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A hand in the making

17 November 2010

The Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa talks to Rebecca Paveley about Together, his winning submission for Chichester

JAUME PLENSA may not be a household name in the UK, but he has been described as one of the most significant and influential sculptors of today. His art often captures the imagination of a public that does not frequent art galleries or museums. His public appeal can be compared to that of Antony Gormley — whose submission was unsuc­cessful.

Plensa does not hide his pleasure at having been chosen. “I am extremely pleased,” he says. “It was a fantastic project.”

Of the five artists to speak about their proposals to the Church Times last year, he alone described a personal response to the Cathedral as a place of worship (Features, 11 December 2009).

It is “one of the most beautiful buildings in the world”, he says. “I’m from the Mediter­ranean. I know about Gothic architecture, but Chichester is so precise and so simple. The emptiness is inspiring. It was a fantastic project. It was a tremendous opportunity to dialogue with history, especially with religion. I loved to be asked to create something con­temporary that talked about the religiosity that we all have.”

Mr Plensa says that he is obsessed by the idea of a soul: “My work is about relating body to soul. I am always aiming to talk about something invisible but fundamental; something that is not the body, that we can’t describe.”

He is, perhaps, most widely known for his Crown Fountain, in Chicago, which displays video images of Chicago residents, with a water outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. He has said that such works “express my obsession with the body as a container of something more. I try to capture the soul of the body, the soul as the site of the community. The beauty in our lives is something more than just the body.”

THE Hussey Memorial Commission asked that whatever each artist proposed, it should not only “make an immediate impact and be comprehensible” but also be meaningful to people of diverse faiths. The brief also called for a “contemporary interpretation of the resurrected Christ” which will express “new life, transformation, and hope”.

Together is a sculpture of a large hand raised in blessing — an image that has meaning far beyond a purely religious audience. Mr Plensa has altered the sculpture since his original proposal a year ago, and has added alphabets — in scripts from different languages — into the hand.

“I have made some very subtle changes. I kept the same shape of the hand, but it is now made out of a mix of different alphabets from different cultures. One of the most important elements for me was to keep the transparency of the object; an important part of it is its emptiness.

“I have kept it so the letters are fluttering but not blinding; it is possible to see through. It captures my intention of trying to [make it] look like a cloud floating above the [15th-century Arundel] screen. It is a metaphor of globalisation in the shape of the blessing hand.”

The next step, now that his proposal has been selected, is to create a mock-up. “I need to understand its scale,” he says. When that is done, creating the finished artwork will take him two to three months.

He says, disarmingly: “I don’t know how much it will cost. The project was so exciting. The only thing I didn’t think about was how much it would cost. But I think it will be do-able.”

Together will then take its place alongside the Cathedral’s collection of modern art, which includes a window by Marc Chagall, and a tapestry on the high altar by John Piper — both commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey, in whose memory this commission has been made.

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