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Yesterday I visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the first time.  This landscaped park, with its sculptures by such luminaries as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy, amongst many others, also boasts several gallery spaces, a good shop and a great restaurant.  A great place for a family day out where you only pay for car parking, and access to the rest of the facilities is free (donations very welcome!)  The place was very busy, from hikers and dog walkers to family parties enoying the autumn colours and the sculpture.

Many people were there, as I was, to see the extended exhibition of Jaume Plensa‘s work.  I had never seen his work before, but had been told in no uncertain terms that I was seriously missing out on an experience that I would enjoy.  So on a beautiful autumnal day, with the leaves an amazing array of colours, and falling, I experienced with many others the wonder that is the work of Jaume Plensa. (We were allowed to take photographs for our own personal use, but because a blog is more of a public forum, I would urge you to go to the YSP website, or Jaume Plensa’s website to see the images there.)

The first piece to greet you as you walked down the corridor towards the main exhibition in the Underground Gallery was a ceiling hung collection of silhouettes of people engaged in ordinary things, with speech ‘tails’ coming out of the tops of the pieces containing lines of poetry (Silhouettes, Blake-Canetti-Valente).  Letters, words and poems are something that is totally integral in Jaume Plensa’s philosophy, life and art works.  The shadow effects of the silhouettes on the walls and floor of the corridor was equally as effective as the silhouettes themselves.  On a bright, sunny late autumn day, the sun was low and quite strong and formed images that almost were as strong physically as the actual piece.   That set in motion the feeling of the rest of the exhibit.

Walking down to the Underground Gallery, you could see the ethereal wire forms of two heads, Nuria and Irma, situated on top of the grass-covered Gallery roof.  They were fugitive as well as present.  Depending on how the light was, and where you were in relation to them, they variously appeared as two heads in silent communication with each other, or as a shimmer in the space in front of the background landscape, or somewhere in a spiritual space between the two extremes, with the wire creating a moire effect that layers of translucent fabrics do so they lost their outward form and became the communication waves, somewhere between corporeal and ephemeral.

Directly outside the Underground Gallery was a group of seated figures (‘Heart of Trees’) hugging their legs with the boles of cherry trees encased through their forms.  These figures were created from individual letter elements welded together to express the forms.  This is a regular leitmotif in Plensa’s sculptural works.

The walkway connecting the Underground Gallery exhibition spaces is a long corridor with glass walls leading to the outside so that the Heart of Trees was visible at all times from the corridor.  Hanging from the centre of the walkway, and dividing it lengthwise, was Twenty-Nine Palms.  This curtain of letters containing quotations from several favourite texts of Plensa’s was both visual and aural, with the metal of the letters, connected in vertical strands with each strand close enough to contact the strands on either side, creating a huge wind chime that visitors were encouraged to energise by stroking their hands gently across the strands as they walked down the walkway.  Again, the shadows cast on wall and floor were an integral part of the piece for me, with the words easier to read in their shadow form that in the close-up encounter of the metal.

There were 4 exhibition rooms, two with large fibreglass installations.  These pieces were impressive in their size and presentation, but for me, the two other pieces had more personal impact.  Upon entering one of the rooms, you saw a number of alabaster heads, elongated to create a sense of removal from reality. The lighting was subdued but direct, with white light shone directly on each piece, creating some shadows, but emphasizing to me the translucence of the alabaster, the spiritual serene quality of each head with its closed eyes, silently contemplating within, not disturbed by anything that happened outside themselves, in a reminder of Buddhist carving.  Some were hewn from the rock, inspiring a direct connection to Michelangelo’s wonderful Slaves sculptures in Florence.   These pieces gave me weird feelings in the pit of my stomach – the lighting gave them a dimensionality that my eyes couldn’t translate.  They were 3-dimensional sculptures, but their flattened elongated features only just raised above the surface of the alabaster and gave me the feeling that they were in the process of growing and if I waited long enough, they would become more distinct.  The desire to touch was almost overwhelming, but because the alabaster is so fragile, we had to control our instincts.

Moving on from the Alabaster Heads, the other piece in the Gallery to affect me physically was Jerusalem.  This was visual theatre, with a darkened room containing a spotlit circle of beautifully shining gongs complete with mallet to beat the gongs with.  Each gong had a phrase from Song of Songs engraved onto it.  The direction for this exhibit is that only 5 people can be present in it at any one time – with good reason.  The piece is not complete until the viewer interacts with the piece, picking up a mallet and striking one of the gongs.  The resonance from each gong is felt as vibrations within your body.  Each gong is tuned slightly differently, and more than five being struck creates resonances that affect your internal organs.  With just 5 people in the room, the vibrations are spiritual, meditative.  With more, especially when someone decides to flex their muscles and whack the gong, the vibrations become physically painful, even nauseating. This is definitely a case where the artist knew exactly what reaction he wanted to evoke.  Just ensure that you are only one of five!

Outside the Gallery, in the Park grounds itself, there are other sculptures by Jaume Plensa.  Above the Underground Gallery, standing outside the Bothy Gallery, was a huge lettered figure (House of Knowledge) facing the amazing landscape view.  This was another interactive piece, hollowed so that you could walk into its interior, see the landscape through the lettering, and be in contact with the piece.  Near the car park was a double figured piece, smaller in scale but still with lettered ledges for people to sit on inside.  Other pieces were of the lettered figures kneeling on rock or sitting in contemplation and silent conversation with each other.

This was a wonderful exhibition.  So many of the pieces communicated, either with each other, silently, or with you.  Several of them had aural and tactile aspects that were integral to the piece and your experience of them.  All of them engaged the viewer. The exhibition was due to have closed but the popularity of it has encouraged YSP to extend the exhibition until the end of January 2012.  If you get the chance to go, I would encourage you to.  It opens up doors to places in yourself that you might have suspected were there but weren’t sure.  The use of the space, the way that the visitor experiences each work, all are thought through.  Jaume Plensa is a man whose vision is personal but universal, intelligent, deep, spiritual but ultimately very human.