Jaume Plensa can’t stop talking about the window.
Standing inside the State Street Gallery of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the acclaimed Spanish artist repeatedly turns to the glass that is the only thing separating Madison’s most famous street from the artwork he has brought here.
Plensa is known worldwide for his public sculptures – placed around the globe, from Japan and London to Dubai and Montreal. American audiences, especially in the Midwest, may best know him for creating Crown Fountain, the enormous, towering sculptures in Chicago’s Millennium Park, animated by the filmed images of everyday Chicagoans, whose lips periodically shower water on the crowds below.
Plensa — who also does drawings and etchings on paper, has designed for opera and theater and frequently gives lectures — is the creator of “Talking Continents,” on exhibition in MMOCA’s State Street Gallery through April 15.
The work is composed of 19 large, stainless steel figures that Plensa calls “elements” of the greater whole. Each is constructed of metal characters from eight alphabets — Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic, Hindi, Greek and Latin — molded into an almost cloud-like shape.
The elements, some of them with human figures, appear to float in the gallery, casting shadows on the floor. Deceptively ethereal, “Talking Continents” speaks to themes of cultural understanding, communication, the beauty of language and more.
“I’m working a lot with alphabets, because alphabets are in some ways the best portrait of a culture,” Plensa said in early December, while in Madison for the installation and opening night discussion of his work.
The mixing of the alphabets “makes, I guess, a beautiful metaphor about our world today: How well we are when we are together. Each one is adding its background and experiences and creating a kind of cosmos of letters,” he said.
“When the visitor is walking (through), he becomes one more of those figures, with his own experiences, his own background, his own culture.”
Admission to MMOCA is free, and anyone can come inside to see “Talking Continents” up close. In the spirit of Plensa’s many outdoor public sculptures, the work also can be viewed from outside, through the very window that Plensa likes so much.
“Always I am trying to create pieces with positive messages, a message of hope,” he said. “Of course today, not only in your country but in many other countries in the world, the borders are taking a lot of importance. We are creating walls again.
“And it’s a very sad moment, to be afraid of the other,” he said. “I hope my pieces would send a positive message that ‘the other’ is not an enemy, it’s a friend.”
Bringing “Talking Continents” to Madison was intentionally scheduled for wintertime, when night falls early.
“At night there are dramatic shadows that are cast on the floor. It’s spectacular,” said MMOCA director Stephen Fleischman.
Fleischman first saw Plensa’s “Talking Continents” at a 2013 show in New York, the only other time the work has been exhibited in the U.S. Fleischman felt it would be a great fit for the State Street Gallery not only because of the scale of the work, but because of the “inside/outside quality” of the MMOCA window, he said.
It was also a chance to bring Plensa, an international figure who was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1955 and lives there now, to Madison.
“Museums are supposed to bring artists of significance to the community,” Fleischman said. “And especially a sophisticated, intelligent city like Madison, Wisconsin, deserves to have the opportunity to see the work of the best artists in the world, and I would count Jaume Plensa among that group.”
Plensa also spends a lot of time in Chicago, where he has served as a guest professor at the School of the Art Institute.
He noted that it’s unusual to have a museum show consisting of only one piece. Yet the State Street Gallery is an intriguing space for it.
“I was so fascinated because this window is so generous with the community, because it’s a way to open up the museum to anyone passing on the street,” he said.
“And I think it’s a beautiful way to communicate. People are visiting the museum, even though they might not know it, by walking by on the street.”