I was in Florida vacationing in Sunny Isles Beach. While doing some shopping at the nearby Aventura Mall, I noticed a large Jaume Plensa sculpture on the lower floor of the mall at a major intersection. Plensa is a world renown artist and he has many pieces like this one, all over the world, which represent large human shapes composed entirely of metal alphabet letters. They are very noticeable and beautiful pieces of artwork.
Since I am a photographer and had my camera with me, I zoomed in on the sculpture and took some close-up photos. What I saw in the viewfinder was disappointing. Some of the letters grouped together seemed to spell out a common hateful antisemitic phrase:
Now, I know some of the things you may be thinking: Those letters are jumbled and it’s a stretch to say they spell anything. Maybe you can find other words spelled out in that sculpture? Maybe I am being overly-sensitive as a Jewish American who has been the subject of antisemitism himself? Maybe what I saw is being influenced by the world-wide increase in antisemitic acts? But before you decide whether I am seeing things that aren’t there, let me tell you about a visit I had with a another Jaume Plensa sculpture a few years back.
In 2015, while visiting family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was taken to see a Plensa sculpture at a popular spot in nearby Shorewood. When I got close to the Shorewood sculpture, I noticed that the letters on one side clearly spelled out a very common antisemitic slur, “CHEAP JEW”
I wrote an article about this titled: “Hateful Sculpture in Milwaukee Wisconsin Needs to be Scrapped.” My article received a lot of attention, and I received a lot too – some in the form of anger, hate and death threats, but many thanking me for pointing out this painful eyesore in their community.
Plensa’s representatives responded in a few days with, “Plensa is deeply saddened that his sculpture has been so egregiously misinterpreted.” Mr. Plensa made no apology and took no for responsibility for what was written in the letters of his own artwork. Despite his protestations otherwise, Plensa had the sculpture removed for “repair” 6 days after my article appeared. It has since been replaced with the offensive wording removed.
My hope is that you, the viewer, will judge whether you believe this hateful term is there or not. Maybe we can excuse the writing as just chance lettering or we can say it’s not in a straight line so it’s not actually spelling out a hateful term? Maybe it’s just coincidence that this type of messaging happened twice in Plensa sculptures, and I saw it twice in two different cities, four years apart and thousands of miles apart? Once again, you be the judge.
I do find it ironic that Mr. Plensa titled his sculpture, “Florida’s Soul” since Florida has the third largest Jewish population in the U.S., with almost 10% of all U.S. Jews (630,000) – a large majority of which live in Southern Florida, which is directly in the area this sculpture was placed. But maybe ironic is the wrong word, because I am Jewish, and I found it more hurtful than anything else.
I am sure many people, hundreds of thousands in fact, have passed by this sculpture and never noticed what I did. Given the distance the sculpture is from the edge of the fountain, it’s unlikely that but a few observant people will see the juxtaposition of the letters like I did. So why should we care that an anti-Jewish slur maybe cleverly concealed in this piece of artwork?
The answer lies in Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s famous quote:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”
Is there a hateful message in the Aventura Mall Plensa sculpture? Should we ask the ask that this sculpture be removed?
“While we don’t agree with the interpretation you shared, we do respect your viewpoint and have taken immediate action. Yesterday evening, the piece was removed from the mall for conservation and evaluation.“
My comment to this response is that the mall clearly doesn’t want to admit that the sculpture contains offensive language, but the speed at which they removed the sculpture (about two days after receiving my email to them) for conservation (I assume it means to fix the lettering) indicates their sensitivity to the situation and unfortunately, their desire to protect the reputation of artist who should be required to explain why this kind of phrases appear in his artwork. Those of us that have come to understand how Mr. Plensa manufactures these sculptures know that the lettering spelling out such hurtful phrases can’t happen completely by chance.
Mr. Plensa has a brand new piece of artwork in New York’s new massive Hudson Yards project. We should go have a closer look at that one too.