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The Video Data Bank is currently working on transcribing over 200 artist interviews from their collection. They have kindly provided F Newsmagazine with the following inteview with Jaume Plensa, creator of Millenium Park’s “Crown Fountain.”
The interview was originally recorded on May 20, 2005, by Video Data Bank Executive Director Kate Horsfield. Mr. Plensa was interviewed by Assistant Professor of Photography Alan Labb, who, along with Associate Professor of Art and Technology Studies John Manning, was instrumental in coordinating the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s participation in the Crown Fountain project.
The interview, transcribed by Mariya Strauss, has been excerpted heavily for this issue. A longer version can be found in our online edition. The Video Data Bank collection is available internationally for purchase or rental. For more information about the interviews, or about the Video Data Bank in general, please email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website.
Alan Labb: So, explain to me the artist’s role in a public arts piece.
Jaume Plensa: Well, the artist’s role in a public piece is the same as an artist’s role in their own piece. I mean, the only difference is because a public piece, or a piece of art for a public space, arrives at the artist by a commission. It’s the only difference. But, a piece for a public space, it’s the wish of a person. It’s the wish of an artist. They’re trying to integrate different elements, different partners. For sure, it’s one of those projects that needs a team, but mainly one brain.
AL: How long had you worked on this piece?
JP: Well, actually, the “Crown Fountain,” it was a very special project, because they contacted me at the beginning of 2000, as one of the three invited artists, to do a proposal for that competition called “A Fountain For Millenium Park.” And my first meeting was in a big office with plenty of advisers, and Mr. Lester Crown, which was the family who was sponsoring the project. And I remember Lester Crown very kindly said, “Look, Mr. Plensa, we are dreaming to have the tallest jet of water in the world.” That was the beginning of the project. I said “Look, let me think what could be a fountain for the 21st century.” And I started to work in that direction, to try to change that concept of fountain that unfortunately, in the 20th century, was quite often implanted in the public space. And that was the origin of the fountain. We spent four and a half years working, first on the proposal, then with the drawings, then with the physical elements, and finally with something I call the soul of the piece, with which I asked the help of the School of the Art Institute.
AL: So, in those four-and-a-half years, from conceptualization to finish, you had to oversee a lot of technical hurdles. Could you talk about that process?
JP: When you imagine a project, it’s only one idea. The most complicated part is to transform one idea into reality. Let’s say, a dream into reality. That’s the everyday life for the artist, I think. Sometimes it’s a problem of proportions, of scale. The ambition of the “Crown Fountain” was so big that we spent four years in that way. Why I am talking about dream and reality: I suppose it’s because I was completely convinced since the beginning that this was possible technically, but I think I was the only one to think about it, because the rest of the team—the advisers, even the Crown family who supported me permanently in that process—had plenty of concerns, in the way, “Yes, I think it's a brilliant idea, but probably technically, it's not possible.” And I said, “No please believe me, it's possible.” My intuitions are always right. I never did a mistake with my intuition.
And then we spent a couple of years looking for the right teams to help us develop every single aspect of the piece. Since the beginning, I separated the piece into two very important parts, the body and the soul. Because in the beginning, for me, it was taking the same importance—the emptiness and the filled space. But mainly the physical elements—the screens, towers, plaza, everything—that was one problem. And the second problem was to build up the body of that piece, the soul of that piece.
[…] A fountain is not decoration. It’s something more. “Fountain” is talking about life, because water is the origin of every kind of life. A fountain could be also an archive, of people living in the town, the real people, who are building up a city. I think we got it. We did this marvelous archive of 1000 faces that could represent every one of us. And then something different, which is the idea of gargoyle. When the people spurt this jet of water from their mouth, I think this is a very magic moment. It’s a very old tradition, a very old tradition coming from the Greek fountains, from the Mediterranean fountains, back to the public space today. For sure, I’ve been using the technology that the world of today could allow me to use, but the main ideas are fitted in the most old, traditional histories about fountains, about people, about empty spaces where people could meet.
AL: For the School of the Art Institute, it was a very interesting process for us to participate in. We’re so grateful that we were offered that possibility. But we were able to take faculty, myself included, John Manning, a few other key faculty, and a group of students, 20 students, through the process of a public arts piece, a large scale piece, and the intensity that it takes for one vision to see its way all the way through.
JP: I think the best part of that project was the moment that I asked the possibility that the School help me. Why I asked about that? It was in a meeting with US Equities, which was managing the project. Everybody was only concerned about the physical element, they knew it better: how many bricks, how many blocks of I don’t know, how many tons of stainless steel, everybody was always talking. And I remember one day I said, “Please, we spent two years already working with the body. What’s happening with the soul?” They said, “I don’t know what’s happened with the soul.” I said, “Look, our neighbor is the School of the Art Institute. Why not to ask images from them?” The good neighbor, when has not sugar, goes to the other one and says, “Do you have sugar?” And the neighbors exchange sugar. “I need images. Do you have images? Could you give me images please?” And that was the reason that U.S. Equities asked Tony Jones [about a] potential collaboration with me. I think it was very interesting because normally, schools are always working on virtual projects, but never on real ones. And if I could imagine one of the best schools in the States, probably in the world, it’s the School of the Art Institute, in technology. And I think it was the right place to ask for sugar, to ask for images. And thank God I met you, I met John Manning, I met Tony Jones, I met this marvelous team who find me the best sugar in the world.
