When Jaume Plensa was a little boy, he hid inside his father’s piano. “The piano had sliding doors,” said Plensa. “He didn’t know I was hiding. ... My wish to be artist [comes] from the interior of my father’s piano.”
Inside the piano, little Jaume (pronounced ja-ma) could feel the throbbing of the strings as his dad played. He felt the vibrations along with the sounds of the notes.
Now you can enter the world of Jaume Plensa, an acclaimed Catalan artist whose art is inspired by the sounds, sights and sensations we have when we lose ourselves in the moment.
Get set to enter his “piano.” “Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape” is at the Tampa Museum of Art beginning Sunday and running through May 15.
Outside the museum, you will find his eight 9½-feet-tall heads as well as seven smaller human figures, each hugging a tree. All but two of them are hollow shells encased in steel mesh or in a metal latticework made up of letters and musical notes.
Sun, sky, water and grass are visible when you peer through Plensa’s mesh or metal latticework. Everything seems to melt together into a unified sensation. The artworks seem to melt into their surroundings.
“I have always been passionate about words, but also about the biological function of letters,” said the 60-year-old artist. “Together they form words, which together form texts.”
Remember a time before you had words to describe sights, sounds and sensations, a time when it felt all mixed together. It’s what Plensa felt inside the piano when he was a small child. It’s what he is reaching for in his art.
The seven tree-hugging figures in “The Heart of Trees,” refer to the seven musical notes. “These figures have the body engraved with the names of many musical composers that I especially like,” he said. Music, of course, is the most direct art form.
Physical and audio sensations merge when you visit the exhibition inside the museum. The 2003 work, “Fire-Water,” consists of a pair of gongs you can strike with a mallet. You hear the sounds as well as feel the vibrations.
In “Silent Rain,” you can brush through curtains made up of iron letters that spell out poems by English, German, Italian, Spanish and French poets. In this way, you can literally feel the words and hear the metallic sounds of the curtains.
Besides using many languages, he also uses Chinese characters and other forms of writing. After all, our own (Latin) alphabet is only one of many tools used to describe the world. And since we are the only animals with the gift of speech, we are alone in our verbal ability to define and classify the world.
It’s a gift with a price though: our use of language can make it harder for us to connect to our environment in a more direct, Zen-like way.
That’s where Plensa comes in.
He is recognized worldwide for artworks such as the 2009 “Dream,” a 66-foot high concrete and dolomite head placed on top of a shuttered coal mine near Liverpool, England. With its closed eyes and Buddha-like expression, the head radiates a serenity that attracts yoga enthusiasts as well as the love of the locals.
“You feel connected to the Earth,” says Plensa.
In major cities such as Venice, London, Dubai, Tokyo, Nice, Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Chicago, his public art has drawn raves.
In his 2004 “Crown Fountain” in Chicago, he incorporates distinctly 21st-century materials: light, water, video and the participation of the public. As the faces of 1,000 Chicagoans are projected one by one onto two 50-foot-high glass towers, water appears to spurt from their mouths, filling a fountain below where children splash and play.
In his hometown of Barcelona in 1998, he combined light and sound. A group of light-filled alabaster chambers throbbed with the recorded sounds from within his own body.
In the Tampa Museum exhibition, two huge heads, “Awilda and Irma,” seem to be wordlessly communicating with each other while still melting into the landscape around them.
And in his 2013 “Self Portrait,” Plensa shows himself curled up inside a giant sphere of numbers, musical notes and symbols from all kinds of writing. It’s as if he is in a Zen-like state and is pulling away from the cacophony of the world.
“Many times we talk and talk,” he once said, “but we are not sure if we are talking with our own words or repeating just messages that are in the air. My intention is to offer something so beautiful that people have an immediate reaction, so that they think, ‘What’s happening?’ And then they can listen a little bit to themselves.”