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Public Art and the Global in Montreal: A Case Study of Jaume Plensa’s Source

Written by Laurence Charlebois
Edited by Mallory Rappaport

The city of Montreal has become renowned over the years for its love of arts and culture, especially with the ubiquity of art festivals, art installations and public works of art. Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, it has been customary for the city to commission Québécois art works to display in the public sphere. For example, upon the foundation of the metro of Montreal, a local artist was assigned to each metro station for the creation of a unique transportation system.[1] Perhaps one of the reasons behind the ubiquity of local artists in Montreal is the Percent for Art Program. According to the Quebec Minister of Culture and Communications’ website, the policy states that upon receiving government funding for the construction of a building, 1% of the total budget must be used for the commission of a public work of art by a Québécois artist.[2] However, not all public works of art in Quebec are from local artists. As of September 2017, a new international public work of art has found its place in the Montreal art scene. Commissioned by France Chrétien Desmarais and André Desmarais, Jaume Plensa’s Source was inaugurated just in time for Montreal’s 375th anniversary and will be loaned to the city for a period of 25 years. With his sculptures exhibited all around the world, Catalan artist Jaume Plensa is known predominantly for his public art, an art form that subsequently comes with a general lack of criticality and often fails to engage with its public. As Lossau and Steven note, the main strategy when analyzing public art is to assess the audience’s interaction around the work. In other words, a ‘good’ case of public art would be one where art has the capacity to engage with its public – whether in the making of the piece or in situ – while also providing an effective viewing environment.[3] Certainly, public art makes the urban landscape more appealing to a city’s inhabitants but it should also encourage contemplation and participation. Considering this definition, this essay will situate Plensa’s sculpture in a context of global contemporary art while observing the issues at stake in placing a sculpture next to a busy highway. Specifically, using Marsha Meskimmon’s concept of the global, I will argue that while Plensa’s Source embellishes the Montreal urban landscape and embodies concepts of globalism and nomadism, it fails to engage with its audience due to limitations in terms of urban planning and site-specificity. I will first begin by comparing Source to other artworks produced by Plensa, which are located internationally, in order to reinforce Meskimmon’s concept of the cosmopolitan imagination. Then, using other global examples from Plensa’s portfolio, I will continue this discussion on the problems encountered with the site-specificity of Source. My aim is to create a discussion centred on the status of Source in the global world while also taking into consideration issues of urban planning and site-specificity.

Figure 1. Jaume Plensa, Source. Bonaventure Gateway, Montreal, 2017, Painted Stainless Steel.

With its emphasis on cross-cultural exchanges and on the local/global, Meskimmon’s concept of the cosmopolitan imagination is being represented in many aspects of Plensa’s sculptures. Source (fig. 1), which Plensa has also called ‘Nomad’, is a representation of a genderless human either sitting or kneeling, made out of letters or symbols. On this regard, the artist has commented that the figurative body of his sculptures can be compared to a text. Over the years, Plensa has produced multiple nomads around the world, which are each composed of an agglomeration of different alphabets. In Montreal and in other locations in the world as well, including Miami, Boston, Singapore, Moscow and England, his sculptures constitute 8 different alphabets: Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Greek.[4] Apart from Montreal, another example of Plensa’s Nomad can be observed on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus with The Alchemist (fig. 2). Like the sculpture in Montreal, Plensa’s Alchemist is sitting in a fetal position but instead of using letters to form the stainless steel frame, the artist chose to use mathematical symbols in keeping with the setting of the sculpture.[5] More specifically on the use of different alphabets in his oeuvre, Jaume Plensa has mentioned that, when they are placed on their own, signs and symbols do not signify anything coherent, but viewed as a whole, they form ensembles of texts, words and culture.[6] Furthermore, all the works from the Nomad series have an opening at the base of the structure, which lets the public access to the interior of Plensa’s work. According to Plensa, this artistic decision is done precisely to invite the viewer inside the sculpture and see the world through this filter of letters and symbols, which Plensa claims can be an alternative way of viewing culture.[7] This participatory element not only encourages the viewers’ interaction with the sculpture but more significantly, it speaks to its relevance in the public sphere, since it has the capacity to reach a wider audience than it would if the piece were placed in an art institution. Furthermore, beyond Plensa’s interest in human anatomy and language, the monumentality of the work plays an important role in its reception. Drawing from my own experience when viewing the work in situ, my first impression was to notice the large scale of the sculpture, which the white stainless steel seemed to accentuate. Since the sculpture is situated in an urban park, Source’s large structure of white stainless steel is easily noticeable because of the stark contrast between the sculpture’s colour, the many shades of greens from the park and the dull colours of the cityscape. Moreover, the space in which Source is located entices visitors to observe and interact with the sculpture since its large scale clashes with the park’s flatness. If the different alphabets in Plensa’s work alter the public’s vision of the environment which surrounds them, then Source’s monumentality, appeals the viewers to interact with the work due to its grandeur and massiveness.