[…]In Chicago, you have something spectacular, which is the Buckingham Fountain. It, for sure, architecturally, or artistically, has not any kind of interest, is a kind of reproduction of something else, but in terms of object is very interesting, is a very beautiful piece. But I wanted to keep the same name: fountain. Even if it’s not at all a fountain, it’s more a project with water, why I wanted to keep “fountain?” Because “fountain” is a marvelous name which reminds you of plenty of magical aspects of our lives.
My project is water. And every time they say fountain, fountain, it seems a place where people… just something apart. And my project is not at all that. People could walk on the water, which is one of my dreams since ever. To walk on the water is a dream. We can do it now. Secondly, really to use the anonymous people from the town, as part of the divinities who give us life through their mouth, that is another of my dreams. And then the possibility to use that water as something to enjoy, to feel really the humidity, you can stay like a shower when the gargoyle is working. Kids love that. The first day, when the fountain was running, all the kids were completely wet, and I think the parents hated me. The second day, parents and the students arrived to the fountain with towels. I think now it’s a wonderful conversation, a permanent conversation, with the city and my piece. And for sure, the kids adopted my piece since the first second. I am a very lucky artist. If the kids love your work, you are a very lucky artist.
AL: To stay on that same thought—they didn’t just adopt it, they jumped on it. It became a destination location for children. Within a week after it opened, I would watch mothers with 10 to 12 children, obviously the entire neighborhood, with towels under their hands, little kits ready to go, lunches packed, traveling to the fountain out of the parking lot. Nothing like that ever happened downtown before. We had no destination for children, so to speak. But it’s more than that, of course. It’s become a meeting space for so many people. Even the first night, before it officially opened, I remember standing there with you, and three girls snuck underneath the tape and started doing cartwheels. And at that moment I realized that this was going to become bigger than I could have imagined, but I’m wondering about your imagination. Is this even more than you expected?
JP: Well, probably yes. I don’t know if I expected the same level of emotion, but in any case it was unbelievable. We were together in that moment. I, crying in the fountain when I saw the response of the people.
But you know, I have to be, let’s say, realistic. I’m always afraid with politicians. Why? Because I am offering something which politicians hardly understand, which is emptiness. I did two towers, it’s like a dialogue; it’s like a conversation between two faces. But they only see the faces and the towers. I create an enormous emptiness in between where people and kids are playing. Kids love that because it’s an empty place, it’s freedom for them. They are allowed to walk on the water, to touch the towers, to be on the fountain when they start to do the gargoyle. And politicians are really afraid about the emptiness. Emptiness for them is empty. It’s not the same. It’s something to fill up. And I remember when I did my vision statement, I insisted a lot. I did I don’t know how many pages. It’s thick like that, my vision statement, just trying to talk about, “Please keep the emptiness! It’s part of the piece.” I think we spent a lot of millions to keep empty, it’s not because we had not more ideas. That is the idea.
AL: So, most fountains don’t look like this. This is a very unique-looking fountain. You’ve offered us one articulation, but it’s an incredibly unique articulation, that maybe re-defines what a fountain is.
JP: No, I told you before, a fountain is just a title. Today we could not consider the fountain as normally people imagine a fountain. I think the origin of the fountain is very important, very important, because it could be a reminder of nature in the public space, let’s say, in the cities, in the villages. It’s the idea of life: if you drink, then you are safe.
AL: This has a lot of firsts, this project. You’ve worked with glass many times; I’ve seen your earlier work with glass. But, obviously: 45 feet, 50 feet, this is a significant glass structure. And many people, as you pointed out early on, said it can’t be done, it won’t hold up to the water. The way the water tumbles down, people along the way said it couldn’t be done. I remember when we looked at a high-definition screen, you said you wanted the water to come through the middle of the screen. No one’s ever done that before, therefore it can’t be done. Talk about all those firsts. You really pushed the envelope.
JP: A dreamer never accepts reality, okay? I’m a dreamer. I remember when I visited the factory who produced the LED screens in Belgium, I said, “But what's happening with the water passing through the mouth?” They said, “What? Water? No no no no. It’s impossible, because this technology is completely on the other corner of the room from water, no no!” And finally water is coming out of the mouth.
I spent four and a half years traveling to the States every month. Every month, every month, every month. And I think it was a tremendous experience for me. It improved a lot of things.
AL: Have you walked away different? Has this changed the new work?
JP: Sure. Well, every time I’m finishing a piece, I’m different. Let’s say with that piece, I am very different. After two years working, we finally get the right techniques, and the real estimates for the piece; it was a huge meeting with Lester Crown. And Lester was really the soul of the piece. Because for him, I think it was very important. He’s a very sensitive person. But in front of the techniques and estimates, he said, “Could you probably reduce a little bit the piece, because the cost is really serious. Could you do a little bit smaller, that piece?” And I said, “Mr. Crown, if you could reduce Chicago, I could reduce my piece. The scale is perfect.” And he said, “OK, let me think about it.” And, one month later, he put green light on the project and said okay, go ahead.
[…] Normally people talk about these kind of people like sponsors. But in this certain kind of project, it’s not enough to be a sponsor, they have to become friends. If not, it’s impossible. And I’m not the same after the project. I think the Crown family are not the same, as well. Because we become very close friends, we become dreamers. We are sharing, we have the complicity in something completely unexpected.