When Millennium Park was unveiled in the dog days of summer 2004, fewer sights elicited more childlike glee than Jaume Plensa’s "Crown Fountain," two 50-foot glass block towers featuring a cross section of Chicago residents’ faces projected on LED screens at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. It made Plensa a household name in the city. Sixteen years later, it’s still a family gathering spot for summer splashing, and you can bet that post-pandemic it will be teeming more than ever with kids at play.
Plensa’s international profile has risen ever higher since then, but his connection to Chicago—and to Richard Gray Gallery in particular—remains. Now on view at the gallery’s warehouse space through Jan. 9, Plensa’s latest exhibition, Nocturne, is an of-the-moment collection of large-scale works that communicate a journey from darkness to light and convey a message of hope during troubled times. On a recent Zoom call, Plensa opened up about finding inspiration during the pandemic, his connection to Chicago and why his first stop in the city is always "Crown Fountain"—just to make sure it wasn’t all a dream.
Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain" in Millennium Park
You're renowned in the Chicago public art scene for "Crown Fountain." What does that project mean to you? Well, you can imagine how much it means for me because I still remember that I'd been contacted in 2000 just to think about a kind of proposal. I did a meeting with Lester Crown, I still remember, in Chicago. I did my proposal, I won the competition, and it was a mix of heaven and a nightmare both together, working for almost four years trying to pass my dream into reality. Because it was really a crazy project in that way, and it’s plenty of fantastic experiences obviously. And every time I’m arriving in Chicago, the first thing is to verify if the pieces are still there—because it seems as if it’s still a dream, something that is not part of that world.
Jaume Plensa's Nocturne follows a journey from darkness to light.
Looking at not Nocturne, your new exhibit, much like your previous work, these sculptures are taking inspiration from the human figure, particularly the face. What do you find so inspiring about the human form in your work? I have to say that thanks to the "Crown Fountain," I experienced the concept of portraits. I took portraits of almost 1,000 people living in town, and I enjoyed it so much that when I finished that project, I decided to keep on it, but with more classical materials. At "Crown Fountain," I'd been working with video, but I decided to move to classical materials such as alabaster and marble. In Nocturne, the show right now, it’s basically portraits, but I like that show because thinking about the moment that we are living with the pandemic, I wanted to do a show with a certain message of hope. In the exhibition, the first piece at the entrance is a basalt stone piece—very black, very dark, very opaque, very shiny at the same time. And walking through the show, it’s getting more and more translucent, more transparent until you arrive at the final piece cast in Murano glass in Italy—and I guess it’s from the darkness to the light. You could say, for as long as the night will be, there is always the morning arriving. That is the message behind that show for me. The first piece is in basalt stone, then the five heads cast in bronze, then the two mesh heads having a kind of silent conversation, and in the end the piece "Silence" with the position of her finger at her lips, but in glass. I think it’s a beautiful progression from the darkness to the light.
You talked about conveying hope with the idea of moving from darkness to the light and the morning coming. Why is it important for you right now to convey that message? I have never had an experience as we are living now. For me, everything is new; every day is completely new. All my life I’ve been a little bit nomadic, I’m always traveling and traveling—and suddenly, since end of February I am at home. And my studio, my home becomes my world. No planes, no hotels, no cars, no trains, nothing that for me was my normality. And I think it's an incredible experience. I'm always concerned about the people who are suffering because for many people it is not an easy moment, but I think it's a terrific experience also—for each of us as a person because our entire life has changed from one day to another. And I think it is an incredible experience. I suppose, if we have that conversation in two years time, I could tell you more things about it. Right now, I’m part of it. I don’t have the distance to talk about it. But I guess it's something that one day we will remember, and it will change us.
With your world getting so small these past several months with staying at home, where are you finding your inspiration these days? I've been teaching at the School of the Art Institute two times. And I was telling my students always the same: It’s the same to move 5 kilometers as 5 centimeters. It's the point of view. And now I'm experiencing those words myself—it’s 5 centimeters now, and it’s still like my brain is exploding [with inspiration] because everything that happens happens inside yourself and influences you. That, I think, is one of the privileges of being an artist because, positive or negative, experiences become a substance of your work. I’m working a lot, and every day is an explosion of ideas.
You have this great connection to Chicago and haven't been able to be here in a while. What are you most looking forward to experiencing on your next trip to the city? You probably know that I’ve been working with Paul Gray for 25 years almost. He’s like my brother—we have the same age—and Richard was almost my father because he introduced me in the art world in some ways. And besides Barcelona, Chicago is my city; it’s my home. I feel so comfortable there, and I’m dreaming to go back to Chicago, obviously first to visit the "Crown Fountain" to be sure that it still exists [laughs], then to see all my friends, the Crown family and the Gray family.
Photography by: "Crown Fountain" photo by Matthew T Rader/Unsplash; all other photos courtesy of the artist and gallery