Last Call for Jaume Plensa’s “Echo”
Echo, a belief-defying work by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (JOW’-meh PLEHN’-sah) remains on view for only two more weeks, through September 11th. Like Plensa’s own Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean), both in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Echo is both art and crowd-pleasing phenomenon. Sadly, unlike those works, Echo is not a permanent installation. If you’re a sympathetic ArchiTakes reader with adequate funds, please buy Echo and donate her to the City. If you haven’t seen this sculpture yet, and even if you don’t have the purchase price, do make it to Madison Square Park and take in this wonder before it vanishes back into whatever dimension it came from. Echo isn’t Plensa’s first giant, elongated female head, but it’s hard to believe she wasn’t conceived specifically for the park, with its trees, which she surreally dwarfs, and surrounding skyscrapers, whose vertical attenuation she echos. The sculpture is part of Mad. Sq. Art’s rotating exhibit series. Its accompanying plaque reads: “Inspired by the myth of the Greek nymph Echo, Plensa’s sculpture depicts the artist’s nine-year old neighbor in Barcelona, lost in a state of thoughts and dreams. Standing 44-feet tall at the center of Madison Square Park’s expansive Oval Lawn, Echo’s towering stature and white marble-dusted surface harmoniously reflect the historic limestone buildings that surround the park. Both monumental in size and inviting in subject, the peaceful visage of Echo creates a tranquil and introspective atmosphere amid the cacophony of central Manhattan.”
By day, Echo’s still, smooth white surface and airbrushed shadows contrast with the choppy, fine-grained background of the park’s leaves to enhance its unreality. “Viewed from a distance at night,” Ken Johnson has written in the New York Times, “when it is bathed in the bright light of lamps around its base, it seems to glow, a silently plaintive specter conjured, maybe, by the guilty conscience of a rapacious modernity.” Johnson continues that Echo “evokes something neglected, a soulful road not taken.” This might just be one man’s arty free association but for the very real way Echo whacks the average Joe on the head, stopping him in his tracks to say “it looks like a hologram,” or “it looks two-dimensional,” or “like it’s not really there” or simply “not real,” as he joins the crowd taking cell phone pictures. “Road not taken” seems an understatement compared to the primitive brain’s first impression; Echo’s white ellipse looks like a portal to another world, or to the lost wonder of this one, cut through the green wall of the park’s trees. The immediate visual effect is impossible to convey in pictures and a testament to Plensa’s huge technical skill. He’s found the subtlest of means to manipulate his material into immateriality.
Life’s specifics distract us from its fundamental mystery. The ubiquitous iPhone-absorbed city pedestrian, oblivious to even a park’s surroundings, may remind us of Thoreau’s observation that our lives are frittered away by detail. “Every time I’ve come here, I’ve been fascinated with the stream of people passing through,” Jaume Plensa says of Madison Square Park, in a Times piece by Carol Kino. “Many times we talk and talk, but we are not sure if we are talking with our own words or repeating just messages in the air. My intention is to offer something so beautiful that people have an immediate reaction, so they think, ‘What’s happening?’ And then maybe they can listen a bit to themselves.”
Echo arrests even the cell phone, source of outer voices and the distracting demands of the moment.
Like so many visitors to the area, Echo turns toward the Flatiron Building. Architect Daniel Burnham’s 1902 icon played muse to Steichen, Stieglitz and countless other artists, and still draws cameras as compulsively as Echo herself. Stieglitz said the Flatiron “…appeared to be moving toward [him] like the bow of a monster ocean steamer – a picture of a new America still in the making.” While more benign, this take dovetails with critic Johnson’s narrative of Echo as a subconscious response to a “rapacious modernity.”
Exegesis aside, Echo bears an undeniable family resemblance to the Flatiron, New York’s greatest public sculpture. (Sorry, Lady.) The Flatiron’s enduring appeal and inherent sculptural interest come of its deviation from the expected; it would be just another building if it had four sides and right-angled corners. God is in the doctored vanishing points. Echo similarly distorts an iconic form, the human head, imprinted on our infantile psyches from day one. The sculpture derives authority from this familiarity and from its sheer scale, as the Flatiron does from being a skyscraper, or a Richard Serra sculpture from its two-inch thick steel plates. The mind instinctively takes such established and impressive objects seriously, and is itself thrown off balance when they are unmoored from their usual behaviour; it may be jarred awake to the unlikeliness of all the rest of life and temporarily restored to the wonder of childhood, perhaps the highest purpose of art. The funhouse aspect of distortion has the broad appeal of an amusement park, but its suspension of rules is a legitimate art strategy. It’s what raises Echo above a clichéd image of new age peace and contentment.
In citing the towers of San Gimignano as his inspiration for the Torres Satélite, Luis Barragán kept critics from observing another likely source, the Flatiron Building. These 1957 traffic island towers were designed to welcome visitors to the Ciudad Satélite, a suburb of Mexico City. Whether Barragán had the Flatiron Building in mind or not, its visual dynamic is undeniably present in his towers, confirming its independent validity as sculpture, and the potential of architecture to re-impart the modern world with wonder the way art can. Barrágan was deeply concerned with bringing magic to the contemporary world: “I think that the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.” As did the Flatiron Building, Plensa’s Echo answers this call.
Now that you’ve agreed to buy Echo for New York (and thank you very much) the only question is where to put her. Great as she looks facing the Flatiron, the folks at Mad. Sq. Art have to make way for their next installation. How about Bryant Park? It has the green backdrop that works so well, and is an epicenter of mythic skyscrapers. Her “white marble-dusted surface” could “harmoniously reflect” the newly restored marble of the New York Public Library instead of the mere limestone buildings around Madison Square Park. Let’s work on it.