Figure 2. Jaume Plensa, Alchemist, MIT, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2010, Painted Stainless Steel.

Furthermore, Plensa’s production of his nomad series fits the notion of the global due to its many locations around the world in accordance to Meskimmon’s cosmopolitan imaginary. In her book Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, Meskimmon writes on the state of global contemporary art and on the cross-cultural exchanges in the ‘art world’ resulting from the turn to globalization. As a Spanish artist displayed in Montreal, Jaume Plensa meets Meskimmon’s description of contemporary art. Meskimmon claims that by becoming global, contemporary works have, “no intention of staying at home. That is, […] [they] specifically seek to engage the transnational flows and cross-cultural exchanges that characterize globalization.”[viii] Moreover, Meskimmon explains that cross-cultural exchanges in a global world entail the notion of cosmopolitanism or cosmopolitan imagination wherein the global citizen is devoted to cultural diversity and lives without the constraints of geo-political borders.[ix] In other words, cosmopolitan identity redefines the notion of the home in that the perpetual movement of capital unsettles the traditional notion of the sedentary home. Placed in relation with the work of Plensa, his works’ multiple locations create a global identity with the example of The Alchemist and Source. Together, the ‘Nomads’ help to build different points of reference across the world and are the defining agents in the construction of multiple global homes. To a certain extent, Meskimmon’s argument on the movement of capital/art could be expended to the movement of visitors moving around the sculpture, commuting from point A to point B. In this sense, Plensa’s international career reflects the globalisation of his works with most of his public works being exhibited in all continents.

While Source and the entirety of the Nomad series encompass the concept of globalization, the unifying name of these works brings forth the question of nomadism in a global world and market. The circulation of art and of Plensa’s sculptures in the art market is a constant movement that is reiterated by the non-static installations of works of art. Nomadism, first established by Deleuze and Guattari, stems from Indigenous tradition of knowledge, which contradicts European sedentary mode of learning.[x] Scholars like Meskimmon have written on the subject in relation to the global trend in the arts and have specifically said that nomadism “enables us to create our homes wherever we may be, using materials close at hand, that are transformed through the cathectic power of longing to belong.”[xi] Additionally, the sedentary way of living is constrained by paths and defined borders whereas the nomads have no final destination and no desire to remain at the same place for too long.[xii] From this brief definition of nomadism, one can deduct the easy connection between nomadism and Plensa’s works. In the urban setting of Montreal, this specific sculpture will only be displayed for 25 years and probably continue its journey in another location around the world thus challenging the Western view of the sedentary home. Certainly, the locality or local aspect of the art is an important part of nomadism. As Deleuze and Guattari explain, the nomad (or the local absolute): “has its manifestation in the local, and its engendering in a series of local operations with varying orientation.”[xiii] The authors suggest that nomadism through globalization ought to operate from multiple, local imperatives rather than one unifying strategy. In relation to Source, the repetition of the same motif in Plensa’s composition proposes a global identity with differing aspects and symbols depending on the setting of the structure. Moreover, it is only when the Montreal audience gets accustomed to Source in its urban environment that Plensa’s sculpture will shift its home in another country and subsequently settle and interact with new audiences. Although the exact history of each Nomads’ acquisition is unclear, further research on the Alchemist has revealed that prior to its purchase by an anonymous donor, the Alchemist was a loan similar to the context in Montreal.[xiv] Therefore, while the nature of Plensa’s sculptures is nomadic, this nomadic capacity reflects a current globalizing trend. That is, whereas art was previously acquired to remain permanently in one emplacement, Source, Alchemist and other global sculptures are circulating in the world, akin to the movement of capital and of masses.

Figure 3. [Before] image of the Bonaventure project, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
If Plensa’s many sculptures highlight current trends of nomadism and globalism, then the specific location of Source in Montreal fails to fulfill its one mandate in the theory of public art in that its location does not incite contemplation and participation. Situated on the Bonaventure gateway, Plensa’s sculpture is part of the Bonaventure project, in collaboration with the festivities occurring for the 375th anniversary of the city of Montreal. According to its website, the project’s main goal was to redesign a new entrance to the city and, following the demolition of the old highway segment, to create a new urban boulevard for Montrealers.[xv] The previous highway segment (fig. 3) was dull and grey, partially blocking the cityscape of Montreal for those living in Old Montreal and Griffintown. This new urban space, which is one of the only routes to connect between Champlain Bridge and Downtown Montreal, houses two public works of art[xvi], a park, a seating area with lounging chairs and further amenities for a better urban experience (fig. 4).[xvii] At the extremity of the boulevard, Plensa’s Source greets pedestrians and drivers with its tall, white silhouette, isolated on its concrete pedestal on the South side of Wellington Street. Placed between touristic Old Montreal and highly residential Griffintown, Source is in a pivotal location for daily commuters, tourists and residents of the neighborhood.

