they ebb and flow, and cycles of forgetting pass from one generation to the next. At times it is necessary to remind ourselves, bring our dreams back into focus and reevaluate, as Elias Canetti propounds: “To read all utopias, especially the old ones, in order to seek what was forgotten and omitted, to compare it with what we have forgotten.”
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," Four Quartets
Plensa’s latest exhibition, Forgotten Dreams, which inhabits a dark, shadowy and contemplative realm away from the constant hum of the external world. Mirroring one another like portals into the space they hold between them, two heads in a state of repose with their eyes closed and a finger raised to their lips invite our silence. Flora Silence, 2022, is carved from black granite and Hortensia Silence, 2022, from white marble. Embodying Plensa’s investigation into the notion of opposites, they are yin and yang, darkness and light. Between them stand two sublime and harmonizing works that explore the liminal zone between words and silence and manifest the artist’s investigations into different states of dreaming where doors and heads become allegorical thresholds.
Plensa often speaks of his belief that sculpture is the best way to ask a question. Perhaps it follows that a sculpture of a door represents the ultimate question.
Although seemingly inconsequential as objects in themselves, doors are rich and heavy with layers of symbolic meaning around ideas of transition and time. They can imprison us or set us free. Plensa says “when you stand in front of a door, the most important thing is that you are thinking about the other side, and what you are thinking depends on how old you are and what you have experienced in your life”.
For Plensa, the pivotal issue is the question and never the answer: a knock does not need to be heeded, nor a door opened as he believes that “opening or closing it no longer holds major importance: everything has already happened within you”.
Doors first became a significant part of Plensa’s sculptural vocabulary in 1993, during a period in his practice where the body itself was physically absent, but was often implied through its relationship to objects and architectures that rely on its presence, such as cells that can be entered.
Forgotten Dreams (2023) features all thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written across the faces of a bank of twenty-one aluminium doors. Plensa describes the Declaration as “the most beautiful poem in the world” as it embodies our dreams to be better as human beings, and to strive for perfection even though it is inevitably impossible to attain. Compiled in 1948 in the aftermath of two world wars, the Declaration was adopted by the newly-formed United Nations and enshrined a spirit of hopefulness and togetherness in a space of utter devastation. At a time when our human frailties were laid bare, it spoke to us of the possibility for change and the need to believe it could happen. Today it remains for Plensa a beacon with the potential to lead us toward a more enlightened path in our darkest times, even though, as he points out, “not even a comma of the principles stated so long ago has been put into application by us.”
Plensa’s decision to revisit the text of the Declaration in its entirety at this moment is both timely and poignant. In recent years a surge in support for far-right political parties has led to divisive, nationalist agendas and insular narratives permeating the mainstream. Such ideologies are antithetical to the peaceful, international, and borderless spirit of the Declaration. And now, as war rages again, we look on as the rights set down seventy-five years ago are systematically eroded and abused. Plensa believes that this is an important time to return once more to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to question whether we can do better, and to implore ourselves to remember collective ambitions. Each door, or idea, awaits our decision to pass through it, reminding us that if we repeat the mistakes of history, we have not only forgotten our dreams but also the nightmares of our past.
Yet there is a level of silent complexity and stillness that is fundamental to Plensa’s perpetually closed doors: indeed, he says they are “violent through their inherent silence.” Their hermeticism makes them impenetrable and redirects our curiosity within, compelling us toward an intimate sphere of introspection. That they are sealed can also suggest a different kind of protection—one which the artist describes as a balm and which is akin to Nietzsche’s active forgetting, when we must shut certain doors in our minds to allow us to pass through others.
“All the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams.”
-Elia Canetti, The Human Province
For over a decade, serene portrait heads of young girls from around the world have resided silently at the centre of Plensa’s work. With eyes closed, their focus is within themselves and beyond the present day.
Many of the girls have already become adults and the moment their likeness was captured has long since disappeared. Only in the sculpture is their physical form held at one particular moment in time, fixing them in a distant present and enshrining a version of them that they, like all of us, will forget as the innocence of childhood fades and time dulls recollection.
Plensa uses sculpture—the most concrete, the most tactile and haptic of art forms, which exists solidly in space alongside our own bodies—to investigate the potential for the dissolution of materiality.
Plensa, like William Blake in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, holds the belief that if ever we are to understand something, we must also know its opposite: inherent within the heft of solidity is a suggestion of the ethereal, like a question mark that permeates the form.
By pairing the twenty-one heads of Where Are You? with the twenty-one doors of Forgotten Dreams in an emotionally resonant and profound relationship across the gallery space, Plensa makes an extraordinary statement about our capacity to travel within ourselves in order to cross conceptual thresholds. Whilst he suggests that before we can comprehend the other islands or souls that surround us, we must first follow an interior path to understand our own individual spirit, he simultaneously celebrates the incredible potential of the symbolic bridges that span the distance between us.
The preceding passages unless otherwise noted are extracts from Sarah Coulson's essay “On Dreams and Forgetting.” Read the full essay here.
Sarah Coulson is Curator and Publications Lead at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, working across all areas of the artistic programme, including digital content. Most recently she curated Saad Qureshi's first museum exhibition for YSP's Chapel. Sarah works closely with artists to produce YSP's publications and has managed the delivery of significant off-site projects, including Ursula von Rydingsvard at the 2015 Venice Biennale. She has an interest in poetry, recently working with Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay on commissioned poetry collections for YSP. Sarah is a Trustee at Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders, where she has curated large-scale site-specific projects.
Over the past thirty-five years, internationally celebrated Spanish artist Jaume Plensa (b. 1955) has produced a multifaceted body of work creating sculpture that speaks to the capacity and beauty of humanity. Conventional sculptural materials like glass, steel, and bronze blend with unconventional media such as water, light, and sound to create hybrid works of intricate energy, psychological weight, and symbolic richness. Frequently incorporating linguistic elements from different alphabets, Plensa’s work does not contain a specific message, but instead uses language as a metaphor. In addition to his interest in language, Plensa finds inspiration in the human figure as a universal symbol. In celebrating the similarities and shared humanity of the world’s seemingly divergent cultures, the artist seeks to connect with his viewers on an intuitive level. By posing numerous dualities, such as interior and exterior, light and dark, and earth and sky, his works range from intimate, delicate works on paper to monumental public projects, such as the iconic Laura in Century City, Los Angeles.