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Silent Conversations 

On the ceiling a drop of water appears out of nowhere. Pulled by gravity, it floats downward until it lands on a brass cymbal: PONG ... . The sound is soft. Hanging in the air for a moment, it fills the cavernous space like a pale luminosity, or a subtle fragrance from Asia. Then it is gone, followed by another drop. Damp glistens on the cymbal near the words "One Thought Fills Immensity," a line from William Blake's Proverbs From Hell, etched into its surface. It is a part of Whispern, a series of near identical works, each with its own Blake proverb.

The artist is Jaume Plensa, of Barcelona, and his sculpture is quietly mysterious. Conceptual, yes, but seemingly more poetic than theoretical. He has an affinity for materials that resemble water, ice or mist crystallized into solid objects or words. Conversation is about as minimal as you get, two rectangular slabs of alabaster arranged on the floor next to each other, and if they were actual examples of minimalism that might be the end of it. But here their featurelessness is mitigated by the radiant glow that emanates from inside, and which grows brighter, then dimmer, just as human speech rises and falls and is colored by emotion. Here two alabaster slabs are clearly having a discussion, but in colored light rather than in words.

On entering the gallery the first thing you see are metal letters dangling from the ceiling in streamers of text. Suspended by thin wire, they hang in space casting long typographical shadows like ghost writing from an invisible tower of Babel. In fact they are poems and writings by Dante, Goethe, Baudelaire and others, a reference to the incantatory power of words. Nearby is a Buddha, and he too is covered with words. Seated in meditation, he is made from translucent polyester resin and radiates light that dims and brightens in rich, glowing colors. The words are simple questions from a children's book: "What is a river? What is a mountain? What is rain ...?" It is titled Tattoo, a reference to a mythic beginning time when all things had their origin in words. Elsewhere a pair of disembodied hands cup water that escapes through their fingers into a large basin, and the atmosphere, overall, is ritualistic, hushed yet accessible. Plensa understands that art succeeds when it taps psychic reservoirs that lie below the surface of everyday human experience. That is what poets do in words, and what Plensa does also, with the clearest, most luminous of materials, light, space and the softest and subtlest of sounds.

In any art work, in any medium, tone counts for more than we ordinarily acknowledge. For Plensa, the tone is mysterious with a surreal undercurrent of revelation. For Sally Heller, whose work occupies most of the CAC's first-floor galleries, the tone is more worldly, visually busy if not noisy. Her materials are prosaic: In her Vanity Face series, fake fingernails mimic tiles in fashionable female heads that evoke Etruscan mosaics of Clairol shampoo girls.

The tone gets edgier in her Pin Up series of scantily clad ladies delineated by those little round plastic "wiggle eyes" used in dolls and toys. Arranged against a blank background, they short-circuit the mechanics of allure in sexy poses crafted from the staring eyes they were designed to attract. The plot thickens in Smut Cottage, a makeshift shanty where her wiggle-eyes pin-ups are projected on a wall. Nearby is a kind of wilderness of Trees made from plastic fibery stuff with more plastic gewgaws, Mylar leaves, fabric, wallpaper, springs, you name it, fleshing out the foliage. The title piece, Hanging by a Thread, goes a step further with a webby network of plastic and yarn hanging from the ceiling in a hallucinatory maze, like the work of a psychedelic spider with a flair for social satire. It's intriguing, engaging, entertaining and rather disturbing; much of this resembles the plastic detritus that increasingly litters our beaches. Plastic takes forever to biodegrade, so it's with us long after it's thrown away. Here Heller expresses the irony of a culture that lives and breathes plastics, the modern miracle material that stalks us wherever we go, even in the wild, and from which there is no escape.

click to enlarge Word play: Jaume Plensa's Tattoo, with its Buddha pose and light that dims and brightens, is one of the highlights from his Silent Noise exhibit at the CAC.
  • Word play: Jaume Plensa's Tattoo, with its Buddha pose and light that dims and brightens, is one of the highlights from his Silent Noise exhibit at the CAC.
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