Figure 4. [After] image of the Bonaventure project, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
While the addition of a new public space and of new public art beautifies the area, the fact that this urban park is placed in the middle of the highway complicates the overall viewing experience of the work. Upon my first visit to Plensa’s sculpture, at first glance the scale and intricate details were impressing but the constant roaring of cars, buses and construction work nearby impaired my experience and did not encourage a proper observation of the work and location. This specific location is not the safest to place a public work of art. During an in-class discussion on the research and developments of this essay, a classmate similarly felt the site was inconvenient for visitors especially with the danger of fast moving cars, often fearing she’d be hit by a car. Furthermore, during every visit I made from early November to the beginning of December, I was the only viewer in situ which, consequently, diminished my appreciation of the work. Combined with the lack of plaque or sign to describe the work or the artist, there was an absence of benches next to the pedestal on which the viewer could rest and observe. The lack of specificity and viewing context is a crucial point in public art since a public work of art devoid of any form of acknowledgment towards the artist leads to confusion on the meaning of a given work of art in the public sphere.[xviii] While the new Bonaventure segment is a far more agreeable place to visit than the old site, the background traffic sound and buzzing city life are still as loud and present as before. As urban soundscape researchers Manon Raimbault and Danièle Dubois explain, ‘noise’ and city soundscape must be taken into consideration by urban planners since it has become over the past 40 years one of the main problems in many cities around the world.[xix] Moreover, it has been suggested that soundscape advising must be provided to urban planners when designing urban parks.[xx] Thus, the main concern that remains from this discussion is one of accessibility: if public spaces are designed purposively for locals and tourists, then the placement of the Bonaventure Park in between a highway might not be the most successful setting to view art due to the excessive presence of traffic. A case in Boston known as the Underground at Ink Block project shares the same dilemma of a park built underneath an interstate. Critics of the park mentioned that, “at rush hour on a recent weekday afternoon, there was a constant din from surrounding streets and the roadways above, and every minute a commuter train rumbled through.”[xxi] This conveys the same issues dealt with in the Bonaventure project and subsequently decreases the accessibility of the public space due to the sound pollution. To claim that the Bonaventure project was not needed is not the aim of this argument but rather, a better viewing atmosphere, away from the excessive sound of traffic would have been a better fit.

Although the setting in Montreal does not encourage interaction, the other contexts in which Plensa’s sculptures are exhibited allow for a closer observation from the audience and their engagement with the sculpture. Art historian Rosalyn Deutsche argues that it is the necessity of public art to create the space and to move beyond the mere role of decoration. Most importantly, on the topic urban planning and design, she claims, “the new public art, by contrast, moves ‘beyond decoration’ into the field of spatial design in order to create rather than question, the coherence of the site, to conceal its constitutive social conflicts.”[xxii] This critique of public art as merely decoration is ubiquitous in the scholarship on public art. Moreover, what becomes a prime concern is that municipalities refuse to shock or challenge their local audience by commissioning more ‘controversial’ art hence why some instances of public art blend in and become invisible way too shortly after their installation.[xxiii] As mentioned previously, my previous viewings of Source did not impel any forms of interaction or observation due to its setting and lack of crowd. Though Source’s large scale can serve as a boundary to delineate the space in which it is located, its lack of a participatory structure shifts it to the realm of decoration. Because the structure is separated from the park, isolated on a cement pedestal, it does not prompt passers-by to stop and therefore, serves a purpose of decoration rather than a defining object on the site. In a more global context, when researching on the Plensa’s website about the location of his other similar works, the two most common locations for this specific type of sculpture were parks and university campuses.[xxiv] In the case of the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Alchemist is situated at the front of the students’ centre.[xxv] Even tough Source and The Alchemist are structurally similar, what differentiates them from one another is the audience’s interaction. If public art can sometimes offer a means to the public sphere to express and engage with the work and space then the MIT sculpture manages to move beyond the state of decoration.[xxvi] MIT student newspapers The Tech have reported many instances of students’ creative initiatives in relation with the Alchemist. For example, MIT students have placed a large-scale cut-out police badge on the stainless steel structure to commemorate the death of a campus police officer[xxvii] or in a more humorous situation, dressed up the sculpture as Walter White, the leading character of television series Breaking Bad, upon the series finale.[xxviii] Since The Alchemist provides strong art-viewing conditions, it is better suited to be incorporated as public art in city spaces.[xxix] Whereas The Alchemist succeeds in involving its audience, primarily the student body, in its environment and setting, Source’s involvement with the masses is restrained by its location. The busy location, irritable soundscape and isolation of Source limit the access and involvement of Montrealers with the sculpture although Plensa’s design originally accommodates this principle. Perhaps a better inclusion in its environment would have been to include Plensa’s sculpture in the middle of a green space, where an easier access could have granted Source with more civil interaction.

