Yorkshire Sculpture Park: Different impacts from two sets of displays

The summer season at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is about to begin. Nick Ahad vists two contrasting exhibitions.

Contemporary art that makes the viewer work hard for reward and a collection which is simply giving from the moment you set eyes on it... these are the two very different exhibitions that herald the summer season at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The first, which draws work from the Arts Council Collection based at the Longside Gallery at YSP, is Structure and Material which features art from three up and coming British female artists. The work of Claire Barclay, Becky Beasley and Karla Black has been brought together for the first time by co-curators Katrina Brown and Caroline Douglas.

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The pieces in the exhibition include a new commission for Black, a work made up of a temporary square of plaster dust interspersed with bath salt balls. Co-curator Douglas is delighted with the exhibition, saying one of the key facets of staging these three artists’ work together is to introduce them to new audiences.

“Longside is a fantastic space and to be able to use it to bring these artists that we consider to be important to a wider public is one of the key reasons for staging the exhibition,” she says. “They are artists who are beginning to develop a name for themselves, but by putting them in this context in such a great gallery gives them a chance to have their work experienced by more people. While they have not worked together or exhibited together before, we felt that they shared a sensibility, which is why we brought their work into one exhibition.”

Structure and Material is the sort of exhibition that visitors will spend some time with, wrestling down the meaning of the art works. Across the park at the main entrance, visitors will find the first major UK exhibition of the work of Barcelona-based artist Jaume Plensa. The exhibition features work in the Underground gallery and across the park. Plensa’s work is infused with fun, is easily accessible and celebrates life – much like the artist himself. When we meet, Plensa has a problem. Plinths in the final exhibition room of the Underground gallery on which the artist is exhibiting maquettes of his work are covered in white sand which is slowly leaking from the surface, through tiny holes.

“It is like life and time slipping away,” laughs Plensa who demonstrates immediately the thing that he will explain several times when discussing the inspiration behind his art work – that he loves people.

Plensa first exhibited in Yorkshire in 1994, when he showed his work at Dean Clough Mill in Halifax. Peter Murray, the founding director of YSP, began discussing the idea with Plensa of bringing a major exhibition of his work to the park over a decade ago. Now that it is finally upon him, Plensa seems delighted to be back in Yorkshire.

His work involves the body: casts of his own body and the faces of people he has met while exhibiting his work around the world. He also draws on incidents from his own history to create his art.

“I always use poetry in my work. From when I was born, my everyday life has involved literature and poetry and words. My first visual information was letters, my father was a very big reader and so it is natural for that to be a part of my work,” says Plensa.

This is demonstrated time and again, powerfully in a work called In the Midst of Dreams, in which the sculptures of three giant heads rise out of a bed of white marble pebbles. The heads have been inscribed with the words Hunger, Disease and Insomnia.

Plensa says: “These are words taken from the letters of Oscar Wilde, which he wrote from Reading jail. He said that these were the main problems facing people in prison, but I think they are the problems facing all humans.”

Another affecting work is a series of 11 gongs on which there are inscriptions taken from the Old Testament book the Song of Songs.

“When I was little I used to climb inside a tiny space inside my father’s upright piano and in there I could feel the vibration of the piano while my father played. That feeling of vibration and the sound is something I tried to recreate with this piece,” says Plensa.

Other works, which are dotted around the park, explore Plensa’s relationship with poets including Blake, Canneti and Jose Valente. Next month, Plensa will travel to New York where he will unveil a new public work.

“Here and there it is the same. I love to bring my work to the wonderful Yorkshire landscape and to the most dynamic city in the world, but in both places my work is about the people around it.”

Plensa’s YSP works in his own words

The Heart of Trees: My self portrait is sitting embracing the tree, the bronze cast covered by the names of music composers.

Speigel: Letters from eight alphabets form large human shapes that the viewer can walk inside.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil: Internally lit fibreglass figures – angels rooted to the walls, unable to fly, yet still radiating light from within.

29 Palms: A curtain of text composed of poems by my favourite authors.

Structure and Material, Longside Gallery, to June 26; Jaume Plensa, YSP, April 9 to 25.