On 15 February 2011, a group of seven 10-foot high statues called Tolerance were unveiled at Harmony Walk in Houston, near the site of the planned Ismaili Center, Houston. The statues were created by Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa and funded by the City of Houston, Mawlana Hazar Imam and a few private donors. In this interview by Farah Lalani on behalf of TheIsmaili.org, Plensa explains his vision, inspiration and technique in creating this work of art.
Jaume Plensa at the Tolerance dedication ceremony held at Harmony Walk, with one of the sculptures visible in the background. Zahid Alibhai
Farah Lalani (TheIsmaili): You we were at the dedication ceremony for the Tolerance sculptures gifted to the City of Houston. What does the word “tolerance” mean to you?
Jaume Plensa (JP): I gave this title to my project because I feel that tolerance means to dream of one world. Tolerance is the right way to be content in relationships with others, but it's not easy. I guess it also means inspiration to live together in harmony.
TheIsmaili: You have said that you grew up in a house full of books. You refer to it as a “forest of letters.” What influence has that had on you as a person and as an artist?
JP: My father was a person who loved to read books and my house was full of books. That was one part of my influence. The other was the piano, which had two doors at the bottom. When I had any problems, I would hide myself inside the piano. I remember the vibration of the instrument. I really felt that vibration close to me. So, letters from one side and this vibration from the other – both of these experiences work together to influence my art.
I connect with poets. I love William Blake, who has said: “One thought fills immensity.” This concept that our thoughts, our ideas, our dreams can fill up a space, not necessarily with physical elements, but with energy is very near to me. I guess it is this concept of vibration that I hold close – the idea that we people are vibrating and expanding our energy and filling up the space, and that is an amazing way to communicate.
TheIsmaili: Since you mention poets, I notice that one of your sculptures, I, You, She or He, in Grand Rapids, Michigan bears similarity with the words of the poet Rumi. Is there a connection between Rumi and your works?
JP: It was very moving for me when Mr Eboo was mentioning Rumi's poem in his speech at the dedication ceremony. I did not have immediate knowledge of the poem, but I can relate to its ideas in a very similar way. His idea “I, You, He, She, We” – all these concepts for me are key.
TheIsmaili: What we see from you as an artist is the final result, such as the sculpture or painting. But there is so much more that goes into it. Can you tell us a little about your work process – do you make mistakes, do you improvise, or is the final product usually what you had planned at the start?
JP: The idea of mistake, the idea of accident, the idea of something unexpected, you should be very open to it. It was a very beautiful expression that Brancusi had said, “The importance is not to do, but the importance is to feel that you have the energy to do it.” And, when you feel like that, you should create as the god, order as the king, and work as the slave.
Silhouette of one of the Tolerance figures against the Houston sky moments before sunset. Zahid Alibhai
TheIsmaili: I can see that you learn so much not just by creating, but during the entire process of it. This human element is very obvious in all your works, which is probably why your works are not only in showcases, but also in public places. Can you tell us a little about your experiences in public places?
JP: Well, I have been in contact with the Aga Khan Foundation and I immediately felt comfortable working with them because they are aiming for something similar to what I am trying to do in small context through my arts. I have the capacity to create elements that produce certain movements in the hearts of the people. For example, when I made my project in Chicago – the Crown Fountain – everyone was concerned that this project may be too intellectual or too technological. Then the night before, we decided to take the protecting fence away from the fountain and suddenly we saw kids coming around and enjoying in the water. The smile of those kids was a beautiful gift for me.
In my projects, I am always trying to emphasise the interior capabilities of human. We have to explore ourselves from the inside first and this is always an invitation for the visitors of my show to do this. Please explore yourself. You have to listen to your soul talking.
TheIsmaili: Is there a common theme in all of your works or perhaps something in particular you look for when you decide on what projects to take on?
JP: It's hard to answer this question because I do my own work for shows, galleries and museums, but I also work a lot in the public space to maintain a balance. I don't need to explain anything when I am in my studio because it's my home. But, when you are in a public space, it's not exactly your home.
I guess projects should always be site specific because your project is the last touch in what already exists in a public space. Many times, your project is just to bring life to a place that is already beautiful. When I did my project last year in an island in Japan, it was a very different feeling than my project in Dubai or Chicago or the project we dedicated in Houston. But, if you put all the projects together, you will see that inside it's always the same spirit that's trying to connect everything.
TheIsmaili: Finally, are there any projects that you are working on now that you are able to share with us?
JP: I am working on my exhibition in England at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It has a collection of my work over the last ten years or so. This is a very ambitious exhibition for me. Then, on May 5th, I am opening an installation called Echo at Madison Square Park in New York and I am also opening the show for my gallery over there.