Although its location is problematic, the inclusion of Source in the urban background of Montreal lends itself perfectly to this new project. The addition of a work of art by Plensa in the Bonaventure gateway, a major point of access to enter downtown Montreal, signifies the global interest towards Jaume Plensa. With his ‘nomads’ circulating amidst the art market, Source encapsulates the concept of the cosmopolitan imagery offered by Meskimmon by moving to different locations for short periods of time. For the next 25 years, the public will grow accustomed to the sight of Plensa’s structure before the nomad takes to the road again and settles into a new home. Contrasted to Plensa’s other global sculptures, Source’s placement is in the heart of a cosmopolitan milieu, where the majority of its viewers are transiting from one place to another. While the Alchemist on the MIT campus is located in front of a students’ building and, subsequently, is more likely to provoke interaction between the art work and the students’ body, Source’s problematic setting complicates the engagement between the immense white silhouette and its public. Nevertheless, its addition in the Montreal cultural scene amplifies Montreal’s status as a metropolis of the arts and demonstrates the city’s interest in the global trend.



[1] Annie Gérin, Garry Sherbert, and Sheila Petty, “Maître Chez Nous- Public Art and Linguistic Identity in Quebec,” in Canadian Cultural Poesis: Essays on Canadian Culture (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006), 325,

[2] “Politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture,” in Arts visuels, architecture et métiers d’art, Gouvernement du Québec. Accessed February 14 2018.

[3] Julia Lossau and Quentin Stevens, The Uses of Art in Public Space, Routledge (New York and London: Julia Lossau and Quentin Stevens, 2015), 2.

[4] TEDx Talks TEDxSMU 2011-Jaume Plensa- Art &Form (YouTube video, 2012),

[5] “Alchemist, 2010” Public Space -Jaume Plensa. Accessed February 13 2018.

[6] TEDx Talks.

[7] Ibid.

[viii] Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 2.

[ix] Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination 7.

[x] Paul Patton, “Nomads, Capture and Colonisation,” in Deleuze and the Political (London: Routledge, 2000), 119,

[xi] Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination, 79.

[xii] Patton, “Nomads, Capture and Colonisation.” 116-117.

[xiii] Deleuze and Guattari cited in Ronald Bogue, “Nomadism, Globalism and Cultural Studies,” in Deleuze’s Way – Essays in Tansverse Ethics and Aesthetics, (Burlington: Ashgate 2007), 133.

[xiv] Janelle Mansfield, “Alchemist to Call MIT Home – The Tech,” Student Newspaper, The Tech, September 11, 2011,

[xv] “Bonaventure Legacy a Redesigned Entrance to the City,” Ville de Montréal, Accessed December 10, 2017,

[xvi] The two works are Jaume Plensa’s Source and Michel de Brouin’s Dendrites.

[xvii] “Bonaventure Legacy a Redesigned Entrance to the City.”

[xviii] Cameron Cartiere. “Coming in from the Cold: A Oublic Art History” in The Practice of Public Art, Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis (London: Routledge, 2008) 8.

[xix] Manon Raimbault and Danièle Dubois, “Urban Soundscapes: Experiences and Knowledge,” Cities 22, no. 5 (October 1, 2005)

[xx] Daniel Steele, Catherine Guastavino, and Nik Luka, “Constructing Ideal Soundscapes: A Study on Closing the Gaps Between SoundScape Studies and Urban Design.” (Société Française d’Acoustique, April 23, 2012), 2165.

[xxi] Tim Logan, “Boston Gets an Artsy New Public Space in a Former No-Man’s Land – The Boston Globe,”, September 7, 2017,

[xxii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions -Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1996).

[xxiii] Johanne Sloan, “At Home on the Street: Public Art in Montreal and Toronto,” in Urban Enigmas: Montreal, Toronto, and the Problem of Comparing Cities, Johanne Sloan (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 218,

[xxiv] “Public Space – Works and Projects |,” Jaume Plensa, accessed December 11, 2017,

[xxv] “Public Space – Works and Projects |.”

[xxvi] Vernet, The Uses of Art in Public Space, 197.

[xxvii] Greg Steinbrecher, “MIT Remembers Officer Sean Collier – The Tech,” Student Newspaper, The Tech, April 23, 2017,

[xxviii] Tami Forrester, The Tech, October 1 2013, The Tech –Volume 133, Issue 42.

[xxix] Harriet F. Senie, “Responsible Criticism: Evaluating Public Art.,” Sculpture 22, no. 10 (December 2003): 47.

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