Although Jaume Plensa is based in Barcelona, his success as an artist sees him criss-cross the globe more often than most. And though most people who travel find themselves inspired by the differences in the cultures they encounter, for Plensa it is the exact opposite condition that he finds most uplifting. Underneath it all, he says, “People are the same everywhere you go.”
“The more I travel, the more I see and understand this, and the more it makes me happy,” he continues. “You start a conversation, and you know other people everywhere are having the same conversation, and the deeper you go to your roots, the clearer it is – how similar we all are.”
Plensa, in Paris for the unveiling of a new sculpture commissioned by Maison Ruinart at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, is one of the most important players of the contemporary artistic scene. Best known for his signature sculptures that play with the relationship between words, signs and the human body, his primary interest is in the “biological condition of language” – and his works, including this latest commission, see multiple letter forms take on a human shape. Bonded together into silhouettes of human bodies, seated or kneeling and contemplating the horizon, his spiritual figures represent a shared human soul.
Pursuing the theme further for this commission (which will tour with Ruinart and come to London for the Frieze Art Fair in October) is a new opportunity for Plensa to make his point in a climate where division and polarisation frequently seem to be prevailing. “Given the time we are living in, when much of the world seems to be trying to separate people, and destroy bridges, I want to share a positive message about community and encourage people to come together.”
Using different letters from a diversity of alphabets and combining them, as if pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or a mosaic, Plensa demonstrates the symbolic nature of language. The human form they make up represents hope, beauty and unity. As light enters the cavities between the letters, it’s possible to see the entire sculpture from every angle at once. With its face blank and with an entryway through the crouching legs, it conveys openness in spite of the conventional barriers that frequently divide and separate humankind.
The commission is the latest in a long line of artist collaborations for Ruinart, whose collections now include artworks by Georgia Russell, Hubert Le Gall and Erwin Olaf, as well as serving pieces and champagne accessories by Ron Arad, Patricia Urquiola, Marten Baas, Nacho Carbonell and Nendo. Given that the House was founded in 1729, the age of Enlightenment, when artists and intellectuals were raising questions about the world and defining the art of living, Ruinart has both precedence and historical justification as a patron of contemporary art.
Plensa’s "silent witness" was six months in the making, and as well as continuing the artist’s favourite themes, also serves to shine a light on Maison Ruinart’s values, history and heritage – from its astonishing cellars (which are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List) to its preoccupation with time, form and colour in the making of its champagne. The letters in the sculpture too refer neatly to dom Thierry Ruinart, the uncle of the champagne house’s founder Nicholas, who as a Master of Arts (in 1674 at the age of 17) was not only an active participant in the highly popular salons of the time, in which writers came to present their works, but also (in order to better understand art and its history) a scholar of languages including Greek and Arabic, Ruinart was a man whose rich life was filled with multilingual texts and alphabets.
For Ruinart, artistic expression is a way to share its heritage, its history, its know-how and the excellence of its wines all over the world - three centuries after it was established. For Plensa, the Maison allows him to further share his message of human connection. For the rest of us, let’s just hope that – whatever the political climate – it might help to inspire a new age of Enlightenment.