By Peter Szekely
New York - A towering statue of a woman's head with her index finger pressing on her lips now faces lower Manhattan along the Hudson River, inviting the chaotic metropolis to stop and listen.
"The water, when it moves, makes a special sound, very special," Barcelona-based artist Jaume Plensa said.
The message of his 24-meter "Water's Soul" - Plensa's biggest work to date - is "to keep silent, ... to listen to the profound noise of the water talking to us," he said in an interview.
The snow-white head commands a sweeping view of the river in front of a forest of high-rise buildings in Jersey City's rapidly developing Newport waterfront. It stands directly across from Greenwich Village and about six km upstream from the Statue of Liberty, a more familiar sentinel of the harbour.
On a recent morning when Plensa saw the piece fully assembled for the first time, its call for silence competed with hum of diesel engines from the nearby Hoboken train terminal, the overhead roar of helicopters, and the cries and laughter of children riding in strollers along the river walkways.
But those are not the kind of noises that Plensa says his artwork is targeting.
"I'm talking about the noise of information and messages to us," he said at New York's Galerie Lelong Co, where an exhibit of new work will open on October 29.
Plensa, 66, was commissioned to create the piece about two years ago by LaFrak and Simon Property Group, which have developed the area, including the plot jutting into the river where "Water's Soul" stands.
Depicting a real-life model whose image was scanned, the piece was fashioned from polyester resin, fibreglass and marble dust at Plensa's Barcelona studio and shipped in 23 containers, each 12 meters long, to the Jersey City site for assembly.
The sculpture, whose official unveiling was on Thursday, is visible from far and wide, leaving some locals who have watched the piece being put together since August scratching their heads.
"Why is she shushing?" asked Cleveland Rice, 63, a city worker.
"I'm sure there's got to be some kind of meaning behind it," said William Schoentube, 53, a New Jersey Transit train conductor.
"I'd say it's telling New York City to keep this area a secret because we don't want to drive more people to work here," said Huan Yan, 31, a software engineer.
Miriam, 46, a travel agent who declined to give her last name, has a direct view of it from her apartment window. She gave it a thumbs-down. "I don't find it fitting in the entire environment," she said.
Plensa, who has been exhibiting his work around the world for more than 40 years, said it can take time for his art to become accepted into different environments.
"In the public space, the piece is the piece, and it's competing with so many other objects," he said.
His works include Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park, in which moving LED images of faces are displayed on two 15-meter glass towers with cascades of water flowing from some of their mouths. The reaction was mixed when it opened in 2004 but it has since become a popular site.
Not a message to Manhattan
Plensa said the sculpture is not sending a message to Manhattan, and she is not "shushing," but silently calling for quiet.
Like many of Plensa's works, including several new pieces at the Galerie Lelong show, "Water's Soul" is the elongated head of a woman with closed eyes.
"In many of my pieces I'm asking the viewer: Close your eyes and look inside yourself, because you have an amazing quantity of beauty hidden inside," he said.
His pieces mostly feature women, he says, because he sees life and the world as female, while "boys are just an accident - a very nice accident, but an accident."
"Water's Soul" can best be viewed from the river, he said.
"It's a piece which is very much paying homage to water, and it's in the water where you can enjoy it more," he said.