On Tuesday morning, a crew of workers lowered some 20 massive pieces of marble onto a slab just outside the north end of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with the help of a large crane.
Gradually, as each piece of this new, 32-ton sculpture by Jaume Plensa was fit into place and bound together with a thin layer of lead, a recognizable form emerged: the elongated head of a young girl with a serene expression on her face, her eyes closed in a state of peaceful repose.
Meet "Laura," the newest development in the ongoing makeover of the Albright-Knox campus and the latest project completed by Plensa, one of the busiest and most popular public artists in the world.
The Barcelona-based Plensa, who was overseeing the installation of his sculpture this week at the gallery, is best known in the United States for creating the popular Crown Fountain in Chicago in 2004. That piece, which draws endless crowds of visitors each summer, consists of two enormous video towers at either end of a wide, open splash pad. A series of 1,000 video portraits Plensa made over the course of four years plays in a continuous loop on the towers, with streams of water periodically spouting from each subject's mouth.
The 20-foot-tall "Laura," Plensa said, was in some ways an outgrowth of that intensive portrait project. It arose from the same desire to make visitors slow down and perhaps close their own eyes for a moment of contemplation before moving on to their next task.
In the Crown Fountain project, he said, "all the faces were stretched and elongated in that way, and I kept the same proportion. It gets a very a beautiful, spiritual feeling; it seems like a flame. It loses the sense of ‘portrait' to become more like an icon representing everybody." The way the head has been elongated, he said, "produces a certain, very moving reaction that's very spiritual. We are probably more talking about the soul of that girl than the shape of that girl."
He said his choice of marble as a medium – which he also used for a similar sculptural installation in New York City's Madison Square Park earlier this year – was meant to complement the neoclassical architecture of the Albright-Knox.
"The building has this beautiful neoclassical shape, and all the marble that I'm using is coming from the south of Spain, from a quarry that Romans were using to build the columns of their temples," he said. "And I thought it was beautiful to take my tradition in dialogue with the tradition of the museum and to try to combine both."
The construction of the sculpture, made up of several separate slices of marble separated by a thin layer of lead, mimics that of the columns of ancient temples.
"It's exactly the same technique that Romans [used] to build up the columns. I really reproduced the same technique," he said. "I think it's a beautiful idea, in that way, when you see that little dark line in between, I don't know why, it produces an amazing sense of transparency. It seems like the piece loses completely [its] opacity and weight and becomes completely integrated with the landscape around [it]."
As traffic passed by the gallery on Elmwood Avenue and Iroquois Drive, Plensa stressed that the sculpture is meant to give viewers – whether they're standing up close or zipping by in their cars – a two-second experience that is like "a short dream."
"All the portraits have the eyes closed in a dream, and probably when the visitor is in front of the piece, they are thinking about themselves, about their own dreams. I think the piece is inviting them to dream about it," he said. "And I guess it's a piece that becomes a kind of mirror, where everybody can be in front [of it], but see in the portrait of that girl their own portrait."