This was our fifth trip over the Pennines to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in three years. It’s certainly become one of our favourite destinations for a cultural day trip. It’s well worth the journey as there is always plenty to see with frequently changing temporary exhibitions.
The current main exhibition showcases the work of the Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa. (If you’re wondering how to pronounce his name, we had to ask, it’s Jaamer – like in pyjamas). He’s known over this side of the Pennines as the creator of the giant head overlooking the M62 near St Helens – “Dream”. Coincidentally, we’d seen one of his works a few weeks ago which was shown as part of the “Art on lake” exhibition in Budapest.
The other major exhibitions we’ve seen at the YSP mainly consisted of abstract works, most of Plensa’s sculptures are figurative – they feature the human body (or parts of it). Like Anthony Gormley, some of his pieces are based on his own body. In particular, the collection of seated figures “hugging trees” – “The heart of trees” – displayed on the lawn in front of the Underground Gallery.
Some of his works, like “Dream” in St Helens are large scale. and this is reflected in the works displayed at the YSP. You can’t miss the two large heads, “Nuria and Irma”, located on top of the Underground Gallery. They’re very effective. Their construction, from quite fine wire mesh, means that they’re very nebulous. They’re there, but they’re not there – if that makes any sense. And although each of the heads is looking in one direction, their “gaze” seem to follow you as you walk around the Bothy garden.
There are giant heads inside the Underground Gallery too. “In the midst of dreams” consists of three large translucent heads, lit from the inside sat on large marble pebbles. They look like giants about to emerge from underground.
A number of his sculptures were constructed of metal letters and symbols from other alphabets and languages welded together to form a human body sat down with the arms around the legs in a distinctive pose. The sculpture we’d seen in Budapest was another of these. There were four pieces of this type displayed at the YSP. One of them, “The tree of knowledge”, standing at the top of the Bothy Garden, is over eight metres high and is constructed so you can walk inside so the sky and surroundings can be viewed through the structure.
Words and language seems to be a major inspiration. They feature in a good number of the works. In some cases the sculptures are entirely made up of words and symbols. In other cases words and letters feature on the surface.
Unlike many other exhibitions where touching of sculptures displayed indoors isn’t allowed, and photographs forbidden, photography was permitted and you were actively encouraged to interact with some (but not all) of the works. As well as the “The tree of knowledge”, There are three works inside the Underground Gallery where interaction is possible. The long curtain of words – “Twenty-four Palms” consisting of lines from poems and texts that have inspired the artist – hanging in the concourse in the Underground Gallery, the two cabinets “Song of Songs I and II” which you can get inside, and the circle of large gongs (“Jerusalem”) installed in one of the galleries which visitors can hit (not too hard though!).
I think my favourite work was the collection of “Alabaster heads” displayed in the Underground Gallery. They were young female heads, distorted so that they are elongated (like the girl’s head in “Dream”). They were lit by spotlights with no background lighting and parts of the stone seemed to be fluorescent. They made a strong impression on me. In some ways the lighting made them look “spooky”, enhanced by the sound drifting in from the gongs being struck in the adjacent room and the tinkling produced by the visitors interacting with “The tree of knowledge” . But they also invoked a feeling of peace and tranquillity.
The exhibition, which was due to finish in the autumn, has had its run extended into next year. I expect I’ll be going back. As well as the main exhibition there is a constantly changing programme of exhibitions in three other indoor galleries on the site and there are a large number of magnificent sculptures and structures displayed outdoors, including major works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. With the opening of the nearby Hepworth Gallery in the town centre, Wakefield has become the “capital of sculpture”.